Simon Wood

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m getting old. This may have already been obvious had I bothered to keep track of things like the number of grey hairs I have, but it became alarmingly evident recently when I noticed myself discussing the ‘youth of today’. Now, discussing young people doesn’t necessarily make you old, unless you find yourself talking about them as if they are a different breed to you – but this is exactly what I found myself doing the other week.

This concerning discovery came when I was discussing a story I’d come across (admittedly a somewhat outdated story) that claimed over half of under-25s in Britain can’t read a map. This story is based on market research, so it is, of course, true and utterly undeniable.

Now before you abandon reading this to rush out and start directing all the ‘lost’ young people outside your office, more careful reading of the article shows that the reason they can’t read maps is because they don’t need to. They simply find their way using GPS through sat-navs and their phones. It would seem the skill of map reading has the same applicability to young people as the ability to wield a sword has to me (i.e. potentially useful if you accidentally annoy Zorro, but by and large unnecessary). Worryingly, this does also imply that most young people are indeed where they intend to be – so the talentless ones who turn up at TV talent show auditions did so deliberately and weren’t simply following a crowd in a hope that it would lead them to where they wanted to go!

Thus, it would seem that we can all relax. There’s no need to despair that your children will never be able to find their way to visit you in your dotage – and you’ll know they’re lying when they’re late for work or school because they couldn’t find their way there. However, if map reading is indeed a dying art, the customer experience research industry could be in long-term trouble. Why? Well, pretty much every other conversation I have, paper I read, or webinar invite I receive seems to be about ‘journey mapping’ at the moment. In fact, it seems so popular that it even came out as the number one investment priority for clients in a report I was sent the other week. And if the young can’t read maps, then anything could happen if they try and help with analysis – you ask them to investigate how a mobile phone is bought, they misread the map and explain the return process for a packet of digestives!

In all seriousness though, journey mapping does appear to be a really popular topic at the moment, so I thought it would be worth sharing my thoughts on it with those of you who have read this far and are keen to carry on.

What is it?
At this juncture it’s worth pausing and clarifying what we mean by ‘journey mapping’ – especially as I think there’s a huge ambiguity at the heart of this, which has huge implications. For the record, I see journey mapping as identifying all those ‘steps’ a customer goes through to take them from the sofa, to using a product/service, and then back to their sofa considering the next one. If you like, it’s an extended version of the path to purchase – going beyond the actual purchase and into usage, and post-usage (i.e. advocacy/detraction behaviour) and defection. For me, a journey map is simply a framework around which to understand how a customer will interact with a company.

One key thing to understand is that there is no one simple map that applies to all customers, and even the same customer won’t follow the same route twice. Instead, it’s full of shortcuts, loops and skipped steps – and with some steps leading to dead ends!

I have seen it defined differently. In some instances, I’ve seen it used as a name for a customer satisfaction/experience survey that looks at different interaction points. Personally, I think that misses the point. Yes, you can use a journey map to build a survey, but the map itself is something different – and if we’re to really do this properly and derive value from it, we need to avoid muddying the waters in this way.

Why is it important now?
I must admit to being a little torn on this topic. Part of me thinks this is all very good sense and wonders why we’ve only just invented it, yet another part of me thinks the research industry is just giving a fancy name to something we’ve being doing quietly in customer satisfaction research for years. When have we been doing this? I would say it’s a fairly standard part of project kick-off meetings where we identify which customers we want to survey, and during the questionnaire development stage when we look at the different experience points we want to drill down into. Any project which doesn’t go through some form of journey mapping is risking missing off huge chunks of the customer experience and therefore being somewhat flawed.

I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle – yes we have been doing this, but in reality what we’re now seeing emerging as journey mapping is a bit bigger, more rigorous and more of a deliverable in itself than a means to an end. Yet why has this arisen as a topic now – something must have started it? In reality we have a number of circumstances that have come together to give it life of its own; think of it like the big bang – but without the spectacular bit!

