Y2K called; it wants it Customer Journey back!

3 reasons most B-to-B Customer Journeys fail, and how to change that!

A client hired me a while back to help them develop a customer decision making journey for one of their B-to-B divisions. They wanted to better understand how their potential customers made decisions about which brands to purchase and use in their business and the various sources they used to inform their decisions. The ultimate objective being to use the learning to inform next year’s marketing plan and help increase sales in this specific vertical.

During my discovery phase, I was surprised to find out that they had already done a similar exercise a year earlier that was summarized in a 270 pages PowerPoint deck. And while this analysis was very detailed and rigorous, no one was actually using it or acting upon the findings. Those who created it were frustrated that their learnings weren’t acted upon (and at first didn’t like my involvement very much) and the business and marketing leaders were frustrated because they didn’t feel like they had any insight or direction to help inform their business and marketing plans.

Customer-decision-making-journeys have seen an increase in corporate interest over the last few years, also in the B-to-B sector. I too had the opportunity to help my clients in a variety of different B-to-B sectors better understand where and how to better connect with their customers to drive their business growth.

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned through those projects is that in the world of B-to-B, the current traditional approach to customer journey development and the assumptions underlying this “traditional” approach simply do not reflect today’s business and customer reality and are therefore generally useless. They are time-consuming and expensive to create and often do not yield the desired actionable learnings they were designed to produce.

Why is that?

One major reason is that most approaches to Customer Journey development find their origins in the early 2000s, in UX (User Experience) design for websites. This approach is typically used to understand how an individual would go about navigating through a website to accomplish a specific task or a series of tasks. It would typically start with a “persona” definition and include a few scenarios, tasks that the user would want to accomplish on the site (buy something, compare options, seek information, etc.). Based on the nature of a website experience, the process of this individual web user is obviously linear and sequential, one step following the next in a linear fashion (from the main menu to the product page to the financing page, etc.) and where each step serves a specific purpose in the decision making process.

And that’s where most problems with customer journey thinking in the B-to-B sector start.

Group decision making rather than individual decision making: The decision-making process in B-to-B is usually not an individual one, where one person does all the research and makes all the decisions. In fact, according to Gartner over 2/3 of all purchase decisions for technology service providers, for example, are made in groups. Groups that generally include 3 or more business centers or departments and 8 or more individuals, each with their own needs, requirements, decision making criteria and objectives. This is true in the technology sector, and, based on my experience, it is also true in most B-to-B sectors.

Touch-point specific content versus multi-use content: Further, the traditional approach to customer journey development assumes that the customer’s decision-making process is linear and sequential where each touchpoint requires a different piece of content, tailored to the specific needs of that person in that stage of the journey. Again, this does not reflect the way B-to-B stakeholders inform their decisions. In fact, Sirius points out that while the “average” organization uses around 19 different sources of information to inform their decision (out of a pool of 41 potential sources), much of the content they use will be used repeatedly throughout the journey for different reasons. As such, an analyst report might be used early in the process to identify the key providers in a specific industry, but this same analyst report will then be used in the final selection process phase. Also, the different stakeholders involved in the solution-finding process may use the same content but at a different phase in their journey. So, the same content will typically be used by one stakeholder at different stages in the process while also being used by a different stakeholder at a completely different stage in the process.

Focus on tactics rather than strategies: the focus of many customer journey projects is on tactics -the actual touchpoints- rather than strategies, where the desired outcome is often an adjustment in the tactics used at the various touchpoints (book ads in this magazine versus that magazine, provide more of a specific type of content at this specific touchpoint, etc., etc. ). In my experience with B-to-B however, the real implications are often of strategic nature and affect the brand’s go-to-market strategy and the way the organization operates. It can affect the structure and composition of the sales force for example, or the type of services it provides to potential customers to improve their experience, etc…which are often substantial and strategic changes rather than tactical ones.

Good luck managing this type of customer journey map!

In light of these B-to-B realities, good luck trying to map out this complexity. And frankly, even if you took the time to do so, the outcome wouldn’t be manageable and actionable. as you wouldn’t be able to create enough protocols to account for all the options. And yet, I still see consultants recommending this approach (I recently bid against an agency recommending this approach and quoting $250K for the project), and frankly, clients embracing it as well, leading to the 270 pages deck I mentioned above that end up not getting used.

