More than ever, customers expect better experiences when interacting with businesses.

Digital has changed the connection between people and business, transforming existing commercial models and creating disruption.

Like wildfire, this disruption is sweeping through all sectors of business. New ways of thinking and working are needed to respond to the ‘Mobile mind-shift’ and the digital habits of millennials.

Millennials are the generation born between 1980 and 2000, who have grown up with technology and expect the right service, in the right way, at the right time and place. Businesses have no choice but to change in order to meet these expectations and remain competitive.

I’ve seen a real appetite for change and better customer experience (CX) from business leaders, yet according to Forrester research, 81% of organisations have seen their customer experience initiatives fail in the last three years, and just 25% of CX programmes actually improve the customer experience.

It’s far from ideal, which is why in this article, you’ll learn how to get on the front foot and start making impactful, successful and sustainable customer experience improvements to meet customer expectations and take advantage of new business opportunities.

It starts with you, not your customers

To get started, you need an open mind, a dash of common sense and a few commonly used techniques. Let’s start with three simple questions about your organisation.

  1. What’s the makeup of your organisation?
  2. What’s your approach to research?
  3. What is the scope of the work that you do?

Tick one answer in each row:

According to Leah Buley, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, your answers should indicate whether your organisation is outdated, progressive, or a modern customer experience organisation:

  • If you have two or more answers in the left-hand row, your organisation could be outdated.
  • Two or more answers in the middle row could indicate your organisation is more progressive.
  • Two or more answers in the right row suggest you are a modern CX organisation.

In my experience of running this exercise with hundreds of organisations, only a small number score themselves as ‘modern CX organisations’. If you fall into the ‘outdated’ or even ‘progressive’ categories, it’s unlikely your organisation can sustain customer experience improvements.

The three step approach

I’ll outline a three step approach to evaluating your organisation, your attitude to research, and the type of work you do. Tackling these three areas, even to a small degree, will increase the likelihood of your CX improvements lasting.

Step 1: Address the makeup of your organisation

In 2015, Econsultancy found that ‘two-thirds of companies accept that organisational structure is the biggest barrier to customer experience’.

Many established businesses around the world and across a range of sectors are transforming in an attempt to emulate the speed, dynamism, and customer centricity of digital players like Airbnb, Spotify and Uber.

In McKinsey Quarterly, ING’s COO Bart Schlatmann brilliantly describes their journey: "We have been on a transformation journey for around 10 years now, but there can be no let up. Transformation is not just moving an organisation from A to B, because once you hit B, you need to move to C, and when you arrive at C, you probably have to start thinking about D.”

Transformation is a way of working

ING recognised that transformation was not about a destination, but a way of working that allowed it to be flexible and adaptable in order to steer the business in a new direction. For ING, this meant minimising handovers and bureaucracy, and empowering people.

Schlatmann goes on to say: "It had to be about a better, more agile way of working to respond to new digital distribution channels, changing customer behaviour and expectations.”

Stop thinking traditionally

ING identified that it needed to stop thinking traditionally about product marketing and start understanding customer journeys in this new omnichannel environment. It was seen as imperative to provide a seamless and consistently high-quality service, so customers can start their journey through one channel and continue it through another. 

For example, going to a branch in person for investment advice and then calling or going online to make an actual investment. An agile way of working was necessary to deliver that strategy.

Unlike many companies, when attempting to improve the customer experience, ING started with its own organisation before understanding the customer journey. In my experience, this is the right order. You can design the best experience in the world, but it’s all for nothing if your organisation isn’t setup to support and reflect that experience.

Stakeholder interviews: a great way to start with the organisation

It’s often difficult to see problems when you are too close to them. A great way to start understanding your organisation is to running stakeholder interviews. These are informal interviews talking with internal and external stakeholders to assess the organisation's mindset. They help develop an initial hypotheses of the state of the organisation, its appetite for change and context for customer experience improvement.

Stakeholder interviews are best done by a neutral outsider. They are one-to-one interviews with key stakeholders from across the organisation who have been identified as influential in the organisations.

The interviews, usually lasting one hour, are a chance to understand the business context from the perspective of the people that know it best. Stakeholder interviews also build a rapport with important stakeholders and ensure they feel heard from the outset.

The outputs are a more comprehensive understanding of the business realities and what’s important to people, which will be crucial at every stage as you seek to find the sweet-spot between business goals and customer needs.

