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The Customer Journey: A History and a Future

In the beginning, there was the product, and, uh… that was basically it for a few thousand years. Then Capitalism came along, bringing the Customer Journey in tow. Here’s the fascinating story of the journey that keeps on changing, but still stays the same

Adam Fout
May 25 2017

In the beginning, there was the product.

And, uh… that was basically it for a few thousand years.

The customer journey can be traced back as far as society itself — and probably before that, depending on how you define society — but modern society, and the advent of the ‘consumer,’ as such, doesn’t go back quite that far.

Still, to understand where we are, you have to understand how we got here. For a long time, the customer journey was as simple as this:

A person needed something, maybe one or two people in the region sold that something, and you could either buy it from that one person, or you could kick rocks.

If you wanted to evaluate or research… I mean, good luck — it’s not like it mattered much anyway, because you had one or two sources for the product. Also, people were selling products in super shady ways, so if you walked away with a product that did what it was supposed to do and didn’t kill you, you were doing alright.

If you were super rich, you might be able to buy from the top-end guy in your country, but most people basically just bought from the guy who was down the street because, you know, no cars, no planes, no shipping, just roving bands of pirates and bandits…

And if you weren’t happy with the purchase, but the purchase was legit, in many cases, you were SOL — you either kept buying from the one person who made the goods you wanted, or you didn’t buy the goods.

And, from the business’ side, it looked something like this.

I created one product pretty well — let’s say I’m a blacksmith and I created great pieces of armor and weaponry.

I apprenticed under the last blacksmith of our town, so everyone knew where I was, who I was, and what I had to offer.

If you didn’t like what I sold or the way I did business, well, tough tomatoes — I was the only blacksmith within a hundred leagues.

When I ended up with a bunch of extra armor and weaponry that no one bought, my apprentice and I loaded up the cart and headed into the city, set up shop in the marketplace, and made some sales.

Customer retention was a non-issue for me — competition didn’t exist the way it does today. I competed solely on quality (price was highly negotiable, what with haggling being the main method of price setting), and my customers either a) had known me all my life and had no other choice but to buy from me, or b) saw me once or twice a year in the marketplace and could either buy from me or buy from, like, one other armorer.

As long as the quality of my armor and weapons was good, I wasn’t going to lose customers.

And this went on for a few hundred or a few thousand years, depending on which society we’re discussing.

And then, modern capitalism came along and made consumers of us all

And for a while, marketing was simple.

But time passed, education improved, technology rapidly developed, more folks with more ability and more opportunities were able to enter increasingly more crowded markets, and we had to invent words like “marketing” and “customer journey” to explain this brave new world.

Somewhere along the way, we all became consumers, and it was good.

We started seeing more and more individual business owners rise, become profitable, and compete with each other. We saw larger and ever-more-complex corporations rise and compete with other behemoths, focusing, at first, on price and quality.

We saw options multiply a thousand fold.

And we saw customer retention start to really become a thing.

Now, this all took many years — some trace the roots of modern capitalism back five hundred years or more — but many would argue that it’s only the last hundred years or so that matter much.

Eventually, price and quality reached points where, frankly, not much more could be changed to bring the customer in the door — at that point, when it became clear that you had to compete on something more than the price or quality of your product — we began to study customer retention, look at it as a science, and consider it as a method of competition.

Customer retention was still happening, it’s just that brands were waking up to the fact that it was really, really important.

We saw companies slowly begin to realize that there just wasn’t much more tweaking of the supply chain that could be done to maximize profits, that the quality of their product just wasn’t going to increase much except at an enormous cost, and that price simply couldn’t be reduced anymore for a variety of products and services in a variety of markets and price points.

That is, they began to realize that the war for the heart of the consumer was going to have to be waged somewhere else.

And so, you saw customer retention, and later, the customer experience, rise as a method of competition.

And the customer journey, which really had always existed, finally began to be studied in earnest. Because, basically, companies started to care about the customers, about their lives before a sale, leading up to a sale, during the sale, after the sale, and on until the last purchase they ever made.

Make no mistake — at the heart of brand’s concern with the customer journey is a concern with profit

Although I will concede that many businesses are created to follow someone’s passion where profit is a lovely side effect and where there are even businesses created solely to improve the world and help people or further the cause of humanity itself, the truth is, more than a few large corporations and small businesses are around solely to create profit.

Not everyone can be a visionary, not everyone wants to save the world, but every one of us has to make a buck and survive. Businesses that don’t make money fail, and the only way customer retention ever became an idea on the radar of large corporations in the first place was that, by not working towards customer retention, by not thinking about the customers and their needs, businesses were hemorrhaging profit in a very real way.

We started to think about the customer journey because competition became fierce and the traditional methods of competition — reducing price, reducing supply chain costs, increasing quality — had been maxed out.

