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How to orchestrate customer journeys in real time at scale

Continent by night; image source: NASA

Customer journeys are as individual as customers. Every customer has different needs, preferences, knowledge, information and another way to resolve their issues. In brief, every customer has a context of their own.

As a consequence, customer journeys are often non-linear and move across different channels and devices. In between the online steps there might very well be some offline steps. Customer journeys are usually emerging sequences of interactions or engagements between the customer and the business towards a goal. 

This goal needs to be the customer’s goal, albeit in the limitations of a business environment.

Customer journeys can, in fact, be compared to conversations, which are also not linear.

With this thinking, it is only a small step to the thought that customers do manage and orchestrate their journeys individually and for themselves. Consequently, there is no need to design their journeys for them. It can even  be counterproductive. A better approach is to provide customers with a channel independent menu of interconnected contact points that helps them to achieve their objective, their way. With the company offering - potentially different - contact points to different customers, both parties’ needs are mostly fulfilled; the business need for efficiency, the customers need to build and follow their own journeys, and both parties’ need for effectiveness.

This raises the question about why we should be interested in these interconnected contact points.

The answer is quite simple. 

What is the objective?

Companies that are working towards supporting their customers’ needs and desires have an edge over their competitors. They have more success acquiring and retaining customers, even turning them into loyal advocates.

Industry expert and thought leader Graham Hill said in a recent CRMKonvo that “Customers don’t plan out their journeys in detail, instead, journeys ‘emerge’, one interaction at a time. We should design service experiences to allow interactions to emerge, not around fixed journeys”. He continues that it is our [vendors and consultants] job “to create experience platforms that enable customers to interact with us faster, easier and better. What customers actually do is up to them. The more we constrain customers’ behaviour, particularly through rigid service experience design, the more customers are likely to continue their journey with someone else, or to abandon it entirely” (highlighted by Thomas Wieberneit). 

In other words, the objective is to be able to offer customers seamless journeys of their choosing to achieve their specific outcome in a way that is consistent with the brand message. Risking to sound like a broken record, as this point is important: This journey may well lead customers across devices. The journey is regularly not linear but has loops and may even be interrupted and resumed at the last, any earlier or even a later step.

Why at a later step? Because a part of the journey might have been executed outside the realm of the company.

And how to do this?

Contemporary thinking calls for the development of personas and customer journey mapping to identify the journeys the customers take, including the emotions that are raised at every single step - the contact points - of their journeys. According to Kristy Tupper, GM at Nuvolo, using customer journey mapping it is possible to identify the existing journeys as well as the intended to-be journeys. Combining the two helps identify the gaps that need to be closed to offer a better customer engagement that results in a better customer experience. Using this approach in a continuous learning process helps keep the customer experience at a level that satisfies both sides, the customers and the business. 

Both, the development of personas and the creation of customer journey maps are well established industry practices - best practices, even.

That way, businesses get representations of their main customer groups and the main journeys that these customer groups take.

Sounds easy, doesn‘t it?

Well, it isn’t. The challenges of this approach are clear and include:

  • The identification of journeys and the agreement on what main journeys are, take a lot of time and effort, unless this effort is done with an inside-out lens, which is not the lens that the customer uses.

  • Customer journey mapping of these identified journeys itself takes a lot of time and effort as first the relevant personas need to get identified and then a sufficient number of representatives of these personas need to be interviewed in detail.

  • Even when used in a repetitive approach that ensures regular improvement, customer journey management does not ensure a continuous improvement, as the process can only be done a few times per year, at best.

  • The reduction to personas poses similar challenges as the identification of journeys. The most important personas need to be identified, defined, and refined over time. 

In a recent panel discussion (the topic starts around minute 40:30), Graham succinctly voiced his three main concerns about customer journey mapping. He thinks that customer journey maps are

  • Unrepresentative, as they are overly simplistic in their approach. They do not model the paths that individual customers take but group them instead.

  • Unrealistic, since they model a straight path instead of considering the loops and repetitions that are often involved in individual journeys.

  • Unimplementable, as they are too high level to be mapped to systems that implement the various interactions.

Maybe, the name “customer journey map“ is just plain wrong or misleading? Let’s compare customer journey mapping to real world maps. One can say that what customer journey mapping actually resembles is the route calculation done by a navigation system in a sense that it gives a determined pathway - and maybe some options - from one place to another. A customer journey map is not a map, but a recipe to arrive at the destination, just that it is re-engineered instead of being planned.

Using the same allegory, the menu of interconnected contact points that I mentioned above is comparable to places and the connections between them are the roads between them. Combined, they form a map that shows the possible interactions that a customer can choose from to achieve their desired outcome. In contrast with customer journey mapping, this “interaction map” does not define a sequence of interactions nor is it dependent on personas. It defines the contact points, their inputs (the roads that lead to them) and their outputs (the roads that lead to other contact points), based on an identified context.

Of course many, if not most of these possible paths will be used by customers. 

So, what should you do? Clearly, customers can orchestrate their journeys only if the necessary contact points and their connections are available.

It is also clear that customer journey mapping does not work at scale and is too slow to enable fast reactions and optimizations by businesses. 

The future

The solution is to do contact point mapping, i.e. to establish the map of contact points and their connections. Contact point mapping is not only an extension of the real time analysis of individual customer journeys at scale but is a transformational approach. It identifies the individual customer‘s context and objective via customer data, including behavior and shared preference information at scale. The journey analytics part enables real time interaction management and customer journey orchestration by identifying the individual customer‘s context and objective without requiring personas. It takes the guesswork out of the journey mapping and replaces it by a solid, data driven foundation that is based on machine learning.

Probably, you know ask: But what about emotions, which are part of customer journey mapping?

Emotions get collected in two ways: structured and unstructured. Structured information about individual customer journeys is gathered via voice of the customer technologies while unstructured feedback can come in via sentiment analysis that is performed across channels, e.g. via email, social media comments or conversational user interfaces including voice but also text messages across various communication channels.

This way, using contact point maps in combination with customer journey analytics, it is possible to combine structured customer data with behavioral and emotional data for individual customers in the context of their specific intentions - without predefining a journey. 

The result is transformational. We are able to perform “customer journey mapping” continuously and in real time, scaling to individual customers. Additionally, it is possible to identify emerging contexts and contact points that do not work or work well for specific intentions. 

More importantly, it is also possible to improve the real time interaction engine to quickly react to changing interests/contexts and therefore to allow the journey orchestration engine to suggest journeys that are optimal for the individual customer.

This is something that in the words of Thunderhead’s Chief Solutions officer Ray Gerber could be called autonomous customer journey orchestration. It results in a smooth engagement that leads to a positive customer experience which is consistently in alignment with the brand. And this translates into better business results. Businesses are more effective, i.e. successful in acquiring and retaining customers, even converting them to ambassadors. Why? Because they get what they need and want. Additionally, there are internal benefits. Companies are able to enable new journeys faster and at a lower internal cost, i.e. they are more efficient. 

These benefits cannot be achieved without the combination of outside-in thinking,  journey analytics, real time interaction management and customer driven journey orchestration based upon contact point maps. 

And all this doesn‘t even touch on the power of ecosystems that emerges if contact points across different businesses are included in the contact map.


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