Think big, start small

Of course, wholesale change isn’t always possible, or necessary. On a recent project for a multinational business, I was asked to create an end-to-end customer journey. However, it soon became clear that the organisation operated in silos, was sales-driven and treated digital as a separate marketing function. Departments were reluctant to share information, and communication was poor.

This isn’t uncommon. And a customer journey map just wasn’t going to cut it. Continuing with the project without addressing the organisational issues would have resulted in another failed CX initiative.

I started by making sure all stakeholders had a clear understanding of the aim of the project with a series of carefully-planned workshops. These workshops are a place to get buy-in, test hypotheses and enrich understanding.

I then used the ‘six C's’ to make sure we avoided the common pitfalls associated with CX initiatives in a large organisation:

  • Continuity – particularly of senior people who started the project.
  • Clarity and vision – make it easy to understand the common goal.
  • Collaboration – galvanise teams, departments and the markets around the common goal.
  • Consolidation – of what we already know in order to identify gaps and knowledge holders.
  • Communication – regular, centralised, and managed while using existing tools.
  • Commitment – it’s a marathon, not a sprint (so be patient).

I regularly reminded the business that, as outside consultants, we’d leave once the project was finished. This inspired people to take ownership, rather than simply outsource this vital part of their strategy.

Finally, I formed a senior steering group, project sponsor and core project team, with clear roles and responsibilities. This not only gave me confidence in the company’s commitment to the project, but also sent a clear signal about its importance to the rest of the business.

Get support (you’ll need it)

Changing both the way you think and the makeup of the organisation is hard. It might be worth turning to an outside expert for support, particularly if you don't have CX skills in your organisation.

They’ll bring fresh eyes, new ideas and ways of working, which, combined with established organisational change techniques, help ensure the changes you make are the right ones, in the right order.

Tips on changing the makeup of your organisation:

  • Think big – but start small.
  • Engage employees – many people making small changes adds up to big change.
  • Stop dabbling in CX – it's a fundamental part of your business strategy so stop outsourcing it and get organisationally committed.
  • Build multidisciplinary teams – to remove silos with product, commercial, UX, research, data and technology.
  • Create a CX steering group – to send a clear signal to the organisation about the importance of CX.
  • Have a common language – use techniques like a personas and customer journeys to build shared understanding and common language.
  • Get help – if you don’t know where to start, find a CX coach to show you how it’s done.
  • Expect a few speed bumps – change is never easy.
  • Remember, there’s no silver bullet – just ongoing commitment to observation, insight and improvement.

Step 2: Change your approach to research

Next, you need to understand your customers and how they accomplish their goals, and identify anything that’s getting in their way.

To do this, you’ll need to speak to them. If your research currently consists of ad-hoc usability testing, it’s time to change your approach.

Approach to customer research:

  • Periodic, rather than ad-hoc.
  • Iterative and part of your process.
  • Qualitative, not just quantitative.
  • Emotional, not just functional.
  • In-depth – employees should spend two hours every six weeks listening to, observing or speaking with customers.
  • In-house, rather than outsourced.

This may involve commissioning user research through an agency or consultancy. However, you need to ensure that outsourcing customer research does not mean handing over ownership to a third party. Internal ownership ensures the research benefits continue after the third party finishes. Making research part of your process may mean having in-house researchers who can test little and often, the most valuable way of researching.

Your organisation may already do quantitative research, such as customer satisfaction surveys or Net Promoter scores. You may be generating a lot of data, perhaps too much. In cutting through data to find real actionable insight, I suggest carrying out primary research, where you talk directly to customers in their own environment. This is known as ethnographic research.

Golden age of ethnographic research

As a researcher, I’m seeing a golden age of ethnographic research as more companies strive to understand what really matters to customers. Ethnographic research is also the best way to discover unmet customer needs.

This research doesn’t have to cost the earth – recruit the right users and you can research with as little as six people. Typically, I recommend between six and 18 customers, depending on the complexity of the product or service. Your research should focus on understanding user behaviours, needs, and motivations through observation techniques during interviews.

Tips on conducting research:

  1. Have a clear objective.
  2. Recruit only target customers.
  3. Focus on what customers think, feel and do.
  4. Investigate barriers in the way of their goals.
  5. Look at the devices they use, when they use them and where.
  6. Identify where the customer and business communicate - touchpoints.
  7. Understand how they accomplish goals from start to finish - beyond digital.
  8. Listen and observe, because what people say and do can be quite different.
  9. Combine with quantitative data to get the full picture.

