Editor’s note: Alex Xiaoguang Zhu is senior manager, decision journeys, at SKIM, a Hoboken, N.J., research company.   

We live in an omnichannel world where the path-to-purchase is complex, dynamic and easily disrupted by new options and inputs. If you are looking to undertake a digital customer experience transformation, it’s important to first go back to the basics by mapping the customer decision journey.

Framework precedes methodology

Customer decision journeys vary significantly from industry to industry depending on category engagement, length of decision-making process and stakeholder involvement. With the appropriate journey framework lens, brands can uncover paradigm-busting insights. There are a range of methodologies from internal workshops to primary research (qualitative and quantitative) and passive metering or digital behavioral data tracking that can be used when conducting customer decision journey mapping. But the most important task is choosing the right framework for your specific industry and situation. The following four frameworks illustrate how you can uncover actionable journey insights.

1. The planned journey

A planned journey is a longer decision journey where customers are more involved in research for products and services purchased relatively infrequently (e.g., financial services or big-ticket items). Viewing the journey through latent, evaluation and buying stages can reveal new ideas for optimizing the customer experience. Familiar or popular brands may dominate the initial consideration set in the latent stage but as consumers discuss choices with others and conduct research online, they may conclude that another brand better meets their needs in a later stage.

The planned journey framework works best when consumers typically deliberate their choices over an extended period of time. The key to this framework is to identify distinctive stages in the decision journey and connect the dots across stages. Applicable industries include automobiles, financial services and consumer electronics.

For example, telecom is an incredibly competitive space where a significant amount is spent on advertising. The shelf life of new advertising is short and often measured in weeks. A major U.S. telecom company realized that it did not have foundational knowledge of how consumers choose wireless providers, while its marketing and advertising team was occupied with tactical executions and competitive responses. To inform its strategic direction, a category consumer decision journey was conducted. This study found that network and value were the dominant drivers of brand consideration in the latent phase. Moving into the buying phase, the most important drivers were plan and data.

The stages model highlights how information needs to evolve as the customer journey progresses and how it can have several vital implications for brands. First, brands need to measure performance metrics at various stages of the journey, not just overall performance. Second, brand messaging must evolve as consumers move from one stage to another. Third, it’s necessary to realign resources against the most influential touchpoints at different stages.

2. The (disrupted) habitual journey

For many FMCG categories, a staged model doesn’t apply because the majority of purchases are brief and habitual. The shopping trigger is what defines this journey framework: Is this a run-of-the-mill purchase or is the consumer switching products? In many cases, a disrupted journey where consumers switch products represents more opportunities for brands because consumers engage in active research. On the other hand, even during a comparatively short habitual decision journey, consumers are being influenced as they consider and reconsider their options. We call this the double-check moment; it’s a clear pattern with omnichannel shoppers because consumers can access information effortlessly at their fingertips.

The habitual journey framework is most relevant where consumers make a purchase frequently with relatively low involvement. As a result, a routine is established but can be easily disrupted if the cost of switching is low. This framework is applicable to industries such as CPG and OTC.

Let’s look at an example that covers the beauty product industry and is based on entirely different journey dynamics. The brand needed to acquire foundational knowledge in the beauty and facial care category to support a new product launch in e-commerce. A study showed a clear omnichannel behavior pattern and oversized digital influence within the habitual journey, although the majority of purchases still took place in brick-and-mortar storefronts.

In the U.S., a majority of beauty product consumers who purchased in a physical store begin their journey with a digital touchpoint. Consumers often bypass search engines and go directly to Amazon and online specialists to explore the range of products available, read reviews and compare prices, even for offline purchases. For many offline purchases, a decision is made prior to going to the store, which suggests early opportunities to influence consumers.

For brands, the implications are profound. Search optimization is no longer limited to the search engine and should be extended to Amazon and other online retailers. Brands also need to leverage Amazon and other top online retailers to serve as a showroom, consumer research hub and curator of trusted reviews – even when most purchases happen in-store. Finally, brands need to reassess the investment mix between at-shelf and key touchpoints prior to the store, particularly as emerging methods such as click-and-collect become mainstream.

