Editor's note: Jim Tincher is mapper-in-chief at Heart of the Customer, a Minneapolis research firm.

The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, the fourth-largest Y association in the world, knew it earned high marks for programming and service overall, but recognized that its customers would be more likely to thrive, and maintain their memberships, if it learned more about the early stages of their wellness journeys. What led people to join the Y? What were their needs and expectations? What more could the Y be doing to encourage them? These were the insights that would boost member satisfaction and loyalty. But when you serve 250,000 people across the entire Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, where do you start?

Prior efforts to enhance the customer experience using Six Sigma methodology fell short. The Y experience is unique for each customer and segment, so using internal journey-mapping and quantitative data to standardize and improve performance failed to produce the desired outcome. Instead, it resulted in findings inadvertently tainted by organizational biases, and muddled operations with little interdepartmental collaboration or oversight.

Senior Director of Member Engagement Andrea Krohnberg and Chief Experience Officer Bob Thomas knew a different approach was needed. They wanted a customer-focused look at member retention that would provide valid and valuable insights into what their customers were thinking and feeling as they joined the Y community. That’s when they turned to our firm, Heart of the Customer (HoC), a Minneapolis journey-mapping and customer experience company.

We emphasized from the start that HoC’s journey-mapping process was about more than just creating a map. Each step would propel the project toward the ultimate goal: helping the Y develop cost-effective, actionable solutions.“Jim and his team made it clear that putting the customer first would necessitate a top...