During the interview, spend the first 10-15 minutes talking to customers to understand their context and unmet needs. Ask them to recall a previous time they accomplished the goal. Then show them your current or competitors’ sites to understand their behaviours, needs and motivations in using these sites.

By doing this, you’ll gain an empathy for your customers that will help you balance their needs with your business goals.

Personas

Combining your research with previous insight and website analytics means you can create personas.

A persona is a pen portrait of a typical customer. They build empathy by recording customer goals, needs, motivations and behaviours. They also bring data to life and create a shared understanding. Research shows that projects with personas can achieve an ROI almost four times larger than those without.

Anatomy of a persona:

  • A descriptive photo
  • Persona type
  • Persona name
  • Quote
  • Back story
  • Motivations
  • Behaviours
  • Frustrations
  • Must do
  • Must not do

Tips on personas:

  • Base them on research, not myth and hearsay.
  • Aim for no more than three to five.
  • Push them apart and merge similar ones.
  • Make them simple, imaginable, memorable, shareable.
  • Validate them at every opportunity

From research to personas

A good way to step from research to personas is to run an empathy mapping workshop. Empathy mapping is a way to characterise your target users in order to make effective design decisions. Importantly, running an empathy mapping workshop with key stakeholders from across the organisation builds empathy for customers and engages people in the business.

Empathy mapping is an important skill, which your teams can learn with a little coaching. Alternatively, you can hire a UX consultant to run the workshop in conjunction with internal owners.

At the end of the workshop, you should have:

  • Empathy for your customers.
  • Rough personas - between three and five, no more.
  • Personas prioritised into primary, secondary and tertiary customers.
  • A hypothesis to validate through research, like interviews, call centre listening or surveys.

Customer journey comic strips

Stick-figure comics are a simple way to start thinking about the journey your rough personas take. It’s a technique which never fails to build empathy for customers and get people working together.

Simply break your workshop group into teams of two. Give each team a piece the paper filled with six square panels, and ask them to draw a comic that shows a persona coming to a product or service and completing a task. Drawing comics is a fun way to imagine the persona's journey.

These comic strips are great because they make people turn lists of needs and objectives into a story. Layers of abstraction peel away as participants relate detailed accounts of how they envision personas using a site or service. Ultimately, this exercise moves the conversation to how the site or service extends beyond the screen and into people’s lives.

Step 3: Change the type of work you do

In 2014, Econsultancy found that two-thirds of companies said their priority is ‘for all key marketing activities to be integrated across channels’. But only half said they ‘understood the customer journey and adapted the channel mix accordingly’.

Understanding the customer journey isn’t just about your organisation or research. It’s about changing the type of work that you do.

Bridging the digital divide

Leah Buley, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, suggests that 'high-impact' CX organisations are able to cross the 'digital divide'.

Leah found that high-impact and low-impact organisations have different approaches to work. High-impact companies go beyond digital by spending time on non-digital work, such as in-store, physical retail, environment design, service design, customer support and print collateral.

Echoing my experience, Leah found that high-impact companies simply do more of the end-to-end customer experience or journey design. They bridge the digital divide.

Know when digital matters

A growing number of customer interactions take place through digital – 20% more touch points annually, according to McKinsey. It's easy for the work your organisation does to be all about digital, or for digital to become a standalone department.

However, research by IDC indicates that 79% of people want human interactions to form a part of customer service. With a resurgence in vinyl sales and the decline of the Amazon Kindle, there’s evidence that people still crave analogue experiences in addition to digital.

Understanding the end-to-end journey allows you to know where digital and non-digital matter most. With the proliferation of bots and other forms of automation, it’s important to keep human customer service where customers expect. This isn’t possible without first understanding the journey and customer touch points.

What is journey-driven design?

In 2015, the OMD UK’s Future of Britain research project found that ‘people change the device they are using at home 21 times an hour on average’. Customers move across mobile, laptop, TV, or in-store without thinking about it. They start and finish the journey how and where they want to because they can, thanks to technology.

Journey-driven design takes this behaviour into account by taking an end-to-end view from the perspective of your personas. This approach recognises that customers don’t see channels, or the blurring lines between offline and online.

Seamless, low effort, engaging cross-channel journeys are the new minimum expectation for increasingly sophisticated customers, and they need to form part of your business strategy.

Picture someone in a store looking to buy a sofa, whilst doing a price comparison on their phone. Journeys are no longer sequential, but happen simultaneously.

