About eight out of ten business leaders say they want to “improve” the customer experience (CX) to be more competitive. In CustomerThink’s recent study of 200+ CX initiatives, 74% agreed: “By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.”
And for good reason.
Briefly, the argument is that leading CX brands outperform laggards by a lot. According to Forrester Research, “CX leaders outperformed CX laggards on both stock price growth and total returns.” What’s behind the improved performance is what some call the “loyalty effect.” Great experiences lead to higher levels of customer loyalty which, over time, not only increases revenue growth but also reduces costs.
That said, my purpose is not to sell you on why improving CX is important. I’ll assume you’ve already recognized that based on a huge amount of industry evidence. Rather, in this article, I’ll try to help you identify the weaknesses in your customer journey that, if improved, would actually lead to improved customer satisfaction and better business performance.
That’s not as easy as it seems. Anyone working in the CX world knows that there is no lack of problems to work on. Through Voice of the Customer (VoC) surveys and many other sources of customer feedback, it can seem like a game of whack-a-mole. Just fixing everything reported by customers is not necessarily the best way to proceed.
Should you fix all reported issues?
Yes, of course, you should resolve issues of “broken promises” if at all possible. The product failed. The website doesn’t load properly. Bills are wrong. Customer service takes too long to answer the phone. These are the basics of delivering the promised experience and should be addressed.
But what about customer requests that, if implemented, would undermine the brand promise? Say you fly on Southwest Airlines and don’t care for their A/B/C boarding scheme with no assigned seats. Some call it a “cattle call.” Southwest gets lots of negative feedback on their boarding approach and yet decided that fixing this problem would raise costs and eventually cause customers to defect. Because the core value proposition is affordable travel.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly explained in a 2006 blog post:
Open seating has allowed us to build a highly efficient operation by keeping the time our aircraft are sitting at our gate to a minimum. Aircraft on the ground don’t make money! But it’s no secret that all airlines – even Southwest – are facing extensive cost pressures due to the rising price of fuel and we have to find ways to generate additional revenue.
For similar reasons, Southwest doesn’t offer the option to book through third-party sites like Expedia. I personally would like to use Expedia, but again this is part of Southwest’s approach to keeping costs and prices low. The U.S. airline, which has a more than a four-decade record of leading the U.S. airline industry, is rightly concerned with delivering the value customers expect, and so will not “fix” individual touchpoint issues even when customers request.
Another example of requests that shouldn’t be immediately fixed is the major changes that take time to assess and, if approved, implement. Rental car giant Avis, for example, uses a monthly “CX council” meeting to review bigger issues that require system changes, policy updates, etc. Eventually, as improvements are implemented, they’ll be communicated to employees and customers, thus closing the loop in a different way than simple transactional issues.
Customer touchpoints vs. journeys
Let’s take a deeper look at customer experiences by distinguishing between touchpoints and a journey. I’ll use a recent example to illustrate.
Recently I bought a new portable tire pump for my hybrid street bike. For reasons I won’t get into here, I have a rear-wheel with an inner tube that uses a “Presta” valve, while the front tire uses a tube with a “Schrader” valve–same as a car tire valve. They work completely differently, so to prepare for the inevitable flat, I wanted one light pump that supported both, to mount on my bike.
That’s step one of a customer journey–the customer recognizes a problem to be solved, or a goal to be achieved. Without this spark, no journey!
What followed were the additional steps–often called touchpoints or stages in CX parlance–that I took to get a new pump to meet my needs.
- Searched online for a “portable bike pump dual valve” to learn what was available.
- Read articles including one that discussed “the best bike pumps in 2019.”
- Reviewed product details, pricing, and reviews on Amazon.com.
- Purchased the pump, received email and text confirmation notices.
- Received the pump and opened the packaging which included installation instructions.
- Got helpful tips on how to install and use the pump via vendor videos.
- Installed and tested the pump, and took a ride!
The complete journey from start to finish took a few days of calendar time, and perhaps a couple of hours for all touchpoints outlined above. How would you go about “improving” this experience?
