The year was 2002. My girlfriend (now wife) Mandy needed to purchase a laptop. Mandy didn’t know much about computers. Being a good boyfriend, I decided to assist her in the endeavor, even though I didn’t know much about computers either!

Unsure of how to begin our research, we spoke to a mutual acquaintance who “knew computers.” After listening to Mandy’s needs, he confidently informed her of the exact make and model that she should buy. He even told her which store offered the best price. Sure enough, the next day, that’s exactly where we went. No shopping around. No further research. We just walked into the store, and Mandy walked out with her new computer.

Looking back at this story, I have to shake my head and laugh.

In today’s economy, it’s hard to imagine making such an important (and expensive) purchase based exclusively on one person’s guidance. After all, the buying process looks dramatically different than it did a decade or two ago. Online reviews, social commerce, smartphones, one-click ordering, and the democratization of the web – all have revolutionized how customers discover, research, buy, and use products and services of all types.

As a result, in the past few years companies across B2C and B2B markets have been spending time and resources on understanding and defining their customer interactions in the context of a journey. But how do you define “customer journey”? How has it evolved in the past few years? How does the customer journey impact your business?

Let’s take a closer look.

Defining the customer journey

At face value, “customer journey” seems like a buzzword that could have dozens of potential meanings. According to researchers at Forrester, a customer journey is “the series of interactions between a customer and a company that occur as the customer pursues a specific goal.”

If we look at this definition in the context of my earlier laptop buying experience, the customer journey seems fairly straightforward. In our case, the customer’s goal was successfully accomplished upon her first interaction with the company. Because the product, or computer, lasted for years, no other immediate “goals” were identified. Likewise, the electronics store never reached out to measure Mandy’s satisfaction or inquire about future goals (which is probably why the company no longer exists, but that’s another story).

Few customer journeys are quite so simple in this day and age. Given the wealth of information available online, most B2C buyers don’t just walk into a physical retail location and write a check on their first visit. In a similar way, B2B buyers don’t issue purchase orders without performing a reasonable amount of due diligence. Buyers know that the information age has given them the upper hand, which is why your company needs to join them on their journey – rather than trying to circumvent it.

Understanding the customer journey: goals & personas

So how can your company begin to adopt a customer journey mentality?

Before making any drastic changes to your sales and marketing processes, it’s important to first gain a fresh perspective of your customers and their goals. As we discussed in our recent series about sales and marketing alignment, inconsistent terminology and siloed data can lead to costly misconceptions about buyer behavior. When you don’t understand who your customers are and what their needs are, it’s impossible to fully understand their interactions in the context of a journey. It’s therefore vital for sales and marketing leaders to align on two fundamental concepts: buyer goals and personas.

Goals

Not every interaction with a customer involves the exchange of money. In fact, it’s quite possible that most interactions will be non-transactional in nature. Take, for example, a software as a service company like Insightly. At a high level, customers use Insightly to achieve a primary goal of managing their customers, leads, and projects under one roof. Throughout the customer’s journey from initial awareness to advocate, however, countless other goals and interactions are bound to develop, such as:

  • Upgrading or downgrading the current plan level
  • Requesting support assistance from the customer success team
  • Sharing feature enhancement ideas to make the platform more useful
  • Participating in educational training webinars
  • Requesting additional information about new features and integrations
  • Publishing satisfaction ratings on online review sites

In other words, customer behavior is dictated largely by their motivation, or at least until the point of inflection – when a customer enters a company’s realm by providing information or completing a transaction. After that point, companies have more opportunities to steer customers through a desired journey. Ultimately, companies who understand the “why” behind customer interactions at each point are well on their way to understanding the journey and creating consistently great customer experience.

Personas

One cannot understand customer goals without clearly defining who the customer is. Personas, which are fictitious characters based on actual data, can be tremendously useful for understanding your customers and their journeys.

How can you develop detailed and accurate personas? In my experience, interviewing frontline sales and support staff is a great place to start. Be sure to ask a variety of open-ended questions to foster an in-depth conversation about:

  • Buying cycles and patterns
  • Common objectives in the sales process
  • Gatekeepers, decision makers, and other stakeholders (particularly for B2B)
  • Demographic and psychographic considerations
  • Typical pre-sale and post-sale interactions

Incorporating quantitative data from your CRM is another important step for supplementing the accuracy of your personas while simultaneously avoiding any unintended biases. Some CRMs even offer built-in business intelligence dashboards, which can accelerate persona analysis and minimize unnecessary spreadsheet manipulation.

Customer journey mapping

Once you’ve developed a rock-solid understanding of your typical personas and their goals, it’s time to begin the customer journey mapping process. Mapping the customer journey can be a complex and tedious process, particularly for customers who establish lifelong relationships with buyers. As with any personal relationship, long-term business relationships fluidly contract and expand over time, making it difficult to know how to begin the mapping process. How can you “map” something that involves hundreds or thousands of relationships and an untold number of interactions?  

Let’s start the discussion with these questions:

  • When do your personas interact with your company? For example, discovery, pre-sale, sale, post-sale, service, etc.
  • How can your personas interact with your company or brand? For example, review sites, your marketing website, support portal, within the user interface, on social media, etc.
  • What are the different types of customer interactions? For example, website visits, eBook downloads, trial requests, support tickets, social media posts, blog comments, etc.
  • Where will you get the data to accurately answer these types of questions? For example, your CRM, website analytics platform, data warehouse, etc.
  • How does all of this fit within the context of a journey?

As you begin to ask these questions, you may realize that your “ideal” customer journey is far from reality. Perhaps your social media team is slow to respond to unsolicited lead inquiries. Or, perhaps your support team is more responsive to customers who are especially vocal, resulting in longer wait times for people who are polite. Don’t let this misalignment get you down. Remember, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” customer journey, especially in today’s reality of the self-guided customer journey. As Lori Wizdo at Forrester Research recently pointed out, the evolution toward a self-guided journey is changing the role of B2B marketers and sellers, which is why sales and marketing need to better align, share information, and work hard to keep the buyer’s attention throughout the journey. (Forrester Research, “Q&A: B2B Marketing Automation Platforms 101”, November 21, 2018)

Seek to continuously elevate your company’s understanding of the customer and try to structure internal conversations in the context of a journey and align your teams, relying on data-driven analytics at every step of the process. In time, this approach is sure to pay big dividends – both for your organization and the customer.

Let’s continue the journey

So far we’ve discussed what the customer journey is, how it’s constantly evolving, and how it relates to your business. In the next post, we’ll go one step further and explore specific steps for pivoting from a “funnel” mentality to a journey-minded approach.