In a recent project for a UK high street furniture retailer, we found that journeys were:

  • Messy and splintered.
  • Varied in the way they start.
  • Riddled with uncertainty.
  • Disloyal to brands.
  • Facilitated by Google throughout.
  • Driven by convenience.
  • Liable to change.
  • Prone to starting again at any point.
  • Mapping the customer journey.

In order to become a journey-driven organisation, you’ll obviously need to understand the customer journey. Customer journey mapping is a great tool that reveals the wider journey from the customers’ perspective. Journey maps inspire organisations into customer centricity, change culture and differentiated customer experiences.

Benefits of customer journey maps:

  • Bring insight to life.
  • Help you understand the customer’s world.
  • Tie together data from multiple channels.
  • Build shared understanding.
  • Galvanise people across the organisation.
  • Reveal unmet customer needs.
  • Shift the organisation’s perspective from inside-out to outside-in.

Journey maps allow us to do cross-channel analysis, planning and optimisation of the customer journey, which will increase loyalty, drive advocacy and boost sales. Your input to the journey map will be customer research, staff knowledge and data to support your personas. From this insight you can identify which touch points customers use, when and why.

Two questions before you begin:

  1. Are you mapping the journey as it is today: a retrospective map?
  2. Or are you envisioning a point in the future: a prospective map?

Both retrospective and prospective maps are valuable, but at different points. If you are mapping for the first time, then you’ll need to retrospectively benchmark the journey. If you’ve already mapped the retrospective journey, then you can envision the future, prospective journey.

Phases of a journey map:

  1. Attract: engaging with prospects.
  2. Convert: first purchase or positive interaction with the organisation.
  3. Nurture: fulfilling an order or on-boarding.
  4. Keep: building an ongoing relationship. 

Common types of journey maps:

  1. Product/service experience: maps experience of interacting with a service. Good for connecting users’ perceptions to service interaction.
  2. Persona’s narrative: a persona’s unique experience. Good for revealing broader opportunities for this persona.
  3. Channels and touchpoints: interactions across a number of customer communication channels. Good for mapping business goals.
  4. Blueprint: interactions across front and back stage. Good for mapping the service delivery process across touch points. 

You should know which type you are mapping before you start, as it will help you run, structure and answer the right questions in the workshop.

The Neilsen Norman Group’s 'deconstructing a journey map' diagram shows some typical zones of a journey map as follows:

Zone A: The lens provides constraints for the map by assigning (1) a persona (“who”) and (2) the scenario to be examined (“what”).

Zone B: The heart of the map is the visualised experience, usually aligned across (3) chunkable phases of the journey. The (4) actions, (5) thoughts, and (6) emotional experience the user has throughout the journey can be supplemented with quotes or videos from research.

Zone C: The output should vary based on the business goal the map supports, but it could describe the insights and pain points discovered and the (7) opportunities to focus on going forward, as well as (8) internal ownership.

Journey maps should capture:

  • What the persona does.
  • How they think and feel.
  • Happy moments / Pain points.
  • Opportunities.

The journey mapping workshop

The objective of the workshop is to enrich understanding of customers, the journeys they take, the challenges they face and unearth opportunities to improve their experience.

A typical journey mapping workshop agenda:

  1. Introduction and objectives.
  2. Why customer journey maps matter.
  3. Research overview, including personas.
  4. Journey mapping exercise: Build initial map; Evaluate and prioritise; Add detail to understanding; Evaluate issues and opportunities; Design new experience; Wrap up.

Tips on running a customer journey workshop:

  • Plan to succeed.
  • Invite a cross-representation of stakeholders.
  • Ensure senior people attend to send a clear message of the importance of the workshop.
  • Give homework by asking attendees to review the personas beforehand and come to the workshop with one CX improvement they’d make.
  • Create a straw man journey to take into the workshop.
  • Pair people up to tackle a phase in the journey each – this saves a lot of time.
  • Have a facilitator and a note-taker to capture the discussion.
  • Give yourself enough time and stick to it – three hours for a retrospective map, five hours for a prospective map.
  • Keep it customer-focused.

Gather your thoughts

After the dust settles from the workshop, you should have a clearer idea and model for the journeys your personas take. You’ll also have a list of pain point and opportunities. Some of these might be no-brainers you can action immediately.

I recommend capturing everything in Excel, as it’s easy to enter and amend.

Bring the journey to life

Finally, journey maps can be low or high fidelity. The fidelity will depend on how confident you are in the map, how much time and budget you have, what design skills you have, and the audience. If your map will be used to persuade others, then visualising a compelling story that creates empathy and understanding is important.

