Customers. Complex bunch.
They pull out their wallets and purses to trade hard-earned dollars for stuff. Stuff we design, organize, grow, program, or manufacture.
Stuff like curved TVs. Endurance events. Spicy vodka. Graphic design textbooks. Massive multiplayer online games. Lilac bulbs. Tax preparation software. Workout regimens.
If customers buy the stuff you make, then you got two things right:
- You built a healthy audience.
- You built products they love, which, of course, explains their buying behavior — if they have the money and they want it, they’ll buy it.
It’s not magic. There’s a blueprint. A faithful roadmap.
But that’s not all of it.
Between those two poles (building the audience and building the product), there is an element we can’t ignore: the customer experience. Which, no matter how hard you argue to the contrary, is probably terrible.
Don’t kid yourself. Even if it is good, it can be better. And when the customer experience is better, your customers are happier. And when customers are happier, you make more money.
Which is exactly what a Bain & Company study reported.
Why the customer experience usually stinks
See, the story businesses tell themselves — a whopping 80 percent, in fact — is that they deliver a “superior experience.” Not just a good experience. But a superior one.
This story is fiction, however. Because when asked, only eight percent of customers believe these companies were actually delivering.
That’s a huge discrepancy. So, why this customer experience gap?
- Growth initiatives damage your loyal customer base. Initiatives like fee increases, feature changes, and license limitations. These changes piss off your best people.
- Good relationships are hard to build. Need I say more?
As the authors of the Bain & Company report wrote:
It’s extremely difficult to understand what customers really want, keep the promises you make to them, and maintain the right dialogue to ensure that you adjust your propositions according to customers’ changing or increasing needs.
As the authors go on to write, even efforts to understand customers can backfire.
We pillage the data in our web analytics, harvest the results from surveys, and identify patterns in purchasing behaviors.
Good things to know, but ultimately “buyers become numbers rather than people, segments rather than individuals. Companies become deaf to the real voices of real customers.”
Thus, the quality of customer experience declines, which doesn’t surprise Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg.
How big data misleads marketers and execs
In their book Buyer Legends, the authors write, “This is the problem with all context-poor communication.” Without context, “statistics, test results, and best practices can often, and often have, misled many a marketer and executive.”
To successfully read data, the authors explain, you need to understand the physical, emotional, and psychological environments where that data is mined.
It’s a little bit like being an archaeologist, except your specimens are alive, not a scattered collection of ancient bones.
However, Avinash Kaushik points out what typically happens: “The thankless job of web reporting is to punt the part of interpreting the data, understanding the context, and identifying actions to the recipient of the data puke.”
Question is: Does that recipient understand the context? Probably not.
Furthermore, analysts think the consumer of the future is likely to resist “tidy consumer segments” — a cardinal marketing concept.
These analysts point to research that demonstrates low-income buyers reach for luxury items while high-end customers seek cheap items to satisfy basic needs.
This creates a “consumer in the middle.”
In their Global Agenda article “The Consumer of 2020,” market analysts James Allen and Darrell Rigby write, “understanding customers in the middle — and how they make purchasing decisions, depending on category, time of day, and even mood — will continue to be key to developing products and services.”
Pay attention to that line between the em dashes: “and how they make purchasing decisions, depending on category, time of day, and even mood.” They are talking about the customer experience.
So it’s not just about having the data, since Big Data is only half the equation …
The other half is Big Story.
How to make Big Data play nice with Big Story
“The ultimate challenge for data scientists,” says Laura Patterson in her article Why Your Data Scientists Need to Be Better Storytellers, “is to use the data to create stories. Data scientists worth their salt can use spreadsheets and visualization tools to support analysis.”
Their real value lies in their ability to transform the data into a narrative experience for both internal and external communication.
Tough sledding, unless you have the right tools.
But even with these tools, the insights can lead to fragmented, isolated stories. Your message, forgive the pun, is all over the map.
What you need is a way to merge all this data and these stories into one Big Story. But before we get into that, what exactly do I mean by Big Story?
Well, at this point, all I mean is the complete story of the customer journey with your product or service. From start to finish. It’s how a customer finds, interacts, and ends the relationship with you and your product.
That’s the Big Story. The only story, really, that matters. And it involves everyone in your company. Not just the developers, analysts, and marketers.
And to date, the best way to understand this journey is through the experience map.