Well, one approach is to look for ways to make each interaction go a little bit better or faster. Perhaps a content marketing campaign could raise awareness that dual valve pumps existed, and would do a much better job than a cheap valve converter.
Getting products into the hands of reviewers that readers trust is a great strategy for consumer products. That’s what sold me on the pump I picked. But, the product better be strong, or this will backfire.
The product itself could be improved so that customers would be happier and leave better reviews on Amazon or elsewhere. Good reviews are critical for selling online. My pump had superb reviews and lots of them. I left one, too!
The packaging and instructions could be clarified to make it less frustrating to install. I’m guessing the manufacturer realized that this was a weakness because, shortly after receiving the pump, I received a helpful email from the vendor (sent via Amazon) with links to installation and usage videos.
I haven’t used customer support yet, but that’s another obvious touchpoint. One that perhaps gets too much attention in CX programs. Customer service is often the “catcher” of customer complaints and a common starting point for CX improvements. But improving the service experience won’t fix problems that occurred elsewhere in the company, stimulating the call for help.
Journey mapping as a CX tool
Journey mapping is a hugely important technique for CX professionals. Done right, it gives an end-to-end view of the customer experience that can reveal weakness within or between touchpoints, or in the complete journey.
Research from McKinsey suggests that the best ROI on CX improvements come from improving the end-to-end journey:
The companies that perform best on journeys have a more distinct competitive advantage than those that excel at touchpoints; in one of the industries we surveyed, the gap on customer satisfaction between the top- and bottom-quartile companies on journey performance was 50 percent wider than the gap between the top- and bottom-quartile companies on touchpoint performance.
CustomerThink CX research finds that more Winning CX programs–those claiming tangible ROI or competitive advantage–focus on creating a distinctive or “signature experience” such as the Southwest example I’ve shared. Changes to individual touchpoints or steps in the journey can also deliver a good return but should be evaluated to ensure that a “fix” helps the brand deliver the overall goal of the target customers.
In a study of 200+ CX initiatives, CustomerThink asked respondents to rate their implementation of major CX practices and analyzed how it related to their overall success. Respondents completed a self-assessment of the “extent” that their company performed each practice, using a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means “Not at all,” 3 means “Partially” and 5 means “Fully.”
What’s important is not the absolute scores, but the gap between the Winning and Developing segments. The Developing segment reported signs of progress, but not clear success in the form of tangible business benefits or competitive edge.
The top five practices, ranked by their impact on Winning, were found to be:
- Take an outside-in perspective to understand and act on customer feedback.
- Develop customer journey maps to diagnose and improve experiences.
- Have a commonly understood brand vision and promise that guides the CX strategy.
- Create a business case to connect CX improvements with key business outcomes.
- Support CX efforts with committed senior executives who are personally engaged.
For this article, I’ll explore the second CX practice –journey mapping.
Develop customer journey maps to diagnose and improve experiences
After VoC, nothing is more closely associated with Customer Experience Management (CXM) than a customer journey map (CJM). By creating a visual depiction of the steps that customers take in an experience, including how customers feel after interactions, CX leaders can diagnose problems and design new experiences for the future.
The visual map helps organizations “walk in the customer’s shoes.” Sometimes that’s all that’s required to really see what’s going on as a customer navigates different departments. For example, one tech company was getting complaints that professional service projects were taking much longer than expected. Reviewing a journey map revealed that promises made by sales reps early in the process (based on incomplete info) set up the services project for failure. The fix: get services professional involved earlier, during the sales touchpoint.
There are lots of ways to document a journey map. The key thing is to document what happens at each touchpoint and how customers (or personas, ideally) perceive their experience. Here’s an example from Heart of the Customer (you can find many more here).
(Click here to view enlarged version)
According to CJM expert Jim Tincher of Heart of the Customer, high-level maps of the end-to-end experiences can help identify the source of friction and frustration, before zeroing in on a specific journey to develop corrective actions. Using personas, a practice highly recommended by CX experts means multiple journeys should be analyzed.
Personas make journey maps more relevant to different types of customers. A persona for, say, a CEO, would have a different journey than a technical person involved with software installation and customization. Taking a persona-based journey map and overlaying with customer feedback data (more on that in a moment) sheds light on the touchpoints needing further investigation.
