The Ever-Changing Customer Journey

Multi-device meandering has replaced the once-linear path

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It wasn’t that long ago that when companies talked about the customer journey, it sounded as simple as a walk in the park. The customer journey, once linear, has been replaced by a complex matrix of touchpoints with the customer at the center. Consumers’ ability to access your brand in so many avenues and on so many devices has highlighted just how indirect and fractured these multiple journeys can be. To talk about the challenges of creating breakthrough customer experiences, we brought together three distinctly different perspectives: Harry West, a senior partner in Prophet’s customer experience practice, Chan Suh, Prophet’s chief digital officer and Andres Nicholls, a partner in our design practice.

Mapping customer pathways

“We used to draw a line on a board to represent the path to purchase,” says West. “Now, it’s multiple lines, and we talk about journeys in the plural. The path to purchase is increasingly intermittent.”

Imagine someone considering opening a new type of account at his bank. He may begin to gather information while physically at the bank, from an ATM or teller. He may then learn more from his desktop at work or his laptop at home, perhaps emailing the bank for more details. His wife, who handles most of the banking responsibilities, may complete the account registration process using a tablet or mobile phone.

What that means, West adds, is “that while most companies have a preconceived hierarchy of touchpoints, they don’t apply any more. In each instance, it is the customer who decides how to move forward, not the bank.”

That means every possible access point has to be perfect, says Nicholls. “A touchpoint the company might have regarded as less important may turn out to be the critical deciding factor.”

“A touchpoint the company might have regarded as less important may turn out to be the critical deciding factor.”

 But banking on a mobile phone is very different than banking from a 17-inch laptop, and unifying these experiences is difficult. USAA, which has long functioned without branches, is a great example, says West. “Not only was it the first bank to offer a depositing feature via smartphone, it’s been a pioneer in using text messaging, alerting its military members to everything from low balances to potential fraud. It confronted digital challenges a decade before most of its competition.” The consumer-determined hierarchy is a tough lesson for some companies.

What it means for companies

In some ways, we can blame this ever-escalating cycle of innovation on Amazon, says Nicholls. It consistently tops customer service surveys, outshines its varied competition and raises expectations. “If people can buy a mountain bike that is perfectly sized for them in just one click, why can’t their bank, doctor or airline offer the same level of service?”

And if disappointed, consumers now have access to technology that will amplify how they feel about the customer experience — the good, but especially, the bad. “They’ll talk you down in customer comments, in blogs or on their social media accounts. And word-of-mouth can be the most influential driver of purchase,” says West. Two thirds of all consumers say they read customer reviews, for example, and 90 percent say they act on them.

That means companies must work to deliver experiences that meet customer expectations, focusing resources to deliver experiences that will be memorable, and drive overall perception. “Companies need to understand, in a very intimate way, how customers react to their brands at each touchpoint,” West says. “That includes those you can control—your website, for example. But you also need to understand how people react to your brand in places you don’t have much control—in stores, at dealers, on blogs and in product forums.”

Two thirds of all consumers say they read customer reviews, and 90 percent say they act on them, either positively or negatively.

Next, companies need to measure the importance of each touchpoint and get a sense of which will have the biggest impact on the customer experience. Once the ideal experience — the signature touchpoint — has been achieved, everything needs to be brought in alignment with it. “We also recommend parallel measures that will track that experience over time,” he says.

But that’s not the end. Customer expectations are constantly being ratcheted up from same-day delivery, to free shipping, to BOGO. With innovative companies like Uber, Mint.com and WunWun, a company that delivers anything at anytime. Suh says, “Customers expect experiences to get better all the time. Once they’ve shopped at stores where product passion is the key ingredient—whether they’re buying lipsticks at the MAC counter or a stand-up paddleboard at REI—they’re going to want that level of expertise and enthusiasm with more transactions.”

Finally, Suh adds, “Don’t forget that most important interaction your customer has with your company isn’t always through a marketing or distribution channel. Sometimes it’s with the product itself. We have to put as much effort into the user experience as we do the marketing experience—that way, every time they use the product, they’ll be reassured that yes, they made the right purchase.”

What are the barriers?

For companies to keep up with this ever-traveling consumer who expects more and more, they need to be aligned and involve each division, department and market. Completely breaking down silos isn’t realistic, “but companies can build effective tunnels and bridges to connect them,” Nicholls says. Project teams need to accept that in this new universe, the launch trajectory is upended: “In the old way of thinking, once a marketing project was published, it was done. In the digital world, once it’s out there, it has just begun. And you have to help it, give it momentum and keep it alive.”

Not all organizations are equally suited to uncovering that kind of cooperation. But it’s a skill that can be learned. “At Prophet, we have PlayStudio, where we remove clients from their daily routines and combine inspiration with business tools,” Suh says. It doesn’t just lead to great ideas (such as the Hanes tagless t-shirt, the first innovation in t-shirts in 50 years and a customer experience touchdown). “It fosters customer-focused collaboration across departments with very different backgrounds. And the human interactions are what to lead to innovation,” says Nicholls.

The customer journey has evolved, and consumers expect brands to deliver seamless and holistic experiences across all touchpoints. Some you can control; some you can only influence. The experience must be delivered from pre-purchase all the way through product use.  If brands can’t meet their customers’ needs, those customers will not only share their negative experiences with others, but they’ll also quickly jump ship to the competition in favor of better and more fulfilling experiences.

About Chan Suh

Chan Suh is a Senior Partner and Chief Digital Officer in Prophet’s New York office. A well-known visionary in the digital strategy space, Chan brings more than 20 years of experience to Prophet.

About Harry West

Harry is a Senior Partner in Prophet's New York office. He has over 20 years experience helping clients discover powerful ideas and realizing them as products, services and brand experiences.

About Andres Nicholls

Andres is a Partner in Prophet's design practice and is based in our New York office. His specialty lies in brand identity, experiential branding and architectural retail design.