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Customer journey mapping: understanding the customer

Customer journeyIn our introduction to customer journey mapping, we looked at the what and why, with several tips to use customer journey maps beyond the strict scope of customer experience management.

Essentially, with customer journey maps we have an outside-in view and place ourselves in the shoes of our customers. But is that even possible and how do we involve the customer?

An honest answer to the question whether we can place ourselves in the shoes of our customers is no. Admittedly, the customer journey of buyer of shoes, for instance, is much easier to (try to) understand than that of a buyer of an expensive software solution for very specific business needs in a complex journey whereby vendors have complex go-to-market models and decisions are group decisions (which buying shoes can be as well by the way).

It’s clear we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of the individual buyer, even if it’s about buying shoes. We’re all different but at the same time – fortunately – we decide in more or less identifiable ways with more or less known parameters. Otherwise, customer journey mapping wouldn’t even be possible. However, when we look at more complex buying journeys and multiple influencers, decision makers and stages, the more complex the customer journey map is.

Customer journey mapping involving the customer

Understanding the customer: sources of insight for customer journey mapping

Putting ourselves in the shoes of our customers is great but of course we need to avoid the (pure) inside-out approach and thus truly understand the key elements and customer-related data, facts and realities we need to grasp so we can build a customer journey map and build an outside-in customer culture.

There are several ways to do this and, although none of them is perfect and never will be, we advise you to consider several ones to reduce the number of potential errors. Some sources to use.

Trusted content sources and research.

In order to know decision makers in specific verticals for specific solutions (mainly in complex markets) and to understand the key “pain points”, we consult the Web and offline resources, especially trusted resources such as some analysts, other companies targeting the same audiences, etc.

There is quite some research that can be conducted if you allocate the resources to do it, combine it with other ways of gaining market and even buyer insights and use some smart ways to conduct research in the stricter sense of the word and interview some experts as well.

Admittedly, this is not the way to get close and personal but it allows you to detect patterns and conducting research can lead to insights and facts you can use, among others, for marketing purposes (content). We feel that organizations in general should do more analysis themselves. To be fair, the line between consultancy, analysis, good journalism and research for content is sometimes a thin one. Again, not the closest to your target audiences or customers but you just need to stay in the loop and use what’s available – and it also helps in seeing the trends and current evolutions that might lead to necessary digital transformation efforts as a consequence.

Your subject matter experts

Interview your internal “brains”. Consult the people who are in your organization, especially those that are close to the end customer and – in case of a channel model – also those that work with those different “chains” in your go-to-market approach.

Obviously, subject matter experts in this case also include your good partners and any other contact you can work with (analyst relationships, consultants, subcontractors, whatever).

Subject matter experts on the customer level are not just people who are close to the customers such as customer service reps, customer analysts, sales people, etc. They are also those that regularly get out and talk to real customers, something every exec should do. And, often forgotten, they also involve people who inform R&D and product marketing because – normally – no product or service is developed if there is no clear customer need it covers – or customer expectation it fulfils. Communicating the business rationale and detected customer needs is the job of both these departement, for instance to sales. It’s one of many reasons we recommend to involve product marketing in a content marketing plan, for instance.

Personas, your customers and the customers of their customers

Customer journey mapping works with personas. But, again, this is a model. Personas remain important to work with but remember that, just as the funnel and the customer journey map as such, they are depictions. Also remember that nothing – including the customer experience – is linear.

Furthermore, potential customers can interact with your business across each possible touchpoint, regardless of the stage they’re in. With digital and content becoming pervasive, this is even more the case. It’s not because you have a paper that is aimed at customers comparing or considering vendors/products/solution that they can’t be downloaded by people in the discovery or awareness stage, for instance. In fact, in an increasingly real-time economy where ever more personalization is possible, there are reasons to consider other options than persona models.

Nevertheless, until further notice, personas are still the predominant way we work with in customer journey maps. There is an increasing trend to differ between different types of personas, depending on their stage in the overall customer life cycle (buying behavior to be precise). This has, among others, been advocated by Tony Zambito. You can also read more about it in our buyer persona overview. Some work with simple segments and job roles instead of personas or with pure psychographic models.

Regardless of the methods you use it’s clear that the customer is the only one able to really putting himself in the shoes of the customer. So, it’s equally clear that you’ll need to involve the customer.

If you’re in a go-to-market model with partners, remember the lessons of value chains we mention in various articles of this website. In order to understand the customer, you also need to understand the customer of the customer, etc., all the way to the end buyer, whether it’s in the capacity of a consumer or of a B2B buyer. Remember, however, that it’s best to focus on what matters most and not make it too complicated unless you really can – and want to – dive very deep into the customer experience in relationship with, for instance, content plans, partner enablement efforts, etc.

InvolvCustomer journeying the customer

You need to get the customer on board of your customer journey mapping. Although, it’s obvious, all too often it still doesn’t happen and people genuinely believe they can truly understand their customers just by talking to their peers, employees or, worse, relying on the opinions of those good old HiPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion).

Empathy can go a long way but it’s not magic. Involving customers in several ways is essential. A non-exhaustive list of ways to involve the customer (and the customer of the customer, etc.):

Conduct customer research

Customer research is a first way to gauge what customers want, how their journey looks like, what their pain points and emotional triggers are and so forth. Also use it as a way, to check the findings from what you’ve learned in other ways (validation).