The benefits of an experience map
“[The experience map] is the sum-totality of how customers engage with your company and brand,” says Adam Richardson, “not just in a snapshot in time, but throughout the entire arc of being a customer.”
And according to UX designer, Luke Chambers, it’s an idea that was borne out of the user experience. He unpacks some key benefits of the experience map:
- Create consistency in your messages
- Discover and capitalize on critical “moments of truth” for the user
- Unite isolated departments across your company
- Ignite a corporate focus on the customer
As the folks over at Adaptive Path point out in their helpful Guide to Experience Mapping:
When done well, an experience map illuminates the holistic customer experience, demonstrating the highs and lows people feel while interacting with your product or service. The process of mapping uncovers the key customer moments that, once improved, will unlock a more compelling and more valuable overall experience.
What does an experience map look like?
An experience map is a large visual of the path a consumer takes — from beginning to end — with your product.
The goal of this map is to get everyone on your team on the same page about the customer journey — so it is to be shared. In addition, the map must be an easy-to-understand, self-contained unit.
Here’s an example from Adaptive Path for Rail Europe:
This map demonstrates the journey a consumer would take while riding the trains in Europe. It follows her from the early stages of research and planning to the end of her trip.
You see what she is doing (searching Google, looking up timetables), what she is thinking during each action (Do I have everything I need? Am I on the right train?), and what she is feeling (Stressed: I’m about to leave the country and Rail Europe won’t answer the phone).
It’s framed in guiding principles (the red band at the top) and terminates with opportunities for Rail Europe (engage people on social media, improve the paper ticket experience).
In a piece on the Anatomy of an Experience Map, Chris Risdon at Adaptive Path suggests your experience map should have these five components:
- The lens: This is how a particular person (a persona) views the journey. Keep in mind, this journey will not be the same for everyone. You will more than likely have more than one experience map.
- The journey model: This is the actual design of the map. If all goes well, it should render insight to answer questions like “What happens here? What’s important about this transition?”
- Qualitative insight: This is where the Doing-Thinking-Feeling of an empathy map comes in handy.
- Quantitative information: This is data that brings attention to certain aspects of your map. It reveals information like “80 percent of people abandon the process at this touchpoint.”
- Takeaways: This is where the map earns its money. What are the conclusions? Opportunities? Threats to the system? Does it identify your strengths? Highlight your weaknesses?
And now that we have a handle on this artifact, let’s see it in action.
How to create an experience map
For starters, get the right people in the room.
Invite a representative from every department in your company. If they touch the customer — in any way — invite them.
At a minimum, invite a person from sales, marketing, customer support, legal, human resources, finance, IT, research and development, production, fulfillment, and any stakeholder.
The Meeting Coordinator (MC) should send an invite for the meeting and explain that each person should come armed with a customer dossier. The MC can encourage the invitees to find this data in sources such as:
- Call center logs
- Web analytics reports
- File logs
- Customer satisfaction surveys
- One-on-one interviews
- Comments on your blog
- Amazon reviews
- Real-life conversations
- Support emails
- The social web
- Customer conversations
At the start of the meeting, the MC should make sure the meeting has these essentials:
- Large whiteboard or chalkboard
- Hundreds of Post-it notes
- Enough markers for everyone (a mix of color works nicely)
- A room large enough to fit everyone comfortably
- Snacks and drinks (especially caffeinated liquids)
The MC should also lay some ground rules:
- All suggestions are welcome — even if these are gut intuitions and not necessarily backed by documented facts.
- All participants should feel free to approach the board to place Post-it notes, write, and draw to add to the map.
- Don’t be afraid to use words to explain — a lot of words (I’ll explain below).
Risdon’s group at Adaptive Path suggests breaking up the map in a framework of what the customer is Doing, Thinking, and Feeling throughout the journey (see the Rail Europe map above for an example).
Other categories you may want to consider are Place, Time, Devices, Channels, Touchpoints, and Relationships.
This meeting should be a four-to-eight-hour affair. You want to work in one long stretch — of course with plenty of breaks, snacks, and a good lunch — until you’ve exhausted all avenues.
The whiteboard may look like a big mess. That is okay.
Designing your experience map
If all went well during the meeting, the whiteboard should be a hot mess. But the MC, a designer, and a marketer (with writing chops) should sort through the mess and bring it to resemble something like this:
You can find that map and other examples here.
