The new digital customer journey: Cross-channel, mobile, social, self-service, and engaged

The sheer proliferation of new online devices and digital consumer channels is pushing leading-edge companies to rethink how they connect with and engage their customers. Here's how an integrated portfolio of technologies including self-service mobile apps, customer communities, and open product development is reshaping today's customer journey.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Businesses planning today to improve their connection to customers in digital channels are increasingly looking at the discipline of mapping out what's being called the 'customer journey'.  Over the last ten years, the fragmentation of customer engagement across dozens of channels has turned into both a highly vexing problem and an increasingly disruptive challenge to businesses that still keep doing what used to work, but are getting sharply falling off results from old touchpoints like TV, phone, and e-mail.

This fragmentation of customer touchpoints cuts across marketing, sales, customer service, and even product development. In short, customers have moved to the digital world en masse, and companies have not kept up. Yes, it's true that most businesses currently realize they need to evolve. They know they must acquire suite of capable mobile apps, an effective strategy for connecting with consumers in social media, a workable plan for inbound search, and a good way to stay connected with consumers so they can build strong, long-term relationships, instead of merely engage in still-vital yet far less strategic point transactions.

At this point, you may ask -- given that it's often hard to pin down the big shifts in society and culture until after they happen -- what exactly is the imperative for companies to shift from transactions to engagement? For example, in my recent post on the strategic value of customer communities, I highlighted data that shows that customers engaged socially typically results in double digit gains in revenue. More importantly, strategic relationships both online and offline tend to be a zero-sum game. You typically only need one most-valuable business partner for a given function, if they understand your needs and cater to them. In this way, deep digital engagement is the future.

The Customer Experience Mapping for Digital and Offline: Social, Mobile, SEO, etc.


Yet the historical vagaries of how companies have applied technology to the customer relationship has meant that solutions have long been channel-centric, instead of customer-centric. While the majority of companies certainly do have modern call centers, social media marketing plans, e-mail campaigns, a mobile app strategy, an SEO policy, and so on, they are frequently unsynchronized and siloed. It's also highly likely these channels are also not monitored well and fall far short of the participation levels required to achieve ROI. They are also usually not mapped well to the customer experience or the company's overall digital strategy, despite the importance of doing so.

In fact, given the amount of communications and engagement technology most companies now have, it's entirely too common today for customers to have to figure out who to contact at a company to get something done. In many companies I encounter, there is often little connection across the marketing teams, sales teams, to the customer care team, each of which have to little context from others, outside of a few electronic customer records, and with little deliberate plan for how the customer should travel between them.

Just as challenging, new digital channels are accumulating faster than many companies can integrate them into their customer experience. New social networks, mobile devices, app stores, online touchpoints like fan sites, customer communities, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc. seem to emerge on a weekly basis.  If that wasn't enough, customers are more ready to interact than ever before, further creating challenges of scale: Even if a company could integrate a new digital engagement channel into their efforts, these new venues are far more two-way. Customers expect a meaningful response to their attempts to connect with the companies they are interested in or otherwise desire involvement.

So this is the opportunity and the challenge combined: Engaged customers generate more revenue and stay more involved with the companies that respond in kind. Yet it's very challenging to meet their demands for engagement without fundamentally changing the rules of how companies connect with them. Interestingly, there are also growing indications, such as with packaged foods giant Kellogs recently, that digital approaches such as location-aware apps can actually help unify disparate channels, such as offline in-store presence with mobile applications for instance.

While there are a few excellent examples of robust, broad-spectrum cross-channel digital engagement that we can point to (Nike springs to mind, as does SAP, and even recently United Airlines has made much-needed leaps in the right direction), most companies are struggling mightily with the 1) fast-changing customer engagement landscape, 2) internally siloed customer functions, and 3) the often-profound transformation of organization, process, and culture required to properly engage in today's new digital, open, transparent and two-way customer channels.

Related: Gartner: CIOs and CMOs must 'turn sparks into flame'

Planning journeys is useful, but addressing unmet needs has the impact

There is already plenty of advice for companies trying to up their game when it comes to a more modernized customer journey. Almost all of them are being told to map the new journey out in detail, which can indeed define and communicate a useful "to be" end state for the company to rally around.

Personally, I find that defining clear objectives makes this exercise have the most value. What then should companies use as an organizing imperative for such efforts? Fortunately, customers too have similar challenges to company's today: Life is getting more complex, not less. And this gives us some easy targets to start focusing on as we increase integration between digital touchpoints, which customer experience experts like Ernan Roman are suggesting should be the focus:

  • Solve a problem. Make a pain point go away, such as seamlessly conveying the current status of orders in any desired channel, or providing an innovative new way to participate in the co-design of a new product or service. Or perhaps do what T-mobile recently did, and use cues in social media to pro-actively engage with customers to save the relationship.
  • Make life simpler. Remove the time, effort, and/or friction the customer has in engaging with you. I frequently make the point that companies tend to think of the customer experience in silos, where they are the only partner to the customer, which couldn't be further from the truth. Many smart next-generation companies are surrounding the old guard using concierge services and aggregators to give customers what they really want: Simple ways of accessing information and controlling their lives. Fortunately, taking customer engagement strategy up a level so that companies consider the whole contextual customer experience, as strategically important as it is, is just one useful way of simplifying the customer experience.
  • Engage the customer. The core of the problem companies have in onboarding new digital channels such as social media, is that customers will then expect the company to respond and participate in conversations. And engagement at scale is one of the hardest things for companies to do as they are organized today, despite plenty of studies confirming the significant value in doing so. Remove the barriers to doing engaging in scale and make it a success by supplying tools and proactive organizational policiies to orchestrate advocates (employee, partner, and customer) to do the work whenever possible.

The one thing that is ultimately untenable is ignoring customer needs. And although many large companies are making strides in all of these areas, it also seems clear that smart new industry entrants are rewiring their customers' journey for the old guard, disintermediating them or otherwise dislocating their customer experiences in the process. Good examples of this include taxi service app Uber and financial services aggregation firm Mint, to name just two of many startups providing customers the experiences they really want using the underlying assets of other traditional businesses. This then is the real long-term existential threat of not understanding the full journey your customers want to take, and then being sure to provide it for them.

Related: A new reality between the CMO and CIO

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