Big caveat, however, and always to remember: there are very often big discrepancies between what people say they do/want/value and what they turn out to do/want/value in practice. Finding these discrepancies is already interesting as such (and anyway, the discrepancies will be far smaller than those between what organizations believe are valuable touchpoints and customer experiences on one hand and what customers themselves think about that on the other).

Research can be done via telephone, using online surveys, at events, etc. It’s best to get an experienced partner on board to narrow down the error margin and avoid too much opinion.


Just as agencies and consultants conduct workshops with their customers to map buyer insights, create personas and work on the initial drafts of the customer journey map (often along with storyboards), organizations can conduct similar workshops with actual customers and potential buyers.

We advise – again, if feasible, to involve the customers of customers in such workshops with agencies and consultants too by the way. The quality and outcomes of such workshops are, among others defined, by the invited people (how representative?) and making sure you have a predominant focus on the outside-in approach.

In such workshops there is of course always the risk of thinking (what people and participants want) versus actual behavior and a partner might come in handy too for the same reasons as mentioned in the section on customer research.

Other methods

While surveys, workshops, interviews and customer advisory panels/boards are all good ways to involve customers into the journey mapping exercise, you need data for all the reasons mentioned above.

As you probably noticed by now, there is ALWAYS a genuine risk of mistaking opinions for facts, whether the opinions come from customers, panel members or your internal teams such as customer-facing employees and subject matter experts. That’s why it’s always a good idea to 1) validate the outcomes with several stakeholders a second time (others) before moving to the next step, 2) conduct workshops, interviews etc. with partners who have experience in customer journey mapping and 3) look at facts.

Get out. Validate your findings by getting out more often and listen and talk to customers and the customers of your customers. Tradeshows, other events, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, spending a few days in (your) shops, passing some time in sales and customer service, asking a partner to spend some time with then when they visit end customers or in their offices. We don’t get out enough anymore, instead hiding behind screens and dashboards.

Facts are partially about data but it’s also good to ask people to fulfil specific tasks, rather than just asking their opinions. Such exercises, whereby people are asked to complete a task on a website and their actual behavior is traced, exist since a very long time in the field of user experience and usability. So, strictly speaking, they say nothing about the journey.

However, using such methods and knowing there are clear links between customer experience and user experience, even in offline environments such as shops and, if possible in a more-to-end way (you can even combine this with journals), you’ll get a better picture of various steps in the digital customer journey (and of digital touchpoints but remember customer journey mapping is not the same as touchpoint mapping).

Let’s face it: the customer does have a multi-channel or channel-agnostic journey but the number of digital touchpoints and touches is increasing in many areas. So, when it makes sense in a specific context/area, use such methods. Whereas in user experience you would typically focus on a task regarding one service or property, you can broaden the scope of the task in a digital environment.

So, instead of saying “find the number of xyz on the website of abc” (to see how long it takes for the user to find the specific content and gauge how visitor-centric the website is), say something like “look for a new insurance provider using the Web”. User experience experts might be horrified by reading this (in general, we focus on very specific tasks, as specific as possible) and customer experience experts will probably say it’s an artificial setting and the journey is not just online.

They’re both right but do the exercise to see what insights it delivers, knowing that it has shortcomings. You might learn quite a bit about not just which channels different people use but also about user experiences and touchpoints, even if that’s not your core goal here (you can combine goals though if they don’t interfere).

Last but not least, note that the single customer experience is as important as the end-to-end customer experience so there is no need NOT to look at individual experiences as well.

On funnels and journey models

The customer journey has traditionally been presented in rather linear ways looking at consecutive ways such as discovery, evaluation, buying and advocacy as depicted in the image on this page. It’s clear that this linear representation is a model and always has been one, just as is the case with the funnels we have been using for so long.

In demand generation and lead nurturing we’ve known since ages that such models can lead to errors of the overlooking of important elements. One example: very often we forget what Mac McConnel called the “Buddha Funnel” several years ago in a lead scoring and marketing automation context.

Funnel alternative model and customer experience touchpoint model by Forrester reasearch - read more about both
Funnel alternative model and customer experience touchpoint model by Forrester reasearch – read more about both

There have been numerous attempts to look at the buying journey, customer experience, customer life cycle etc. in less linear ways that correspond more with the customer reality. One of many examples, as you can read here, is the model that Forrester’s Lori Wizdo presented several years ago and, which she called when we chatted about it, rather “Seussian”.

Reality is indeed hard to represent. And to be honest, if you realize nothing in reality is linear and people can enter into contact with you, directly or indirectly, anywhere at any time and for any reason (and go away and come back again as well) it’s ok to use a model based on typical customer stages.

The customer reality is complex and involves more than one buy or a few stages. It’s dynamic, ongoing (until it stops), individual, etc. Various models such as McKinsey’s Customer Decision Journey Model, Google’s multi-channel view, Altimeter’s dynamic customer journey model and several others are closer to reality and can help you in your journey mapping as well. However, in the end it doesn’t matter how it looks graphically or how it’s structured. As long as it’s as accurate as it needs to be to achieve what you want to achieve, understanding the funnel is just a funnel, the journey is looped and connected and there is no perfect model.

The Customer Experience Lifecycle - infographic by CMSWire
The Customer Experience Lifecycle – infographic by CMSWire

Images purchased under license from Shutterstock – the classic customer journey – the top image

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