In CustomerThink’s study, 77% of respondents reported developing a CJM as part of their CX initiative. But simply creating a map was not found to be a success driver. What appears to matter is consistency across the journey stages and thoroughness of implementing journey mapping practices.
Winning CX initiatives are much more likely to include all the stages, including pre-purchase touchpoints concerned with research and evaluation. This is a key point: you won’t get insight into cross-journey issues unless you include the entire journey!
Another significant finding was the size of gaps between Developing and Winning CX initiatives–averaging nearly a full point on a 1 to 5 scale–for journey mapping practices. Some of the biggest differentiators included developing personas by segment, developing future state maps, including emotional factors, basing maps on solid research, involving customers, and defining customer outcomes.
Collecting data to support journey maps
Journey maps can be created by inviting employees from different stakeholders across the organization– those responsible for delivering the customer experience–and documenting what they think is going on. That’s a good way to get started, but a huge red flag if internal opinions are represented as a customer journey map. It’s not.
Customer involvement is absolutely critical. This is supported by CustomerThink quantitative research, which found one of the top five practices was “involved customers to create and validate journey map.”
Another big one: “Based the map on solid research such as customer feedback and engagement data.”
Michael Hinshaw, President/CEO of CX Consultancy McorpCX, says don’t “build your maps without defensible data.”
If you’re building journey maps to help shift organizational focus and drive meaningful change, the cost of those changes can be significant. So use data to support your conclusions and support investment, ideally bringing insights from three sources into play.
He advises that data can include customer feedback, employee feedback, and interaction data from systems used in CRM, call centers, and more.
Using all of these sources will give you a solid foundation for understanding the current customer journey. But don’t stop there! Experts strongly recommend creating maps develop a “future state” or desired journey. The gap between current and desired is great input to a planning process to decide what changes to make.
For example, one financial services company found through journey mapping that, while each step in the process seemed necessary and reasonable, the customer’s perception was quite different. Endless amount of paper with duplicate requests and lengthy delays. The firm envisioned a new streamlined journey, which tightened up the end-to-end process, eliminated duplicate information requests, and improved customer communications. The result: faster loan approvals and higher customer satisfaction.
Look around–you probably have a lot of data already available. My suggestion is to take an outside-in approach. Start with customer feedback and then look for corroborating (or conflicting) evidence from other sources.
Deciding what to fix
Now comes the fun part. In most any company there are dozens to hundreds of possible improvements to consider. As noted earlier, some will be obvious must-do fixes. But many others will require some judgment and prioritization.
For large enterprises selling complex products, journey maps will be equally complex. And odds are you’ll identify CX improvement opportunities everywhere.
It’s important, however, to understand the difference between something that is expected, sometimes called a “hygiene factor,” and a change that will provide real differentiation.
Lior Arussy, President of Strativity Group, says it’s important to fully qualify the emotional impact of the issue/touchpoint:
Just because it is a pain point doesn’t mean customers are seeking exhilarating resolution. Sometimes it is just “fix it” issue. To figure this out, we divide pain points between hygiene factors and differentiating factors. And we qualify what is what with customers. Additionally, you measure what are they willing to live with in exchange for what improvement. A trade-off exercise. Lastly, we try to correlate with the financial impact which can be done through a study and regression analysis.
If you simply ask customers to rate the value of certain improvements, you’ll get a wish list with a lot of high scores. But if you know what really drives their loyalty– called “key drivers”–you can concentrate on changes that will have a bigger impact. More advanced techniques use a series of questions asking the customer to choose one change over another. Eventually, the truly important factors will be revealed.
Journey mapping is a great process to really understand your customers. It also helps to rally different parts of the organization around a common goal–improving the complete customer experience. That’s the key to real differentiation and ROI, the goal of senior leaders.
The journey of creating a customer journey map is well worth taking. Best wishes, and have a good trip!
Check out our free Customer Journey Map guide with map examples and a free template!
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About the guest author
Bob Thompson is the CEO of CustomerThink, an independent research and publishing firm focused on customer-centric business management.