3. The ecosystem journey

The ecosystem framework features multiple stakeholders including internal clients, distribution partners and end users. B2B is a great example of this journey. It requires an ecosystem-wide view to establishing a journey framework. The key is to incorporate every stakeholder’s involvement via the dominant decision-maker journey. In this setting, many purchases may be automated via e-procurement systems and reconsidered only after a disruption, such as a safety incident or a budget cut. The disrupted journey is where most active research, investigation and trial takes place, making it a key focus of journey research.

B2B is the most applicable industry for the ecosystem journey framework. The key to this framework is to understand when each stakeholder has the strongest influence in an ecosystem and what content expectations occur at strategic touchpoints.

Here is an example that illustrates the importance of a complete ecosystem journey picture, particularly when disruption happens. A B2B multinational company decided to pursue a seamless omnichannel customer experience as a core strategy. But there was a significant knowledge gap and cross-functional disagreement on where, when and how customers make decisions in this digital age. A global customer journey research study became necessary. This study found that a majority of customers engage in internal cross-functional investigations when a disruption occurs. At this point, decision-makers actively look for info online beyond the usual distributor engagement, which is more dominant in a typical re-order. End-user input at this stage was found to be much more important than previously believed.

It is also striking that B2B decision-makers are increasingly influenced by their experiences as consumers. Companies such as Amazon, Uber, Starbucks and even Airbnb are raising the bar for what we think of as a consumer experience, and decision-makers now expect other types of transactions to be comparable. B2B manufacturers and service providers are often called upon to re-create and realign commercial programs with strategic touchpoints while adopting best practices from the consumer sector to meet customer expectations.

4. The patient-centric journey

The rise of patient consumerism means that patients are increasingly empowered by expanding information and choices. They are confident and willing to take greater control of their own health. In the past, the patient journey framework – despite its name – has taken more of a product-oriented view than a patient view. It was essentially a treatment journey. As the pharma commercial model evolves to become more patient-centric, a new framework is emerging that is centered around patient need-states, emotions and behaviors. Building upon this backbone, pharma brands can overlay clinical and treatment approaches and uncover gaps in patient experiences. This approach helps pharma brands realign brand messaging, digital assets and patient support programs with patient needs at sub-journeys and key moments.

The key to applying this patient-centric framework is to look at a different starting point – patient need-states – regardless of treatment events or even disease indications. Sometimes, a co-morbidity from another disease reveals significant unmet patient needs, which would be missed with a traditional journey framework. A patient-centric view can avoid the tunnel-vision associated with a single disease, treatment or product. By prioritizing sub-journeys and key moments, this framework breaks the perception that a patient journey is a large-scale, check-off-your-list, once-in-a-commercial-lifecycle research. It can be laser-focused and ongoing and create immediate commercial impact even post-launch.  

The fourth example covers how a truly patient-centric framework drives actionability of patient journey and experience research. A pharma brand needed a patient journey research study to support a new product launch in the neurological space. Traditional qualitative journey research lacked focus given the sample size limitation. By starting with patient need-states, as opposed to treatment events, this research identified a new stage completely defined by patients. This new critical stage, which occurs prior to symptom stage – the starting point of a traditional treatment-centric framework – would have been ignored. To drive the actionability further, this research focused on key moments, as opposed to a wide range of potential leverage points, for each patient need-state, which brings focus to a qualitative research journey.

Just the starting point

Choosing the right journey framework is the critical first step in mapping the customer journey. The appropriate journey framework enables brands to uncover insights and better align sales and marketing to customer desires along the journey. But mapping is just the starting point as brands evolve in the age of the customer. Insight managers and marketers should adopt a designer mentality – not only uncovering insights but designing the right experiences for customers and driving behavioral change. A change in perspective – adjusting to see the journey through the eyes of the customer – becomes the catalyst for breaking silos and creating a superior omnichannel customer experience through digital transformation.