Editor's note: Jim Tincher is mapper-in-chief at Heart of the Customer, a Minneapolis research firm. The three maps tracking the journeys of the herniated disc patients were created by Kris LaFavor of Design Ahead. The map labeled “Sample Map” was created by Constantina Watters of Sproute Creative.

Are you journey-mapping? It’s a very popular research method to help you better understand how customers experience your products or services by highlighting your best opportunities for improvement.

In a study of customer experience (CX) leaders, CX consultancy the Temkin Group found that 71 percent planned to focusing more on journey-mapping.1 Similarly, Forrester Research declared that journey maps are foundational to a customer experience program and reported that “73 percent of CX professionals surveyed … said that their company maps customer experiences from the customer’s perspective.”2

But what exactly is a journey map? While the meaning of the term varies, a common definition of “journey map” is a visualization of how your customers experience a journey such as shopping for a product, calling customer support or using a product for the first time.

Maps can show different types of journeys. Some show the entire customer life cycle from pre-sales to renewal or exit. More frequently, journey maps examine a specific phase of the life cycle. At our firm, we have mapped such diverse journeys as purchasing health insurance, invoicing at a B2B software company and understanding the multiyear membership journey at a large nonprofit.

A journey map’s most critical function is to show the experience through your customers’ eyes. This requires qualitative research. While some providers promote journey maps created solely in employee workshops, these run the real danger of institutionalizing employee biases as truth. Critical journeys always require outside research to ensure validity.

Journey map designs vary significantly. Some are created in Excel or PowerPoint, essentially grids showing customer steps and corresponding touchpoints. While a map like this does literally capture the journey, it lacks the visual call to action. To ensure visual impact, our practice is to use a graphic designer to create our maps. For this article, we will be using the accompanying examples to highlight critical requirements for a journey map.

While designs vary, several items are consistent across quality journey maps. The core of the map is your customers’ steps and the touchpoints used in those steps. In Figure 1, you can see how Passive Pat experiences his recovery from back surgery. Touchpoints may include staff, the Web site of a company or organization or, often, items outside of a company or organization’s control, such as Google or friends and family. We find that these external items often have a significant impact on your customer’s journey and need to be understood.

Maps need to clearly communicate your customers’ emotions. Notice how Pat’s comments are captured verbatim throughout the journey. Many maps show a customer’s level of positive and negative emotions rising and falling through the journey. The example in Figure 1 instead shows the level of Pat’s engagement. High points show engagement with his treatment plan but low points show the danger of his dropping out.

Most maps call out friction points – those items frustrating customers. The map for Passive Pat highlights a friction point with an exclamation point. Friction points require remediation but they are not always the biggest opportunity to improve your customer experience.

The most critical points in a journey are called moments of truth. Different providers have different ways to describe these moments but our usage is based on P&G’s original definition: an interaction with a disproportionate impact on the rest of the journey. Failed moments of truth either cause a customer to exit a journey (such as hearing negative word of mouth in a sales process) or lead to significant ongoing frustration (such as a bad B2B onboarding experience with a new software product). In the example above, Pat’s moment of truth is his check-in at six months. If he isn’t reengaged in his physical therapy program, he spirals down and eventually quits. If he can be reengaged, he stays with the regimen, eventually returning to full health. Managing their moments of truth is critical to improve your customers’ journey and thus their loyalty. (Other elements vary. Our white paper3 discusses common items found in an effective journey map.)

Outside-in, inside-out

Impactful journey maps are created through both customer research and employee workshops. Research offers an outside-in perspective, showing how customers view their experiences with you. Workshops feature an in-side-out view, highlighting employee views. While you should not use workshops alone, they do provide an important complement to research. A complete view of the customer journey requires both customer and employee views, and this is the methodology we will discuss in this article.

Research-based maps. Effective maps are analog, requiring qualitative research. Journey maps have the greatest impact when they highlight emotions. Uncovering these emotions requires direct conversations with customers. While a few providers use a quantitative approach, they run the significant risk of missing customer touchpoints, especially those out of the company’s direct control. We always begin with a qualitative approach, although we frequently follow up with quantitative validation of the hypotheses generated during the mapping process.