When you sit down to sort through the mess, keep in mind you don’t have to add all touchpoints that are mentioned. Select only the most important. The pivotal moments.
What you are after is a comprehensive and meaningful picture of the customer experience with your product — so only include meaningful touchpoints.
Once the MC, designer, and marketer have created a meaningful timeline, it’s time to design. And the principles of good design for experience maps include these:
- Keep it simple: any viewer should be able to make sense out of the map at one glance. Don’t be afraid to include description boxes.
- Keep it self-contained: The experience map should stand on its own. Everything needed to understand the map should be included.
- Keep it sharable: Create a three-foot by six-foot poster to hang on the wall, but also create an 11-inch by 14-inch laminated version you can pass around.
To quote Adaptive Path, “To tell a great story, you’ll need to focus, communicate hierarchy, sketch fearlessly, and try to keep it simple. When it all comes together, it’s time for the final payoff: using your experience map.”
Once the map has been shared, your next step is to analyze the map. Here are two tools to help you do just that.
Creating the “prescriptive experience map”
The first tool is called the SWOT matrix.
While a Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat matrix is normally used to evaluate the future of a project or business, I’ve found the matrix useful in asking the right questions when evaluating customer interactions:
- How do you know there is a problem? Is this a minor or major threat? How will it impact the company?
- How do you know this is an opportunity?
- Is this a strength? Is there a way to amplify this strength?
- Is this a weakness? Will it be meaningful and profitable if we improve it? This is where the SWOT comes in.
The goal of this exercise is to help you find the actions, insights, and impact on the company that will lead to a prescriptive map.
It’s always healthy, however, to prioritize the actions, insights, and impact on the company (not all of your discoveries will be meaningful or profitable).
My favorite framework for determining priorities is the four-quadrant matrix:
- Important and urgent
- Important, but not urgent
- Urgent, but not important
- Neither important nor urgent
Once you’ve got your actions, insights, and impact on the company filtered through that framework — and the urgent and important aspects are taken care of — next you need to sit down and create the prescriptive experience map.
This is the place of sublime customer experience. This is future-looking.
To get there, Adam Richardson says, “Almost every conceivable customer question, problem, and need has been anticipated and addressed, creating a seamless experience that appears — to the customer — effortless.”
The prescriptive map is your ultimate goal. It’s a new map designed to guide your company in creating that customer experience that will make your mediocre experience a superior one — an experience customers will love. And you can test whether or not you reach that pinnacle of experiences through after-purchase surveys.
Richardson points out:
This doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by design. As is often the case in life, making something look easy is very difficult.
A quick and dirty experience map in action
Let me close with a personal example.
Take The Lede, one of Copyblogger Media’s podcasts. What would an experience map look like for it?
Well, as I mentioned above, there’s not one journey to rule them all, so in this case we’ll create an experience out of one of our personas (which is our lens).
It will be our “marketing professional at an agency” persona. One journey might look like this:
Imagine his boss emails him a link to follow Copyblogger on Twitter. “Treat their stream as a resource,” she says.
He visits their website, searches their blog, and then creates a column in TweetDeck for all of his favorite Copyblogger writers.
One of those writers shares a link to a podcast called The Lede. He clicks the link and listens to the episode online. He’s impressed, wants to listen to more, and decides to subscribe to the podcast.
However, he can’t. He has an Android, and The Lede is not on Stitcher.
The user has to listen to the podcast on the page. Not his ideal experience.
He then leaves a comment on Copyblogger’s Google+ page stating he wishes The Lede was on Stitcher.
This map then becomes a tool we analyze for underserved opportunities.
Through a real, live experience, we discovered that we have an audience that wants the podcast to be available on Stitcher.
So, it makes sense to put The Lede on it.
Adapting content for each customer …
No doubt creating an experience map is a huge undertaking. It involves time and resources. And you want a healthy return for that investment.
That’s why the map itself is not as important as what you get out of the map. The analysis is what counts — getting to the prescriptive map.
Because the prescriptive map will help you create and adapt content and products to fit your customers’ desires and tastes. Which will make them really happy.
In other words, delivering content and products at the right time, on the right device, to the right person.
That’s exactly what we’ll be focusing on in 2015. Something called adaptive content.
And join us over on LinkedIn to discuss how you evaluate your customers’ experiences and how those experiences influence your content strategy.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Alexander Rentsch.