train tracks criss crossing
Customer journey mapping has its place, but shouldn't be the sole tool you use to understand your customer's path PHOTO: Natalia Y

Digital transformation is quickly becoming the “Band-Aid” of modern times: It's a term so overused that its meaning is no longer clear. Worse, countless service providers unskilled in its nuance have co-opted the phrase “customer journey mapping,” further compounding the problem.

But even under the guidance of experienced teams, a customer journey map has limitations. The three primary limitations of customer journey mapping fall into two main categories: focusing on, and over-reliance in, the wrong things.

Starting From the Wrong End

When was the last time you walked into a video store? In 2007, Blockbuster appointed the then CEO of 7-Eleven, James W. Keyes, to lead its turnaround bid in the face of the growing consumer preference for streaming content. It was believed that, thanks to his understanding of consumer behavior and location-based selling, Keyes would provide Blockbuster with badly needed domain expertise to right the ship. 

That decision turned out to be Blockbuster’s undoing. Rather than divesting aggressively from real estate and refocusing on online sales and new content creation, Keyes pumped millions into refurbishing aging stores, adjusted existing policies (such as late fees) and launched campaigns aimed at drawing people to Blockbuster locations.

Whether out of concern for self preservation or faith in the sunk-cost fallacy, business people embarking on customer journey mapping sessions are inherently prone to protect the people, processes and technology they have already paid for. If their organization has recently made investments in technology, traditional customer journey mapping sessions become an exercise in justifying their continued involvement rather than viewing each dispassionately in the context of the business.

To a Hammer, Every Problem Is a Nail

In a recent Liferay survey of 240 enterprise customers conducted over 26 months, more than half of the respondents indicated they had undergone a customer journey workshop. Most partnered with an outside service provider to drive that effort. Unsurprisingly, all but 14 (less than 6 percent) of those vendors proposed solutions that put their products or services at the heart of the customer’s digital transformation initiative.

How is it that nearly all of those vendors were so fortuitous to have stumbled into an opportunity with just the right solution to meet the needs of their prospective customers? While it’s true there are externalities contributing to this result — such as a pre-existing awareness of a vendor's offering and how it aligned with their needs — in many cases, the vendors simply found ways to make their offerings part of the solution. As the expression goes, to a hammer, every problem is a nail.

Oversimplification Never Helped Anyone: Just Ask Howard Moskowitz 

If you have ever eaten chunky salsa, you have Howard Moskowitz to thank. A Harvard-educated market researcher, Moskowitz was tasked with helping Prego find the “perfect salsa” at the height of the spaghetti sauce wars of the 1980s. Moskowitz, however, boldly suggested that there was no such thing as the perfect salsa. Instead, he proposed there were perfect salsas — plural. That is, singularity doesn’t exist in consumer preferences. People’s wants tend to cluster into smaller nonlinear groups across the entire spectrum of options. Today we enjoy a variety of salsa choices, such as tangy, chunky, spicy and more than 25 others. But before Moskowitz did his research, you had one option: salsa.

Similarly, customer journey mapping is a rudimentary tool that often oversimplifies the buying experience, grouping customers into imperfect and inevitably overlapping clusters that poorly represent reality. Each customer's buying experience takes a highly diffuse and nuanced path. It’s almost impossible to diagram.

3 Ways to Mitigate Common Pitfalls

While customer journey mapping can move you closer to your ultimate panacea — a joyous and immensely connected consumer experience — it should serve as only one of several tools you adopt to craft your customer experience story. Business and project owners would be wise to employ three strategies for mitigating the most common pitfalls of customer journey mapping.

First, begin with “blue ocean thinking.” Imagine your customer's journey in a vacuum of the investments your organization has already committed to. While it’s inevitable many of those assets will make their way back into the final draft, this exercise offers you and your team a new perspective for what could be possible.

Second, never run a customer journey mapping session with a vendor of a product that is likely to find its way into your end solution. Instead, seek the expertise of outside consulting firms such as McKinsey or Bain Digital, whose vested interest stops short of selling you their own snake oil for ailments they diagnose.

Finally, no single picture could ever adequately explain your customers and what they experience interacting with your company and services. You should run a mapping session multiple times based on a nearly countless set of extrinsic factors to generate a realistic reflection of your customers.