Just as with other qualitative research, the best methodology varies. Focus groups, ethnographic research and in-depth interviews all have a role, depending on the type of journey.

Focus groups allow multiple customers to map their journeys in a sticky-note activity, allowing you to observe how customers describe their experiences. The group dynamic also ensures that members remind each other of missing steps and gives participants the chance to share their individual stories.

Some journeys are too private for focus groups. A worker who suffered a severe injury will never share with a group of strangers that he now feels like less of a man. Ethnographic interviews or in-depth in-person one-one-one conversations build the trust and uncover the deep emotions.

B2B journey maps often require interviews. For example, insurance agents will never share how they prospect for new business when competitors are in the room.

However, all of these methods risk bias. Participants have a hard time recalling each individual step in the journey but will create answers to fill the gaps – answers that may not accurately reflect what really happened. For example, customers who filed a recent insurance claim will remember the accident and the moment they either did or did not receive compensation but are unlikely to recall all the individual steps between. We use journaling to ensure that participants record those individual moments and their reactions as they happen. We then use the other methodologies to follow up and delve more into the emotions.

Journey-mapping workshops. In journey-mapping workshops, employees document a customer’s typical journey. While most use the same journey-mapping term to describe these workshops, Forrester coined the term “ecosystem-mapping.” This differentiates it from the research-based maps and is also more descriptive. These workshops go beyond customer steps and emotions to document the employees and systems involved at each step of the journey. (A detailed description of how to run such workshops is beyond the scope of this article but we have developed a SlideShare offering on that topic.4)

Journey-mapping workshops by themselves are risky. Workshops without research create maps that show how your company views the journey, which is almost always very different from how your customers see it. That said, the employee view is a useful addition to the research. We run abbreviated hypothesis-mapping workshops at the kickoff to gather how employees view the customer journey. We then run full ecosystem-mapping work-shops following the research to help employees internalize their customers’ views as well as to document the groups and systems involved in the ecosystem.

Six steps

Journey-mapping typically involves six steps. A brief description of each step follows.

1. Select a journey. Defining the scope can be challenging. Define it too narrowly and you miss crucial inputs. Define it too broadly and you miss the detailed emotions needed to fully understand your moments of truth.

One common approach is to start with the high-level, end-to-end journey map. This will show where your customers experience the greatest friction. From here, you can launch separate projects to map these more challenging sub-journeys. But there are also other ways to find your most important journeys.

Existing research such as satisfaction surveys often highlight journeys that need attention. For example, a B2B software client received markedly low scores on invoicing, making it an ideal topic for a journey-mapping project.

Business metrics are also useful. A different B2B software company found that the number of incoming leads was much lower than it expected. The firm commissioned us to map the pre-sales journey to better understand how prospects search for information on products and services, including with our client’s competitors.

Business changes often lead to a need to better understand the existing experience. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, a health insurance company commissioned us to help it better understand how individuals shop for health insurance.

2. Focus on personas. Any existing customer personas or segments are critical inputs to the journey-mapping project. Different types of customers have different journeys and segmentation research is a key input. In the health insurance example above, we researched how the firm’s four most important customer segments shop differently. (See sidebar.)

If personas do not exist, create them as part of the research. We create separate journey maps for each persona, showing clear differences in engagement and often different touchpoints used by each.

For a nonprofit client, we used focus groups to meet with a broad variety of members, developing three personas in the process. Each had a dramatically different journey and the personas helped employees better internalize the results. These personas also play a central role in their ongoing member experience strategy.

Contrast the maps in Figure 2 and Figure 3 with the map for Passive Pat. You’ll notice that Motivated Molly is the ideal patient. While she has her challenges, Molly is motivated throughout the journey, taking full advantage of her doctor’s advice, whereas Discouraged Debbie eventually drops out. Passive Pat is in the middle; he can be motivated if sufficiently encouraged, but also is at real risk for quitting. Each persona reflects a type of customer whom employees immediately recognize, helping them to apply the learning.

