customer journeys in on-again off-againThe customer journey is never as neat as we'd like it to be.

By now we have all heard the customer journey story, typically presented as some variation of “Discover, Learn, Evaluate, Decide, Buy, Repeat” (hopefully). Or if you are in the hospitality business: “Find, Choose, Book, Arrive, Enjoy, Leave, Book Again.”

The problem is that the digital version of the customer journey is no longer linear, consistent or controllable, nor are your customers finding you at the exact point of purchase or even evaluation. Your customers learn about you at all stages of the journey through social channels, they visit your organization online when they want some information and they buy when they are ready. They’re not waiting for you.

The Web as Downtown

It’s interesting to think about the web as a bustling and thriving downtown. You have your social networks in the coffee shops, pubs and through street interactions where you learn which vendors are of value and where to find the things you want. You have your SEO and PPC in the location, signage and name recognition of the shops. E-commerce sites are the stores, restaurants and banks.

If you observe all of the interactions around purchasing, you see some interesting trends develop -- customers do very similar things on the web as they do in the real world. In fact, I remember in my early days at Intel back in the 00’s talking about these new social networks. I was told, “You’ve never seen anything like this.” But in many ways Flickr = boring slideshows of Uncle Fred’s vacation; Twitter = passing notes around the room in class and Facebook is just a variation of dorm room door whiteboards. What makes the social networks immensely powerful is the scale, reach and ubiquity the web provides.

For important purchases, people comparison shop. They ask their friends if this is something they own or know about (they sometimes ask total strangers). Shoppers go to the brick-and-mortar store, talk with the owner, leave, think about it, ask their friends and then buy.

The customer journey has never been a nice, neat linear journey dictated by the seller in either the physical or virtual worlds. But again, the difference in the digital world is its huge scale and this is great news for the buyer and smart sellers!

Just as the successful third generation family shop owner knows how to ask questions and provide information to move you toward the purchase you know you want to make, your website also needs to bring your visitors along a multi-device, sometimes disjointed, interrupted and highly distracted digital journey. Think “Future Shock” by Douglas Rushkoff -- not only is the access to information scaled way up, but the distractions and distractibility have been multiplied many times.

Sequential Behavioral Analysis

Just as our physical characteristics, behaviors and return visits give a shopkeeper an indication of our ability to and willingness to buy, our digital and digitally captured (in systems such as CRM, call center, ERP) characteristics and behaviors give scalable digital systems -- such as Web CMSs and Marketing Automation Systems -- the information they need to successfully scale the value of our interactions.

By using these systems and the knowledge they generate, you can continue the conversation from one visit to the next, even if you don’t have a specific way to identify the visitor. When I build out a customer journey I create shopper personas and I suggest you do the same for each customer segment you can identify. This information helps you determine intent and bucket your visitor into the correct stage of the journey. With persona and intent you can iterate as you interact and the customer gives you more information.

If you sell enterprise software your personas would include CIO (or IT leadership), Developer and Business User. For consumer products it may be “Father of 2, 25-35” or “Single Female US$ 100,000+ income.”

You then group the types of interactions and content into the stages of your customers’ journey. For example, a blog about industry trends or an infographic would fall into the early stages of the journey. Content items about how to use products like yours to solve problems fall into middle stages and search terms that include review or pricing are in the late stages of the customer’s journey.

This can be automated to have a 360 degree view of your customers over digital channels as you refine the relationship between content, or what you offer website visitors based on their persona, or their intent based on behavioral attributes.

The result is providing the best experience at whatever stage of the customer journey the visitor is in, even if they are moving from browser to “I’m interested,” to buyer and back again or altogether skipping stages. In the on-again/off-again world of the customer journey, the smart seller will provide relevant content for every step the customer takes.

Title image courtesy of samarttiw (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on customer journeys here.