March 29, 2017 | Written by Steve Whittington

The Four Stages of The Customer Journey

As I look at the retail and service landscape, I see organizations failing to meet customer expectations. Why?

The reasons are many: the customer can now educate themselves better than what most in-store representatives can provide. A retail store is limited by the brands they offer versus the brand that a customer may want. The store itself is inconvenient; you have to travel to a location on your own time, often off route. Layer on top of this average customer service at best and it is easy to understand why customers are trying to go direct to brand or heading to e-commerce in ever-increasing numbers. E-commerce as a channel for service is creating an issue in and of itself for brands. While booking services online is a convenience for the customer, fierce cost comparisons are driving prices down and customer service training and staffing tend to get cut to remain price competitive.

So, what is an organization to do?

I believe the highest priority of an organization must be to focus on the customer. That means doing what is best for the customer in every interaction. This is no new insight and it is a simple enough priority. Then why is it not happening consistently?

While it is simple for one person with the right mindset to understand and execute upon, most organizations have multiple team members and multiple locations. With organizational diversity, doing what is best for the customer can take on multiple definitions with multiple outcomes. Consistency becomes an issue. I believe the only way to create consistency is to map out the customer journey and define the customer outcome you want for each customer touchpoint. Each of these touchpoints should be viewed as “a moment of truth” for meeting the desired customer expectation.

So what is the customer journey? 

A broad definition is this: all the interactions or touchpoints a customer has with an organization during the purchase experience. This starts with the first awareness of the need for a product or service to the completion of the transaction and after service elements.

While this is often portrayed as linear (and it certainly can be with transactional customers), with relationship customers this can be a continuous loop as opposed to a linear journey. I believe the focus on this journey by every member of an organization’s team is the single most important thing a company can do.

In order to provide a consistent experience, understanding the four stages of the customer journey is the first step for any organization mapping their customer journey.

Stage 1 Awareness/Consideration

At some point in time, your customer decided they had a need for your product or service. Somehow your customer found out about your organization and they decided to connect. Understanding your customer’s connection with your organization (how did they become aware of your products and services) and the outcome of that connection (conversion) is the first step in evaluating the effectiveness of your customer journey. Awareness can be achieved through advertising, web searches, reviews, store signage, a referral from a current customer, product labeling and the list goes on and on. This is stage one and the impression all these touchpoints make will influence whether this customer converts into a sales opportunity or more importantly a customer relationship opportunity.

Many will think I just described marketing and advertising and for the most part, it is, but it goes deeper. Your marketing and advertising need to have the proper intent to foster a truly positive customer journey instead of just intrusive awareness.

Let me explain.  Most ads showcase a product and an offer and hopefully are targeted appropriately. The creative is done within branding guidelines. The job of an ad is to have an attractive enough offer to incite the customer to act.

Causing the customer to act creates a lead for the sales process to take over.

On to stage two.  But wait: what if your ad did more than just provide an offer, what if your ad solved a problem or connected with a customer’s interest? The Stimulus stage will start to define your brand’s customer journey. If you broadcast only offers, the message is transactional. If you broadcast messages that solve problems for your customers or connect with their interests, the message is that you “get” your customers. The intent of your awareness tactics sets the tone for stage two.

Stage 2 The Sale Process

The first “sales” touch a customer receives about your organization is most likely not something you created. Your marketing created an itch and due to the digitalization of our world, it drove the customer to the internet (or your little part of the internet). According to a study conducted by marketing intelligence agency Mintel, 70% of consumers read reviews before purchasing, with 90% of consumers saying the review impacts their buying decision. So the experience posted online by a previous buyer is influencing your future buyers. This is a pretty compelling reason to make a positive customer experience your number one priority.

Considering you pass the internet and social word of mouth test, the next place a consumer is likely to land is your website (or back onto your website). Your website needs to provide the customer with the information they need and the ability to purchase in the way they desire. If the website is serving as a funnel to drive consumers to brick and mortar locations that means it’s serving the brand and not the customer. You stand a very good chance of driving the customer to another website instead of your location.