And then, somewhere, someone finally cried out “Won’t someone think of the CONSUMERS!?”

And the race for customer retention began.

And, along the way, researchers began to realized that there was such a thing as a customer journey — let’s say this happened in the 1980s–1990s, though the idea of such a thing can be traced back earlier. Companies began branding on a large scale even in the early 1800s, and the idea of branding itself was an implicit recognition that the customer was on some sort of journey of research and discovery before making a purchase.

Consumers were also becoming increasingly savvier. They weren’t being wowed the way they once were, they weren’t being bowled over by flashy promises, and they needed more than a quality product or a good price to stick around.

But, when it was really looked at closely by researchers and large corporations, the idea of the customer journey was a simple, profound revelation: customers don’t just pop into existence when they want to make a purchase and then disappear into the ether until it’s time to buy again. They don’t sign up for a service and then crawl into a cave and hibernate for a year until it’s time to renew.

You’re spending all this money on marketing and branding for a very particular reason — there’s a point where your market, your audience, is just a mass of consumers who are not your customers.

It takes some convincing to get them to become customers, and not all of them do become customers.

And then, there are many, many points where people who are your customers leave — and many of those customers never come back.

But some do stick around, and the ones who do are exceedingly profitable.

The journey from “random consumer” to “your customer” is important, but the journey from “your customer” to “someone else’s customer” must be studied closely

I think this was the big revelation — focusing on getting people in the door is only one side of the equation, and frankly, it’s only really important when getting a business off the ground and running.

Once you’ve got a steady sales stream going, long-term success is going to be built on keeping customers happy and on turning them into lifetime customers. Period.

The reason is pretty simple (honestly, most of this stuff is simple and straightforward when you really sit down and think about it) — it costs a lot of money to get a new customer, and it’s going to be a while before they become profitable. If you already have a customer, you can spend a lot less money marketing to them while still turning a profit — they’re going to buy more, they’re going to buy more often, and they’re going to bring you new customers in many cases.

Oh, and it’s super expensive to get a new customer compared to doing a little work to hang on to an existing customer — anywhere from 3–30 times more expensive, depending on who you ask.

My favorite study that discusses how long it takes to turn someone profitable is one that was done not too long ago on cell phone subscribers.

You can read the study in its entirety here (it’s really worth the read), but here’s the main point that comes out of the article — for cell phone companies in Europe at the time of the study, it took approximately 2 years for a customer to become profitable (obviously, we’re not all cell phone companies, but the idea of taking a long time to reach profitability is broadly applicable).

Think about that for a second — that’s insane. That means that, if a company screws up anywhere along the customer journey, or, if the portions of the customer journey that don’t involve the company are garbage (and truly, the majority of the customer experience is taking place in the spaces between the “touch points”), if the customer walks away at any time during that 2-year period, you’ve lost money.

If another large cell phone company comes out with a service plan that undercuts yours, you not only fail to recoup your investment, but you also fail to turn a profit.

Cell phone customers can stay with the same carrier for decades… if they’re happy with the service.

What could have been a highly profitable venture turns into a loss.

So, to return to our history lesson, when folks began to realize that the customer journey was even a thing, they started to break it down a bit. It looked a little something like this (and remember, every product or service is different, so this is going to vary a great deal across the board — that’s why mapping the customer journey is so critical):

  • Awareness
  • Consideration/Interest
  • Research/Evaluation
  • Purchase
  • Retention/Loss
  • Discussion

(That last bit is my take on the “advocacy” that you’ll see a lot of people include in the journey — it’s not advocacy if people are angry and talking about their bad experience.)

It’s important to keep in mind that none of this is set in stone. Every marketer will have their own take and twist on the customer journey, and there’s no agreed-upon definition of what this should look like.

However, this only gets us up to about the 90s. When the internet arrived, the customer journey changed in some very serious ways.

The internet revolutionized the customer journey

There we were, minding our own business, when the internet came along and had to ruin everything.

It used to be that the customer journey was heavily controlled by brands — most people only had a couple of channels through which they received their information (radio, TV, newspaper, talking to an employee in a brick-and-mortar location, maybe some magazines, and a book or two).

That information was refined and refined and refined by brands until they sent exactly the message they wanted to send. By the time someone got into the store to start doing a little research, they often already had them hooked.

Why? People are lazy. — I can only imagine the huge number of people over the years who have made a purchase during the research and evaluation phase because they just didn’t want to drive down the street to another store.

At every point along the old customer journey, the brands had a great deal of control. Even though you had a variety of competing messages flying through these different channels, all those messages were produced by a brand of some sort. And no brand has any interest in telling you the full truth about any product, including the products of their competitors — that could reflect poorly on an entire industry, and we can’t have that.