The first circumstance is the emergence of real-time/transactional research alongside the desire of many organisations to manage the whole customer experience – down to every single interaction. This approach is fundamentally flawed if you don’t know what interactions a customer has – or how they fit together. If you don’t know this then when do you research them? Where do you intervene? Given some of the conversations I’ve had with clients, I suspect many of them like the idea that they can manage every experience – but then they realise that they simply don’t know enough about their interactions to do this, and issue a brief for journey mapping instead.

The second circumstance is the changes we’ve seen to consumer behaviour over the past 10 years from the rise of the internet, Twitter, mobile technology and social media, etc. It’s a bit old hat to talk about some of these issues as if they are new, but what we can say is that customers are interacting with brands in so many ways these days, and having so much more information at their fingertips. However, the old ideas on how a customer buys any product or interacts with a brand are probably outdated, and the plethora of tools at consumers’ disposal means there’s a huge variation in the journeys they go upon. For companies trying to interact with their customers, this myriad mix is so complex and changes so quickly they can no longer assume they understand it without some form of mapping exercise. Most companies have known this for a while – but the speed of change and lack of a viable option has created a pent up demand that needed a solution.

The final piece in this jigsaw, in my opinion, is that companies are shifting their focus. I’ve talked before in this blog about the rise of Chief Customer Officers and how customers are increasingly being heard at board level, so I won’t repeat myself. However, it’s undoubtedly true that more and more companies are trying to become more nimble and a large part of that is to organise themselves around the customer, not around their internal structures and silos. To do that, they again need the understanding you get from a good journey mapping project. Without it they are just guessing, and I’ve never met a member of the C-Suite who likes to guess when making major strategic decisions!

What’s the implication?
Well, the obvious one is that we’ll all be doing journey mapping research! What that will look like will vary from project to project, but I would place my mortgage on it being a mix of qual and quant. The qual will allow us to tease out the different stages, what happens at each, and why customers choose to follow that specific path. The quant will allow us to understand how many people follow each path, and who they are. If you like, think of a typical London Underground map – the qual will show us the stations and the lines between them, whilst the quant will show us how many people use each and what they look like.

What might be different will be the types of qual used. We’re all familiar with focus groups and in-depth interviews as qual tools, yet journey mapping lends itself to some of the lesser used qualitative tools such as diaries – whether paper, online or mobile. It also lends itself nicely to some of the ethnographic techniques such as observation, which allow us to see how consumers really interact with brands. This is bound to rub off onto our other experience research as well – making us more familiar with these techniques and more likely to use them – certainly no bad thing.

The biggest implication I can see though is a potential shift in the very nature of how we research customer experience. I’ve mentioned before how I think the days of the monster interview – taking 30 minutes to measure 60+ attributes covering all aspects of the relationship – are over. These surveys are just too unwieldy, the data quality is too weak and often they are covering so much that they become imprecise in their findings – quite an achievement given the amount of ‘detail’ they often go into. The future of research generally will be short and focussed surveys, measuring key questions, integrating behavioural data and ‘big data’ to find out a lot with a little. Journey mapping provides the framework for this to happen in customer experience. Once the journey has been identified, different elements and stages can be picked off by these short surveys to get a much more accurate understanding of what happens and how it affects customers.

Many of you are probably questioning whether this is different to real-time/transactional research and I would say it is. The methodological approach may appear similar, but the difference is in the type of questions being asked and how they are used. Most real time research is used to manage the service being delivered at a moment in time, yet more traditional measures focussed on journey stages will be much more strategic – providing an understanding of how the interaction affects the relationship.

Overall, I think the rise of journey mapping is a highly exciting development. Not only does it create a whole new area of work (and revenue), but it improves what we’re already doing. I simply can’t see a real downside – aside from the inconvenience of big trackers becoming lots of smaller projects that will be put out to tender separately! The challenge now is for us to find our way through the excitement and vagaries around the topic and turn it into practical and useful projects for our clients – without the use of a GPS!

Simon Wood is Head of Stakeholder Management Research at TNS UK.

The views expressed in this blog posting are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TNS, nor of its associated companies.