Even though customer experience (CX) leaders are becoming increasingly focused on optimizing their firms’ customer journeys, they face a clear challenge: Which touchpoints along the journey should they invest in? That is, which moments when the customer interacts with their brand are most impactful to the customer’s overall experience? One way to think of customer journeys is as continuous patterns of mental experiences traced over time. Thinking of customer journeys as patterns raises a new set of productive questions, such as: Which patterns are most successful? And what features of those patterns lead to success? Some have argued that the best patterns are smooth and frictionless, while others have made the case for patterns that fluctuate, given that they are likely to be more eventful and stimulating. This article covers research and data on which patterns are most effective, and where CX managers should be investing their limited resources for the best possible customer experience outcomes.
Most managers now understand that they must deliver value not just through their offerings, but also from the entire customer journey. Doing so improves customer satisfaction, bolsters sales, and grows customer lifetime value.
Yet even though customer experience (CX) leaders are becoming increasingly focused on optimizing their firms’ customer journeys, they face a clear challenge: Which touchpoints along the journey should they invest in? That is, which moments when the customer interacts with their brand are most impactful to their overall experience?
A classic way of approaching this problem is to first slice up the customer journey into a sequence of discrete, serial stages (collections of touchpoints that serve the same higher function). The stages can be either relatively broad (e.g., “pre-purchase,” “purchase,” “post-purchase”), or fine-grained (e.g., from “motivation” to “information search” to “evaluation” to “decision” to “satisfaction” to “sharing”). These stages then guide decisions like where to devote resources, and where to collect the kind of data that provides more visibility into that stage of the journey.
However, another way to think of customer journeys is as continuous patterns of mental experiences traced over time. For instance, consider four ways an experience with a home-delivery furniture company might turn out (Figure 1): 1) The furniture could have been immediately delivered in perfect shape, 2) immediately delivered but damaged, 3) delayed but undamaged, or 4) delayed and damaged.
Clearly, some of these patterns are more satisfying and desirable than others. More broadly, thinking of customer journeys as patterns raises a new set of productive questions, such as: Which patterns are most successful? And what features of those patterns lead to success? Some have argued that the best patterns are smooth and frictionless, while others have made the case for patterns that fluctuate, given that they are likely to be more eventful and stimulating.
Yet these debates have been mostly theoretical so far. To help shed empirical light on these questions, my coauthors and I explored what kinds of patterns lead to successful outcomes — both when consumers have experiences themselves, and when they hear about the customer experiences of others.
Uncovering Mental Patterns of Experience
In one of our studies, hundreds of online participants were asked to watch eight trailers for unreleased movies sampled from different genres, like horror and fantasy. As they watched the trailers, they were asked to continuously indicate, via a slider scale shown beneath the trailer, how much they were enjoying the trailer from moment to moment. After watching each trailer, they indicated how much they were willing to pay to watch the full movie that the trailer advertised. Finally, after watching all eight trailers, they entered themselves into a raffle to win one of the eight movies of their choosing.
Although participants generated many different patterns of experience, we found that the experiences clustered into 27 common patterns. When we arranged these clusters from least to most successful, we found that participants were least willing to pay for movies in which their experiences were consistently negative or deteriorated over time, followed by experiences that fluctuated a lot (this might seem obvious, but it was possible that audiences might enjoy high peaks more when contrasted with boring moments). Participants were most likely to be willing to pay for movies in which their experiences were consistently positive or improved over time. This ordering also predicted which movies were chosen for the raffle draw.
So, when it comes to consumers’ mental experiences, not all fluctuations are created equal: Experiences that improve over time are more successful than ones that yo-yo. Furthermore, experiences that do not fluctuate but remain consistently positive are also among the most successful.
In a separate study, we found that when study participants learned about other people’s customer journeys, they had the same reaction as we found in the movie study: They reported that they would be least willing to seek out a journey that was consistently negative, followed by a varied customer journey, then by experiences that were consistently positive or improved over time (Figure 2).
How Should Managers Invest Resources?
These findings may seem intuitive, but they have far-reaching consequences for CX managers. They help answer an important question: Should managers throw money at the whole customer journey, or invest in some points more than others? To help refine the answer to this question, we quantified several features of the patterns and the language that consumers used to describe the experiences when they were prompted to do so (Figure 3).
We found that several of the features shown in Figure 3 (number of peaks, the start value, etc.) did a decent job at predicting outcomes like satisfaction and willingness to pay. The best-performing features across studies were the end value, slope, area under the curve, peak, and a sentiment score of the words that participants used to describe the patterns (i.e., whether the words were positively or negatively valenced). In other words, although consumers were influenced by whether the experience was overall positive (the area under the curve), they also cared about whether the experience ended on a high note, improved over time, and had a clear peak.
Creating the Optimal Pattern
Our results suggest some action points for CX managers deciding how to allocate their limited resources toward improving customer journeys. Many of these may already be best practice in your organization, but you may be missing at least one of them:
- Think beyond just stage models. While stage models (which focus on the pre-purchase stage, the purchase stage, and so on) are still handy, our findings suggest that companies should collect higher-resolution data that unveils the underlying pattern of their customer journeys, such as by tracking the emotional content of how customers mention their brands on social media, or by enabling consumers to continuously upvote or downvote a branded chatbot’s responses.
- Avoid yo-yos. There is nothing wrong with adding variety and eventfulness to your customer experiences, but make sure it is the content that is fluctuating and not the mental experience of the customer. Although this is easier said than done, the mental customer journey should be as smooth and positive as possible, end-to-end.
- Leverage language. Some ways of gaining visibility into the customer journey — such as measuring search results, connections on social media, or geographic coordinates — may be costly or viewed as invasive by customers, triggering backlash. An alternative approach is to leverage the sentiment of the language that customers use to summarize their experiences. Try to proactively collect such data as a window into the mental customer journey, via quick one-word summary prompts, or more standard approaches like customer feedback surveys and reviews. Leverage language itself, not just 1-to-5-star ratings.
- End with a bang. Invest in later touchpoints along the journey, as when Disney World offers fireworks at the end of each day, or when furniture and retail firm Crate & Barrel conveniently brings all packages to your car. It is easy to think that once you have the customer’s money, your work is done. But, as we saw, later events can still influence your long-term bottom line. For instance, a home-delivery furniture company can invest in predictive algorithms that allow it to start shipping inventory just in time for a given order. It could have checks and balances to prevent damaged inventory from ever being shipped.
- Ramp things up. If you have a set of stronger and weaker offerings, consider arranging these along the journey so that they ramp up from least to most impressive. Examples include increasingly entertaining events on a cruise, increasingly more special meals in a multi-course menu experience, or increasingly high-stakes matches in the FIFA World Cup (e.g., quarter, semi, and final). Notice how this option does not even involve adding more money at each point, but just smartly arranging the points to greater effect.
- Add a climax. Make one touchpoint particularly impressive, so that it becomes a memorable peak, as when patrons of Santouka Ramen are greeted by a chorus of servers, or when a chef visits their restaurant patrons, or when yoga studios offer “hands on” therapy midway through a session.
In short, all managers should invest in customer journeys, yet how they think about the journey influences how they invest in it. Consider shifting from a stage-wise conceptualization to unveiling the underlying patterns of your customers’ journeys, and invest in their peaks, area under the curve, slopes, and endings. If you create the right patterns of experience in customers’ minds, they will summarize their experiences positively.