The simplest form of a map is a poster. Like all visual design, it’s important to have a clear hierarchy, standout points, and keep it visual, rather than text heavy.

The key elements of a visual journey map are:

  • Emotional journey: showing how people feel change from positive to negative.
  • Doing: what people are doing over time, including touchpoints.
  • Digital and non-digital.
  • Key insight/opportunities highlighted.

Communicate the map

Your journey map allows you to see the customer journey over time in one place. You can now use it to galvanise people across the business. Start with a single, clear statement or vision, and include critical information only.

You should circulate the map far and wide, supported by personas, and explained using the story. Make it easy to share, print and include relevant research and recommendations. Most importantly, use the map as a tool for understanding the full context of the changes you make to the customer experience.

A customer journey map poster

In a recent project for a UK high street retailer, in analysing the journeys we learned that they’re not a linear series of steps. Instead, we found the path to purchase was more like a target on a board, which the customer circles around, moving in and out repeatedly, before finally hitting the spot and purchasing.

While simple, this insight is built on a deep understanding of how customers behave. It allowed us to visualise the actual journeys customers take, and plan channel activity for the client and the user experiences accordingly.

Tips on journey mapping:

  • Know what type of map you need before you start.
  • Identify where in the customer journey human interactions are most likely to be desired and map those too.
  • Let the journey map dictate the right balance of human and digital service.
  • Share the journey far and wide, but always with its story.
  • Keep the journey map up-to-date as things change.

It’s important to see journey maps as a business tool, not just a design tool. They can be used to map the most complex services, like the UK criminal justice service, for instance. When embraced, journey maps have a unique power to unite and transform a business like no other business tool.

In summary...

Your business has an opportunity to gain lasting competitive advantage from new ways of working, research and the type of work you do. Success will come from taking a holistic view, with a structured approach, and unwavering commitment to the changes required.

Certainty in business is seductive. It’s been the dominant business narrative, but no longer stands. Transformation is upon us. Luckily, there are established techniques, case studies and experienced professionals who can help you manage the intrinsic uncertainty of transformation.

Your CX approach needs to be to think big, while starting small and optimising what works. You’ll need to stop dabbling in CX and get organisationally committed by connecting CX to business strategy in support of your brand promise.

The Elements of Customer Experience framework is a simple structure to help understand how it all fits together.

Digital players continue to demonstrate that if you:

  • Take ownership of CX,
  • empower your people,
  • become customer-centric, and,
  • embrace new ways of working that are flexible, adaptable and easy to steer in a new direction...

...then you’ll improve speed to market, boost employee engagement, increase productivity and enhance the customer experience. Remember, there’s no silver bullet, just an ongoing commitment to observation, insight and improvement.

Enjoy the journey!

To learn more on this topic, see:

Alan Colville

Published 21 March, 2017 by Alan Colville

Alan is a customer experience consultant and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (3)

john kennedy

john kennedy, partner at Kennedy Andersson

Great article Alan, feels a robust approach to addressing CX. How do you suggest to keep this body of work alive at a company once you have left - apart from posters what can keep it "front of mind". And how much effort do you put into data validation - to either support your findings or back them up once the CX changes have been made? And personally this type of approach should be applied beyond millennials - pretty much all buyer behaviour has shifted B2C and B2B so I think is has wider applications.

over 1 year ago

Alan Colville

Alan Colville, Customer experience consultant - research, strategy, design and digital transformation at Colville

Thank you John! Let me try answer your questions in turn:

1. Finding CX champions within the business ensures the momentum continues. I also recommend setting up a CX steering group, if such a group doesn't exist. Ideally, I encourage businesses to set up UX / CX teams to bring lasting customer centricity. It's my experience that businesses who have a central CX team to monitor and delegate do better than those who don't have any CX or who outsource.

2. The effort in data visualisation I think depends on the quality of the data, time and budget, access to design skills and the audience for the data. If the data will be used to persuade others - like senior management, then visualising patterns that build a compelling story is vital. In this case you might consider video or animation to bring the data to life, for instance. But I'd concentrate on the story, rather than the format.

3. I totally agree, this approach can be applied beyond millennials. It can also be easier with older groups who's behaviours are well researched and documented already, and are slower to change.

I hope this helps.

over 1 year ago

john kennedy

john kennedy, partner at Kennedy Andersson

Thanks Alan - I appreciate your feedback.

over 1 year ago

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