So, the question then becomes, how should a B-to-B organization approach and design a customer decision-making journey project? Here is what I have learned helps me come up with actionable tactics and strategies for my clients:

Focus on insights, not data: This point sounds so obvious and yet most customer decision making journeys focus on data rather than insights. That’s what happens when you hire a “researcher” -whose natural mindset is to capture, and report back the learning in all their details rather than to focus on the driving insights that make the findings actionable and useful. The effort is on capturing the complexity of the journey I described above in all its glory details rather than on identifying the key drivers of decision making which in my experience can often be reduced to 3 or 4 key elements. That’s the difference between a 270 pages deck that isn’t acted upon and the 40 pages deck I ultimately used to summarize the learning for the client I mentioned above, which was then indeed used to inform their marketing plan.

Focus on the decision-making process, not the touchpoints: Again, this seems obvious but is so often ignored. In fact, the typical purpose of a journey creation exercise is to identify and understand all the touchpoints (content, human interactions, etc.), a potential customer uses to inform her decision.  As such, you might find out that she reads these 6 magazines, attends these 2 yearly tradeshows and is a member of a specific online chat group in addition to interacting regularly with various salespeople. You may look at all these touchpoints -and lay them out in your journey chart- as being equally important. And in the process ignore the real factors that drive her decision and that often transcendent touchpoint or are not even captured on the current customer journey. If you don’t ask the right questions during the research process, if you focus on the where rather than the how (a decision is made), or if you perceive each touchpoint as equally important (which you would do with a research frame of mind), the real answers to your question will be buried in the details of the research.

Focus on strategic implications, rather than tactical ones: The objective of most customer journey projects is still to identify and prioritize what type of content -or experience- is required at each successive touchpoint to “move” the customer along his decision-making process. It’s still very tactical in nature (what type of content do I need in my social media strategy? what magazines do I need to advertise in? which expos should attend? etc.). And that’s nice and good but in my experience not the key to success. The successful outcome of a CDJ exploration is seldom “write a white paper and publish it in a trade magazine” (even though that may be important too) and you’ll convert all your potential customers. Instead the real value of a CDJ project is in its ability to impact the way a business operates and the strategic priorities it helps identify.  So the implication and recommendation might deal with the composition of the salesforce, or the service that is not yet provided but that would address the key pain point of potential customers in their decision-making process or even the experience of current customers as a way to reduce the organization’s churn rate or increase is Net Promoter Score (if that’s the core driver in the decision making process).  

Focus on the total customer experience, not just the acquisition phase: this point is particularly relevant in IT and in a world moving towards a SaaS type business model. But it is equally applicable to every industry in which potential customers rely first and foremost on the feedback of peers (current or former customers of a specific vendor) to inform their decision before even reaching out to the aforementioned vendors themselves.  In these cases, the reputation and Net Promoter Score of a company is determined by the quality of the experience of its existing customers and a significant source of influence on potential customers.

Most Customer Journeys are: Instead, Customer journeys should be:
Descriptive Prescriptive
Research-focused (trying to be as descriptive and complete as possible to explain every single step in the journey in detail) Insight-focused, highlighting actionable insights that will have the biggest impact on the business and that prioritize the touchpoints along the journey
Tactical (focusing on tactics at each touchpoint) Strategic (help understand and re-define the business)
Exhaustive & extremely detailed Focusing on the top 2 or three priorities
Focused on company needs (sales funnel or UX) Focused on consumer needs
Capture every touchpoint with the same details Prioritizes 1 to 3 main and most significant touchpoints
Linear Often circular
Focus on the “where” (touchpoints used to make the decision) Focus on the “how” (a decision is made)

How you approach a customer decision-making journey project often affects who you assign to the project. Make it a pure research or even UX project and you often end up with a more traditional approach to journey development that doesn’t reflect today’s business reality any longer and that gets summarized in a 270 pages presentation. Of course, it may lead to some improvement suggestions, but those improvements will typically be incremental. Instead, make it a strategic assignment, led by a strategist, and you’ll not only save a lot of time and money but you’ll also come out with a shortlist of insights that can actually be acted upon and that will have a stronger impact on the business.

Are you thinking about optimizing your customer journey? Or do you have a 270 pages analysis deck that no one in your organization is using?  Then I’d love to talk to you.  

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