Published OnDecember 1, 2020
Think of the last big-ticket item you purchased, such as a car or a high-end consumer electronics product. Could you retrace all the steps you took before reaching your decision? Most of us couldn't reconstruct such a complex process precisely, given all the online research and peer opinions we consult, not to mention negotiating with the seller, drawing up and signing contracts and financing the purchase.
But for sellers, understanding customer journeys is critical to removing the barriers to sale while delivering the best possible customer experience. Customer journey mapping is a visual aid that sellers can use to traverse the customer's path from awareness through to purchase. It encompasses every touch point along the way, both those that involve the customer directly and the behind-the-scenes actions that influence the experience.
Understanding the full scope of the buyer journey is more important than ever as customer experience becomes a critical source of differentiation. But customer journey mapping has become a lot more complex in recent years. Not long ago consumers and business buyers had relatively few options for finding and researching products. Today they have all the traditional media channels but also dozens of digital sources that influence decisions both directly and indirectly. These include customer ratings on e-commerce websites, independent opinion sites, social media, blogs and automated recommendations. In fact, Salesforce.com estimates that the average consumer now uses 10 channels to communicate with businesses.
Optimizing customer experience across such a complex tapestry of touchpoints is challenging but essential considering another Salesforce.com finding that 80% of customers consider their experience with a company to be as important as its products.
In B2B marketing the situation is further complicated by the number of people involved in decisions, the longer time frames that are typically involved and the impact of decisions on buyers' businesses.
Personas Are Key
To fully understand the customer journey, sellers first need to understand who influences decisions. That means creating buyer personas, which are profiles that go beyond titles and demographics to describe who buyers are, what they hope to accomplish, what goals drive their behavior, how they think and why they make the decisions they do. In a B2B scenario, it isn't uncommon for 10 different personas to be involved in a decision, ranging from the CFO to the CIO to the head of manufacturing. The person who signs the purchase order is often not the most important influencer in the decision.
Constructing a customer journey map requires research comprised of interviews with a sampling of customers. The research should look at every step in the buyer's journey, beginning with how they become aware of a product or business, how they determine its appropriateness to solving a problem, what trusted sources help guide them toward prospective solutions, which contact points they have with a seller, how their "short lists" are prepared and what ultimately convinces them to sign a check.
Find the Roadblocks
Research should also look at structural, process, cost, implementation and other barriers to sales. For example, Best Buy acquired Geek Squad because it realized that prospective buyers of home entertainment equipment were turned off by the impenetrable wall of jargon they encountered when making a simple decision like which television to purchase. When customers expressed frustration at having to charge their newly purchased devices for hours before using them, Apple took the simple step of fully charging devices before shipping. That practice has since been adopted universally.
It's important to consider both onstage interactions (those that are visible to the customer) and the offstage processes such as product configuration and financing that also impact experience. Often the factors that appear to shape opinions aren't what they seem.
Dwayne King, Director of Innovation Research at Iron Mountain, recalls a project he managed for a healthcare company that wanted to understand better why some nurses turn down job offers or leave the company within a few months after joining. The company assumed that the root of the problem was the delay between the time a recruiter initiated the contact and followed up with an offer of an interview.
By interviewing nurses who had experience with the company's recruitment practices, researchers determined that recruiter performance in fact had a relatively small impact on candidate perceptions. A much more important factor was the interview with the hiring manager, since nurses were aware that that person would be involved with them every day. If that interview went badly, candidates were much more likely to form a poor overall impression of the company.
Journeys and Innovation
Customer journey maps can be used as the foundation for an innovation process aimed at identifying and fixing milestones in the journey that deliver inconsistent or negative impressions. For example, if buyers express frustration at being unable to get answers to their detailed questions on a company's website, the marketing team may want to embed a "click to call" button that immediately connects a visitor to a subject-matter expert.
Efforts to fully understand the customer buying experience are a useful way to focus innovation efforts where they most matter: increasing revenue and reducing costs. Two metrics should be front and center.
The first is the 80/20 rule. Innovation teams should focus first on those stages of the journey that have the greatest impact on customer decisions. The second is customer lifetime value. That denotes the volume of business that a company can expect from an average customer over the lifetime of a relationship.
Several years ago Disney revealed that people who visit one of its resorts or theme parks have a 70% likelihood of returning and spend an average of $62,000 on the Mouse over the course of their lifetimes. You can imagine how valuable this kind of information is to the decisions Disney makes about where and how much to invest in customer acquisition and retention. Given that it can be anywhere between five and 25 times more expensive to recruit a new customer than to retain an existing one, investments in understanding buyer journeys would appear to be well-justified.