The End of the Customer Journey

It’s time to call it: the “customer journey,” as you know it, is officially dead.

It’s a concept that sprang into the industry’s collective consciousness when retail met the Internet, forever changing the way people interact and shop with brands. With the proliferation of purchasing options in e-commerce, customers shifted from prioritizing price to prioritizing value. It became less about scoring the best deal and more about the complete experience – and the rush to create a fully realized, end-to-end customer journey was born.

Don’t misunderstand: all of these things are still true today. Customers are still seeking value, they’re still seeking the best experience, and they still give their business to companies that hit the sweet spot between price and service. But now, consumers have already adapted their expectations to the market’s initial response. The idea of a personalized shopping experience is now the baseline, not the outlier.  It’s no longer a question of whether you’re personalizing, but how well you’re doing it.

As we covered in our last blog, a good way to understand how your marketing practices should adapt to this seismic shift in consumer expectations is by understanding the new consumer decision-making cycle. McKinsey and Co. provided a nuanced analysis of these changes, which is referenced throughout this post.

 

Traditionally, the customer decision journey was depicted as a funnel.

The idea was that the consumer started out with a specific range of options and landed on the final choice by process of elimination. Brand-name familiarity and offers played important roles in being included in the initial set of options; the marketing component delivered messaging accordingly, designed to “push” consumers through each stage of the funnel.

funnel1

Fig 1. Traditional Decision Funnel, Image Credit: McKinsey & Co. 

The new decision-making journey, as laid out by McKinsey, explains the decision-making process as a loop within a loop, with one initial purchase decision journey that feeds into a loyalty cycle after purchase.

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Fig 2. The New Customer Decision Journey, Image Credit: McKinsey & Co.

This is significant for a few reasons:

1. There is no funnel. The whole point of the funnel was that the competition narrowed down as you went through the process; people started with one big group, and then eliminated brands until they were left with the winner. In stark contrast, consumers today take matters into their own hands: By looking up reviews and researching online, asking for opinions and referrals, it’s now the norm to add one or two options after eliminating a few from the original selection.

2. It’s a two-way conversation. As in the above point, consumers are no longer evaluating or selecting their purchases by how much your marketing message is able to sway them one way or the other. It’s now a much more complicated conversation, with consumers doing their own research and independently comparing and contrasting. It’s one reason that roughly 70% of purchases are abandoned at the shopping cart: Shoppers often start looking for external product reviews before pulling the trigger, and just as often disappear down the black hole of Googling.

3. It doesn’t repeat; it restarts. Perhaps the most important difference of the new decision-making process is the innocuous-seeming “loyalty loop” added into the cycle. The idea of transactions being a cycle isn’t necessarily groundbreaking – this is where the ideas of customer lifecycles, sales cycles, and so forth come in. But here’s what is groundbreaking: once the purchase is complete, the cycle not only continues, but restarts. The moment of purchase is no longer a guarantor of success. As McKinsey points out, people purchase cosmetics and still keep researching alternatives and reviews after the fact. A sale is no longer a win; it’s just another stage, and another part of the cycle where competitors can slip in.

With all these factors in play, it’s clear to see why 66% of marketers say that their attempts to provide valuable brand experiences are “hit or miss.” Today’s concept of the customer journey, which takes the customer through a guided tour of pre-established and pre-defined stages, is no longer applicable because consumers have disrupted that process themselves.

Put simply, the personalized customer journey as it exists today is a static response to a dynamic problem. A journey by definition is about movement from point A to B, and the traditional customer journey is about facilitating that movement – but it’s clear that today’s consumers are not held by such linear constraints.

Personalized and relevant marketing, then, must also be taken out of the original context. It’s not about shaping one customer journey through messaging that is only relevant because it pertains to each predetermined stage, but rather being able to identify where a customer is within the journey at a given moment, and providing the most relevant messaging for that corresponding spot.

It’s a formidable task, to be sure, but it’s the only way to stand out and delight customers who have come to see relevancy and personalization as prereqs, not perks. And though it sounds crazy, it’s not impossible.

In the coming months, we at Retention Science will be diving deeper into how exactly this level of personalization is possible at scale. The short version? Artificial Intelligence holds the key.

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