So brands engaged in this sort of collusion, mostly de facto collusion, because they had a particular interest in keeping certain messages in your brain (and others out), and they had, basically, full control of the mediums by which they communicated their messages to you.

Think of it like this — you might see dozens of advertisements and commercials for a particular brand of SUV, but none of those brands are going to push you away from the SUV itself.

Sure, you might even get some third-party evaluations in a newspaper or something, but large media corporations and local newspapers aren’t exactly known for their objectivity.

The internet blew that all to bits and pieces, took the pieces outside, and set them on fire.

Suddenly, a new method of research came along that allowed the consumer to look at a wide variety of products and services and compare them extremely quickly.

But, more importantly, there was suddenly a platform for truly objective information about products and services that could make its way into the mind of the consumer. Entire websites were built whose sole purpose was to provide objective reviews of products or services that were entirely untouchable by brands.

And, along the way, search engines and other internet-oriented companies began to build the online reviews into the online search and online purchase experience, permanently taking away a large amount of companies’ control over what consumers know and don’t know about any particular product.

The brands lost control, the consumers gained control, and customer retention suddenly became much, much more important for the savvy brand. In the modern era, companies learned that, if you really want to keep people around, you have to realize that they’re going to know the truth about your product — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and that there’s nothing you can do about it.

And so, the customer journey changed irrevocably, — and it continued to change. Brands realized that their websites had enormous marketing value, that their ability to influence reviewers could make or break their sales, that they could (gasp) sell products online! Customers began to go through the entire journey online — from awareness to research to purchase and beyond.

The journey was lengthening in some cases because of this new tool, narrowing in others. The research phase, especially, was becoming extremely comprehensive, and generally, consumers were using technology in exactly the way technology is supposed to be used — to complete more tasks with higher levels of complexity in shorter periods of time.

And, along the way, the traditional touch points, in many cases, were disappearing completely.

I mean, really think about that — you couldn’t even count on the fact that your customers would speak to you, ever! You might literally form a lifetime relationship with a customer and never, not even once, have a conversation with that person. Not you, not your employees, — no one. They make their purchases online, they’re happy with what they get, they keep making purchases, and, if you screw up somewhere along the way, the most terrifying thing in the world happens:

They disappear, and you have absolutely no idea why.

This is the new customer journey — and it’s only going to get worse as technology advances.

The journey isn’t about touch points anymore — it’s about crafting an experience so smooth that the touch points don’t matter

If you’re not speaking to your customers, if they’re appearing and disappearing like thieves in the night, if you have no clue why they’re doing what they’re doing (or, worse, you can only guess based on various bits of esoteric interpretations of possibly meaningless data from your analytics), then you have a problem.

Touch points don’t matter the same way they once did when so much is happening online. Now, this isn’t 100% applicable to every business and every consumer, but it’s so widely understood that it hardly matters anymore.

What matters in today’s customer journey is a smoothing of the experience. We see the same thing in the UX arena, and it applies here too — things should be so intuitive that you don’t need a manual or a support team or someone to explain to the customer what they should be doing, or how to do it, or why.

The customer experience needs to be the same.

As new technology spreads, this will only become more important. For instance, with the rise and spread of mobile, especially in the last five years, we’ve seen consumers integrate mobile into their journey.

Brands who have kept up with the changes in mobile, who have made the changes in infrastructure to allow the consumer to shop on mobile, who have enhanced that medium and integrated it into the customer experience as a whole, those brands benefitted.

The ones who haven’t have lost sales. A lot of sales, in some cases.

This is only accelerating. This article on the future of the customer experience goes into some excellent detail about what to expect, but it’s nothing revelatory if you’re paying attention — VR, AR, and IoT, if and when they come into their own and become widespread, have the potential to profoundly impact the customer journey.

But, at its heart, the customer journey remains about the same — technology may change, but humans stubbornly stay the same. We still need to realize that there’s a problem, but maybe we come to that realization through new channels, like Pinterest or AR instead of a newspaper. We still need to research solutions, we just might do so on our phone or a VR headset instead of in a store. We still need to eventually make a purchase, we just might make it from our work computer or cell phone instead of from the store down the street.

And we still want to have a good experience after we’ve made a purchase, to get issues resolved if they crop up, to get personalized treatment and to make future purchases as enjoyable as past ones. If brands are doing their best to make that experience worthwhile and smooth, if brands take the frightening step of putting the power in the hands of the consumer, they’ll be rewarded for it.

And, if they don’t, someone else will be happy to oblige.

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Adam Fout

Adam Fout, resident content sorcerer at BlueSteelSolutions, turns blogs and social media accounts into marketing machines for your business. In his free time, he writes strange bits of fiction and posts them on My Website

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