From a Decision Process to the Customer Journey

Mapping the customer journey is often suggested as a vital step for better understanding customer experiences, before appropriate measures can be planned for improving on them. At the core of a “customer journey” is the purchase decision process, yet the evolved concept of “journey” encompasses broader aspects of customer behaviour and experience. Particularly with respect to consumers, the term “process” may have seemed to many (e.g., practitioners, managers) as too technical and logical while a “journey” is perceived as more imaginative and more likely to be imbued with emotion. There is still a significant parallel between the two concepts, yet the concept of journey has been extended in some important ways and emphasises the following aspects:

  • More frequently, the relation of a consumer with a company or a brand does not end with the act of purchase (transaction) of its product, good or service — following the purchase decision process there are likely to be additional immediate activities like further enquiries about product usage, feedback to the company or exchange of impressions with friends and family; in many cases, especially for on-going services and durables, there are continued interactions of customer service and technical support.
  • In any task concerned with purchase or usage customers more often engage multiple channels and touchpoints to complete their tasks and accomplish their goals (e.g., visiting a company’s Web site, a product & price comparison online portal, and a brick-and-mortar store before buying, interacting with a company by Facebook and e-mail to receive technical assistance).
  • Processes entailed in a “customer journey” tend to be cyclic rather than uni-directional processes with clear start and end points — there is continuity or flow from one purchase episode to the next such that if a subsequent purchase of a similar or related product is made from the same company customer loyalty can develop, but there are also possible cycles and repetition of activities performed by a consumer during a single purchase decision process.

Therefore, the customer journey may be not only longer than what a purchase decision process implies but also more multi-faceted and complex. To be honest, some of the extending aspects have been already suggested within the framework of the purchase decision process. For instance, post-purchase stages such as feedback and product divestment have been suggested in decision models in the 1990s (e.g., Engel, Blackwell and Miniard). Reliance on multiple information sources (marketer- and non-marketer controlled) has also been long considered  in the course of a purchase decision process. And if we concentrate on the path of a single decision process, decision models described and depicted by prominent scholar Jim Bettman in the late 1970s are all but simple, uni-directional and straightforward. Consumers frequently move back-and-forth, collect and use different pieces of information according to various decision rules, evaluate their options, and if necessary return to revise their consideration set, collect more information or re-examine their prior analysis. Those concepts and models have been tested and developed by Bettman together with his colleagues John Payne and Eric Johnson under the theoretical framework of adaptive decision-making (1993). Hence, the customer journey clearly builds on the foundations of earlier theories and models of consumer decision-making.

However, the concept of customer journey contributes several new perspectives. First, journey models give more weight to post-purchase activities compared with purchase decision models that traditionally address these activities only briefly, leaving them to be treated in other model types. Sharing opinion in social media networks, crowd sourcing for assistance, or asking for customer support from a company-provider, all these are important for business practice; accounting for these activities recognises that positive experiences in these activities build the link from one purchase to the next with the same company  (i.e., replacement, cross-sell, and up-sell). Journey maps vary nonetheless in their scope: taking a broad-view of a relationship journey with a company or focus on specific tasks and activities (e.g., enquiry about billing); considering all aspects of a purchase decision process, including any engagement with offers by competitors, or concentrating on interactions between the company concerned and its customers, as “customer journey” literally suggests.

Second, journey models appear to give more room to expression of emotions and affective reactions by customers, for example, in giving feedback or during service-related interactions with the company. Mapping studies that rely on interviews with customers even encourage such expressions. However, it should be noted that literature on decision-making, particularly in the past 10-15 years, already recognises the incorporation of both cognitive and affective components as co-influencers of decision processes.

Third, making probably the most important contribution, customer journey models address the employment of multiple channels by customers through various associated touchpoints with companies to perform purchase, usage or service tasks. This aspect appears to be driven primarily by business enterprises in response to the contemporary reality of their relations with customers. These channels furthermore are expected to be co-ordinated. In some cases, however, ambiguity arises whether each touchpoint defines an independent channel or multiple touchpoints are nested within a single channel:

  • In a brick-and-mortar store, shoppers may encounter touchpoints with the retailer in front of a shelf display (this is also a potential touchpoint with a manufacturer’s brand) and at the cashier;
  • On the internet, a customer may experience a touchpoint with a company on its main commercial website when learning about its products, but she may also transfer to the company’s blog linked to the website or launch a chat conversation from the website to ask for assistance from a service representative.
  • “Mobile” is commonly considered a channel by itself but nested within are a variety of resources and tools that can be used on the mobile devices, some of them have parallels in other modes of communication (websites, e-mail, social media), some are specially designed for mobile (e.g., apps).

