Customer journey: what it is and how to map it to improve customer relationships and increase sales

Customer journey: what it is and how to map it to improve customer relationships and increase sales

Sarah Cantavalle Published on 11/7/2022

Customer journey: what it is and how to map it to improve customer relationships and increase sales

In this article, we’re going to give you an overview of the customer journey: we’ll start by trying to understand what this model is and how it helps businesses to achieve their objectives. We’ll then see how to build a customer journey map to improve communication with customers and grow your business.

What is the customer journey?

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes: that’s the mantra of sales and marketing professionals. Understanding what lies beneath the relationship between a business and its customers is not an easy task. The customer journey is a tool designed to track the key steps in this relationship and identify the needs, desires and emotions of customers before, during and after a purchase.

The relationship between a brand and its customers is a journey consisting of series of steps at which customers, driven by a need, interact with a company and learn more about its products and services until the point of purchase. A detailed analysis of the different touchpoints through which this interaction takes place enables businesses to improve the customer experience throughout this journey.

Why is it useful?

Mapping the journey that leads to a purchase enables brands to better know their typical customer (buyer persona) and to achieve three main objectives:

  1. By facilitating the decision-making process and eliminating any friction points, it’s possible to increase the conversion rate, without pushing up the cost per acquisition.
  2. By analysing the needs and challenges of buyer personas, you can identify the strengths and weaknesses of your products and services.
  3. By improving relationships with existing customers, it’s possible to boost the retention rate and gain new brand advocates. These are people who unprompted (and for free) recommend a brand’s products and services to their network of friends, family and acquaintances through word of mouth, reviews or online posts.

Now that we know what customer journey means, let’s see how this model has changed over the years.

From the purchase funnel to the customer decision journey

The traditional framework for the customer journey is based on the AIDA theoretical model, which was used for the first time in 1898 by the scholar Elias Lewis to explain how advertising works. According to this approach, there are four cognitive stages that take people from awareness of a brand to the purchase of a product:

  1. Awareness: The purpose of advertising is first and foremost to capture consumers’ attention and make them aware of a given brand.
  2. Interest: To be effective, a marketing campaign must arouse active interest in the audience. This manifests itself principally in the search for information on the product or service in question.
  3. Desire: In this phase, an advertising message must induce the prospect to consider choosing the product advertised, weighing up its benefits versus the competition.
  4. Action: In this last step, the individual takes the action promoted by the campaign. For example, making a purchase or asking for more information.
The AIDA model
The AIDA model used to explain how advertising works. Copyright:

Derived from this framework are various funnel models (the purchase funnel and marketing funnel) that describe the customer journey as a linear, one-direction pathway  along which a person, due to the effect of advertising, gradually narrows down the shortlist of products under consideration until choosing one. Unlike the AIDA model, however, the marketing funnel also takes into account the phase after the purchase when the customer decides, based on their experience, whether or not to shop with the same brand again (loyalty) and whether to become a brand advocate (advocacy).

Marketing funnel example
An example of the  marketing funnel. Copyright:

The proliferation of new channels and digital content over the past 20 years has massively increased interactions between the public and companies, profoundly changing the way that people take decisions and buy products and services. On the one hand, we are no longer passive targets to “hit” with advertising messages, but active and discerning consumers who independently search for information and opinions on brands and products. On the other, the coexistence of digital and physical channels has made hybrid purchase methods possible:

  • Research online, purchase offline: after looking for information online, customers make their purchase in a bricks-and-mortar shop.
  • Click & collect: the search for information and the purchase take place online, but the product is collected from a point of sale.
  • Try & buy: the person tries the product in a shop and then orders it online.

What’s more, thanks to the ever more pervasive presence of smartphones, users tend to interact in a faster and more fragmented way with brands, and through different daily sessions that are short in duration. According to Google, at such times people generally carry out routine actions (like responding to messages or checking social media) or seek to satisfy a specific interest, such as finding out more about a topic, carrying out a specific task or making a purchase. It’s therefore crucial that brands are present at times when consumers are likely to make significant decisions – known as micro-moments – and offer exactly the content they’re looking for.

Micro-moments are touchpoints on the customer journey. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.

The traditional funnel model is therefore no longer able to capture all of the complexity of today’s customer journey, with its multichannel nature and the central role of consumers. In fact, not only are the latter now less influenceable by marketing content, they are also able to shape the decisions of others by posting suggestions and opinions on online platforms (blogs, social media, forums etc.).

Various analysts have proposed a circular customer journey model in which all phases of the decision-making process (including post-sales) influence each other and contribute to a brand’s success. One such example is the framework presented by researchers from McKinsey after studying the purchase decisions of some 20,000 consumers on three different continents.

According to the authors, the opinions expressed online by customers after having tried a product or service often play a key role in the choices of other people and should become an integral part of marketing strategies.

Customer Decision Journey
The customer journey model proposed by McKinsey. Fonte:

How to create a customer journey map

Now it’s time to apply this model practically by creating a customer journey map: a graphical representation of all a customer’s interactions from first contact with a business right through to the purchase and after-sales phases.

Before starting, you need to make sure that you have enough data on the firm’s prospects and customers. There are various digital platforms out there for collecting, integrating and interpreting data from different sources in order to improve the customer experience based on evidence and customer needs. It’s also worth conducting customer surveys as well as analysing customer care and sales reports to get a fuller picture of brand-customer interactions.

  1. Set your objectives

Choose which product or service you want to analyse, and the specific business objectives you want to achieve (increase online transactions, brand awareness etc.).

  1. Identify the typical customer

Identify how many types of customer (buyer personas) purchase the product/service in question and draw up a profile for each that includes the following information: socio-demographic information, online search habits, buying behaviour, and needs and problems related to your products and services. A map should be sketched out for each buyer persona.

Defining the buyer persona
Defining the buyer persona
  1. Make a list of touchpoints

For every step along the customer journey, identify all the touchpoints used by the buyer persona. These can be direct, i.e. those controlled directly by your brand (such as websites and social media channels) or indirect, like word of mouth or reviews by other users. Include both physical touchpoints (shops, events and trade shows) and digital ones (emails, websites, social media, SEO and mobile apps).

For each of these, try to identify which actions the consumer takes, which problems they want to resolve and the emotions that they feel (uncertainty, frustration, satisfaction etc.). Ask yourself whether the services offered by your company meet customers’ expectations and whether there are any friction points that might slow their journey towards a purchase. You can then give each step along the journey a score or a rating that reflects the presumed level of customer satisfaction.

  1. Improve the customer journey

Once you’ve defined the buyer persona’s rational and emotional needs, as well as any problems encountered along their journey, outline the actions needed to resolve issues and improve their experience.

  1. Draw the map

There are various online tools available for mapping the customer journey: Miro, Mural and Smaply are just a few examples.

Spotify customer journey map
The Spotify customer journey map recreates the user experience on the music streaming platform. Copyright:
  1. Share the results

Hold an internal meeting to share the customer journey map and ensure that every department involved (sales, marketing, customer service etc.) implements the changes needed, adjusting their strategies and ways of working, and updating existing communications content.

  1. Keep the map up to date

Maps should be updated periodically based on changes to the firm’s products and services.

When used properly, the customer journey is an invaluable tool for improving customer relationships, optimising sales and marketing strategies and strengthening your business.