But…let us continue. If the website was enough to get the customer interested, then they call you. You need to have a phone process in place that provides a consistent customer experience that can be monitored and improved upon (Read the four steps in managing phone sales leads). If this is mismanaged, you will not get the customer to your location.

If the phone call goes well, then the customer is coming to the store. Every touchpoint is going to influence their buying decision. The sign, the parking lot, entranceway, showroom, retail floor or lobby, the initial greeting – all these touchpoints set the tone before your customer-facing staff has a chance to engage with the customer.

Now the customer is engaging with a member of your front line staff. Their product knowledge, company attire, selling space, use of a clear frictionless process are weighing on the customer, helping to decide whether they will or will not make a purchase decision.

Considering the customer makes the purchasing decision, they have committed to your brand.  Or have they? The next two stages will turn this into a customer that promotes, is neutral, or is a detractor and writes negative reviews.

Stage 3: The After-Sale Process

Every organization has an after-sales process, it is just a matter of how well managed it is for the customer. For some it’s product training and delivery, for other types of business (restaurants or hotels) service is provided after the purchase decision. No matter the organization, there are many touchpoints after the sale. It is often the last touchpoint that the customer remembers and it is the last touchpoint that can define how a customer “feels” about an organization.

The last touchpoint a customer has with an organization can make or break their entire customer journey. 

Consider a typical retail experience in which you buy a piece of furniture and need to pick up the unit at the loading doors around the back of the store. You went through the front of house experience and everything was great; the organization’s staff were friendly, informative, and genuinely helpful. You left the front of the store feeling great, driving around back to pick up your piece of furniture. You get around back and the attendee is rude, unfriendly, and makes you wait… long enough that you suspect they forgot about you. Finally, you get your piece and you can clearly see the box is damaged. You point this out and you are told to take it or leave it. How do you feel now about your entire customer journey? Flip this story around: the front of the house was mediocre at best but they had a good price so you bought it, then you go to the back of the house and the service is amazing? How do you feel now about your entire customer journey?

The last touchpoint will define how you make your customer feel. Your customer does not remember the great price and helpful staff at the front of the house; they remember how that last touchpoint made them feel. And how your organization made them feel will be what they share. Every touchpoint matters and the first three stages of the customer journey can be measured by using the net promoter system and asking one simple question: How likely are you to recommend? This leads us to stage four.

Stage 4: Retention and Referral

Considering your customer journey has created a positive experience you may be creating promoters that feed people into Stage 1: Stimulus to start a journey with your organization.

The ongoing experience with an organization will help or detract from customer retention and referral. Every time your customer uses your product or remembers the experience they had with your services, there is goodwill, neutral, or bad being built. If there is a warranty issue and it is handled poorly, the goodwill goes down. Alternately, if the warranty issue is handled fairly and promptly the goodwill can go up. Reaching out to evaluate your customers’ experiences is one touchpoint showing that the company cares. Ongoing touches matter as well. There is a belief that due to e-commerce all customers are becoming transactional. I disagree.  Brands are treating customers like they are transactional instead of relationship customers. If your intent is to do what is best for the customer that will mean forming a relationship with your customer, to ensure your organization continues to serve them with their best interest in mind. To do that you need to stay in touch and learn about your customers’ needs. Do this and your organization then has a chance at retaining and possibly even getting a referral from your customers.

Bringing it all together

No matter the type of organization (B2B, B2C, Non-Profit) these four stages hold true.

Stage one: Awareness/Consideration

Stage Two: The Sale Process

Stage Three: The After-Sale Process

Stage Four: Retention and Referral

Depending on the industry the touchpoints will be different.  However, no matter the industry, each touchpoint has the opportunity to be positive, neutral, or negative. These touchpoints are all moments of truth for a brand and every part of the customer journey matters.

I believe focusing on the entire customer journey can renew an organization with purpose and give their customers a reason to continue a relationship.

Make every moment in the customer journey matter.

Great Service is Not About Being Perfect, it is About What You Do When Things Fall Apart
May 2, 2019