3. Conduct the qualitative research. Include both high- and low-engagement customers to see if their experiences differ. For the nonprofit client mentioned above, we included a screener question asking members about their commitment level. For the health insurance company, we included both its customers and those who use competitors. When studying property and casualty insurance agents, we included both those who write a lot of business with our client and those who rarely do. We often find great differences between the groups, which directly impacts our mapping results.

4. Use a designer. A Google search on journey maps will show a wide variety of designs. While many are linear, some are circular. Some show a Post-it Note-style layout while others use illustrations. There are best practices for what constitutes an effective journey map. Our white paper provides more details.5

We use professional designers for our maps. We find that their clean design makes the maps easier for viewers to understand and also makes repurposing the maps easier. We incorporate our clients’ brand guidelines to create the final look. See Figure 4 for a different take on a journey-map design. This was designed as a three-foot fold-out map that employees could carry with them.

5. Run an ecosystem-mapping workshop. Ecosystem-mapping workshops add customer-facing employees and systems as well as backstage activities, employees and systems. We use the steps, touchpoints and emotions from the research-based journey map and then ask employees to document the rest of the customer ecosystem, basing each component on what the customer is doing at that time.

  • These workshops have several benefits:
  • They help employees better internalize the research by relating their world to what customers reported.
  • The workshop creates rich dialogue between employee silos, the inhabitants of which often do not regularly in-teract. There is a real danger of finger-pointing, so effective facilitation is crucial.
  • Friction points are often caused by back-end activities earlier in the journey. By building the complete customer ecosystem, we see how back-end activities relate to customer moments of truth.

6. Run action-planning. The journey-mapping process never fails to show both quick wins and areas that require longer-term investment. Once they have time to internalize the journey maps, employees come to action-planning filled with ideas. The process ends with a complete customer-focused plan to remove friction from an experience to create long-term loyalty.

Prioritize opportunities

The journey-mapping process itself does not offer direct return on investment but the projects it inspires always pay for the research. By demonstrating how your customers view their experience with you today, your journey maps help you prioritize opportunities.

Companies use journey maps in a number of ways, including:

Discovering the barriers to loyalty. Many journey maps are commissioned to help build a more loyal customer base. The journey maps for a nonprofit client showed how one persona yearned for a more personal connection. Without this, they drifted away over time.

Uncovering the current prospect research process. Another common practice is to use journey maps to understand the current sales journey. A CEB study revealed that 57 percent of a typical B2B purchase decision is made before a customer even talks to a supplier.6 Journey maps show how the sales process unfolds. See the sidebar for an example of a consumer sales journey.

Prioritizing investment. When creating a journey map for a distributor, their team was divided on whether to focus resources on a new Web site or reinvest in the sales channel. When we mapped both the distributor’s existing sales journey and that of competitors, it quickly became clear that customers did not frequently use distributor Web sites but instead relied on their relationships with the field sales channel. This provided the clarity needed to build a new sales plan.

Initiating design. Journey-mapping naturally leads to designing a new experience. Journey maps show current need states, especially when competitor journeys are included.

Training staff. Journey maps can create wide-scale impact when used to help develop training programs. Their visual nature clearly communicates customer needs and emotions, helping build employee-customer empathy.

Changing the culture. Journey maps can play a central role in cultural transformation, showing both the current state and where changes need to be made to improve the customer experience.

While they look different, journey maps rely on the same core skills as other impactful research projects. By effectively showcasing customer relationships and their moments of truth, journey maps can become central to any customer experience program and deserve a place on your wall.

1 “State of the CX profession, 2014,” Temkin Group, February 2014.

2 Tony Costa, “Journey mapping best practices,” Forrester, May 21, 2014.

3 “Creating a customer-focused customer experience journey map,” white paper, Heart of the Customer, www.heartofthecustomer.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/creating-a-customer-focused-customer-experience-map-white-paper1.pdf.

4 SlideShare – “Creating a customer-focused customer experience journey map,” Heart of the Customer, www.heartofthecustomer.com/slideshare-creating-a-customer-focused-customer-experience-journey-map.

5 “Creating a customer-focused customer experience journey map” white paper, Heart of the Customer, op. cit.

6 “Sell how your customers want to buy,” CEB.