Constructing a mapping diagram of customer journeys is a specialisation with its own techniques; it falls in the domain of information visualisation or graphic design and is beyond the scope of this post-article. Such maps can quickly become complicated, rich in detail, because there are many pathways that customers may follow in their journey. A common way to deal with the complexity, and in order to make journeys more accessible and vivid to managers is to identify “typical” customers with characteristic personal attributes and pathways they go through, and build accordingly exemplary profiles, also known as ‘personas’ (e.g., common in the area of user experience [UX]).

But it could matter on what type of input the profiles of these personas are based. Are methods of quantitative research for collecting relevant data from customers sufficient? Bruce Temkin, expert on customer experience and head of the consulting group by his name, recommends in his blog, Customer Experience Matters, that companies combine between input from discussions (‘think tank’) of their managers responsible for customer relationships, and data from customer research (e.g., in-depth interviews, ethnographic techniques). These steps would preferably be conducted in this order. It should be helpful, however, to use quantitative data to construct plausible journeys and identify most relevant and interesting customer personas. Surveys may not be economic and efficient as a method to collect detailed-enough data. Yet, surveys can be useful for at least characterising main stages in a journey as well as the channels and touchpoints engaged, that could still enable better generalisation or validity of the information. Even quantification of input collected during in-depth interviews can help to pinpoint more frequent activities or stages, and paths or links between them so as (1) to depict significant or salient journey scenarios; (2) to identify key segments; and (3) to construct more meaningful and realistic personas that managers can effectively rely upon in their planning. Relevant approaches and techniques may be learned from the areas of means-end chain models and path analysis, for instance of shoppers’ journeys in physical stores (i.e., a true physical journey that is nonetheless relevant in this context).

Better established maps of customer journey layout a chain of main stages as the foundation or “spine” of the journey, and then add more detail on specific activities, customer impressions and reactions, costs and benefits, etc. A map would be devised for each key segment or prototypical persona. Maps can get more complex as one tries to account for cycles in the flow of events and activities during the journey (e.g., initial exploration on a website, visit to a store, return to the website for more information, and so on). A model proposed by Forrester Research, for example, defines four primary stages in a customer journey: discovery, explore, buy, and engage. The general model distinguishes between reach channels used for discovery, depth channels appropriate for exploration, and relationship channels through which customers engage with the respective company over time (i.e., strengthening relationships). McKinsey & Co. define more explicitly their orientation: they offer a model named the “consumer decision journey”. It is a cyclic journey model which includes four main phases: (a) initial consideration set for research and learning; (b) active evaluation of alternatives; (c) the moment of purchase; and (d) post-purchase experience, which can cycle back through a “loop” of loyalty to purchase. Noteworthy about this model, it recognizes that consumers may check again new alternatives and update their consideration set during active evaluation.

The Big Data sphere is also recruited to the mission of mapping customer journeys. However, the approach taken in such applications tends to be more strictly focused on performance of particular tasks by customers with the client company (e.g., product enquiry and service). Furthermore, th0se maps seem to over-emphasise the role of touchpoints as used by customers, particularly digital ones, as the nature of data sources used dictates. Temkin (see above) criticises the interpretation of a customer journey map as a touchpoint map, as typically adopted in systems based on big data. He argues that concentrating on individual interactions is prone to lose sight of the “broader context of how that touchpoint fits within the overall goal and objectives of the customer.” Systems in the field do show links or transitions between touchpoints, but the maps provide a rather narrow viewpoint of the journey and its context.

A map may zoom for instance on a particular touchpoint such as a call centre (by phone) and show how many customers visited previously a webpage of the company and how many ended the journey at the call centre or proceeded to another touchpoint for completing their task. Conspicuous figures or pathways may start a discussion of what that means and what should be done to improve the experience. However, such applications “see” only computer-based channels or touchpoints associated with the company, that is, mapping strictly customer journeys of technological interactions with the company. What if the customer consulted a friend on the phone, responded to a TV ad, or visited a store? The effectivity of the maps relies also on strong connectivity between the different channels of communication and interaction operated by the company (e.g., PC website, mobile, phone call centre). Silos in the organisation can hamper the construction of journey maps. Finally, it is important to study not only what customers do but also how they perceive their own actions and their attitude towards them. It would help companies to tap into subjective sensitivities of customers about their behaviour and avoid infringing into areas of customer desired privacy.

Mapping the customer journey can be used to improve many aspects of decision processes and post-purchase experiences (e.g., foster linkage between physical stores and information through mobile devices). Focusing on the journey of customers for narrowly defined tasks that involve interaction with a company can help indeed in resolving concrete problems or issues in customer experience. Nevertheless, companies should also take a broader perspective to map the journeys of more elaborate processes and experiences that extend in time through a relationship with the company. Models should also avoid being too restricted to customer interactions with the company and explore interactions with other potential influencers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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