Building a customer journey mapping program

A proven six-step process can help your organization understand, design, and improve customer experience

Learn how to create a customer journey map with our proven six-step to improve customer experience.

​​You may wonder why your customer-renewal rate has fallen, or why customers take longer than expected to accomplish a task on your website. The best way to get useful answers is to understand customers’ experience as they interact with your company and its products and services. Are they delighted? Are they frustrated?

Mapping out the customer’s journey can teach us so much about what is and isn’t working. In fact, it’s the foundation for understanding and managing the customer’s end-to-end experience.

Visualizing the customer journey

The customer journey map is a visual representation of how customers are interacting with your products, services, people, tools, websites, and content. It exposes gaps between customer expectations and what your company is delivering, so that you can prioritize improvements and intentionally design better experiences.

Successful customer journey mapping at scale takes commitment, but establishing an ongoing program fosters a deep understanding of the customer experience throughout the organization. That, in turn, allows leadership teams to prioritize investments to improve it.

Research conducted by the Aberdeen Group for McorpCX found that companies with formal journey mapping programs have significantly higher year-over-year growth than companies that don’t, including a 54% greater return on marketing investment, a tenfold improvement in the cost of customer service, and 56% more cross and up-sell revenue.

Though the value of customer journey management is clear, less than 40% of companies engage in any such process, the Aberdeen Group found.

Six steps to creating a customer journey map

We’ve created a six-step process for building and scaling a successful and sustainable customer journey mapping program, drawing on more than 25 years of our combined experience working on companies’ customer journey mapping practices and launching these programs as internal CX leaders.

Step 1: Get buy-in and select the right journey

Getting your senior executives to commit to a journey mapping program is critical. That commitment is not only to time and resources but also to continual learning and action. Leaders need to allocate time for key employees to participate throughout the process, from giving interviews to running and launching new initiatives spurred by the findings.

A successful journey mapping program starts with deciding which journey to map. We recommend starting with a high-level view into the end-to-end journey of your most important persona, from the moment they first become aware of your product all the way through to becoming a loyal customer. This highlights any serious gaps in what’s being delivered to customers and becomes the foundation for your broader journey management program. Down the road, you might consider a specific journey map that goes deeper into one phase or another of the journey, such as customer support or renewals.

A successful journey mapping program starts with deciding which journey to map.

Step 2: Create a hypothesis map

A hypothesis map is a draft customer journey map. To start, collect all existing voice of the customer (VOC) data, operational data, and previous customer studies. At the same time, interview key employees, especially those who are customer-facing or have the most comprehensive view of customer pain points, to understand what they think is most important to the customer and what the customers’ experiences with the company are.

Then, use this rich input to build the hypothesis map, charting how the customer experiences each phase of their journey. The map most often includes the customer’s goals, the steps they take, their touchpoints with your company, their top challenges and pain points, and their emotions. We strongly recommend that a cross-functional team review the hypothesis map, identify knowledge gaps, and prioritize where to go deeper with customer research to ensure accuracy.

A well-researched hypothesis map highlights key questions for customers and pinpoints knowledge gaps, creating a game plan that ensures your customer interviews will be as productive and valuable as possible.

Step 3: Validate with customer research

Too many organizations cut corners and rely solely on employee input and existing data. That’s a mistake. If you don’t conduct research and validation activities directly with the customer, you won’t have a true customer journey map. And you won’t have the all-important lightbulb moments that so often come with speaking directly with customers.

A healthcare insurance company we worked with conducted a journey mapping project focused on Medicare customers. The internal team assumed that the over-65 crowd would be very technologically limited and not able to leverage the digital tools available to them. During the focus groups, the participants talked about all the things they did online, and one of the oldest participants, at almost 90 years old, showed us how she was deftly navigating healthcare apps.

It was a huge insight for the company, which prompted it to pivot strategy on supporting Medicare customers.

Make sure you talk to customers who fit into the persona you selected and can talk to as much of the journey as possible. Someone without extensive experience with your solution or service will not be able to provide feedback on their experiences in those areas, so it is important to screen customers carefully, to ensure enough customer learning takes place to fill in the knowledge gaps and validate the journey map.

To conduct the research, either ask customers directly to participate or hire vendors that can handle recruiting and, if needed, moderate customer interactions. Customer advisory boards are often a great avenue to finding large numbers of customers.

From there, create a discussion guide that starts broadly and then narrows in on specific phases of the experience.

Starting broad means asking about the highest points and lowest points of their experience with your company. You can then go through the experience phase by phase, having the customer explain to you what they want to accomplish, how they experience their interactions with your company, the main challenges, and how they feel about all this. Use your hypothesis map to probe more deeply.

For example, if the internal team thinks completing the purchase of the product is a big challenge, but the customer doesn’t bring it up, ask specifically about that part of the experience. Be sure to capture direct quotes to back up your customer journey map with the actual voice of the customer.

As with all customer research, there is no single best way to do it. Research can be in-person or virtual, with individual customers or groups of customers. During the pandemic, we had great success using Miro, a digital whiteboard, and other collaboration tools to run virtual journey mapping sessions. Decide the best approach for your company, depending on which customer persona you’re targeting.

Step 4: Synthesize all the data to create the journey map

Your journey map should represent a specific persona, include key touchpoints, and show the high and low points of the customer experience. Some organizations prefer to format these maps as data and text. Others opt for simple visuals that include backup details. Pick or design a template that has the information necessary to drive customer empathy and action.

Here is one we use from Kerry Bodine & Company that gives a clear visual picture of the highs and lows, as well as the importance of each touchpoint. For online collaboration, Miro offers this template. Custellence provides one focused on ideating around the journey.

Since the journey map is often a one-page visual, we recommend including a report with rich insights and a detailed synthesis of the data gathered, including direct customer sentiment and quotes, VoC data, operational data, and employee input. Pro tip: highlight the internal hypotheses that were incorrect, as those are often the most surprising findings.

Step 5: Take action

Now that you have your map and accompanying insights, schedule debrief meetings with your executive team and business leaders. Work with these stakeholders to align on which parts of the journey are thorniest. Once the top customer pain points are identified, they should be prioritized. You can use a simple two-by-two matrix that weighs the level of effort for the organization against the value to the customer. (Note that this might reveal pain points that are too expensive or too labor-intensive to fix.)

After ranking the top challenges, it’s time to codify your approach to improving the customer experience. You’ll be able to address some pain points by tweaking an existing workstream or process. Other challenges won’t have a clear solution, which is where a design-thinking framework comes in.

Your customer journey map and research are also a valuable communications and culture-building tool. Employees adopt customer-centric attitudes and behaviors when they feel empathy with the customer. Sharing customer journey maps widely throughout the organization, along with introducing empathy exercises and immersion activities, gets everyone energized to do whatever is necessary to improve the customer experience.

Step 6: Do it all over again

Now that you have your highest-level journey completed for your most important persona, it’s time to dig into your next journey. What are the thorniest and most complex experiences that your customers go through? What is another persona that experiences more pain relative to other customers? That’s where you should go next.

Over time, you’ll map all major customer journeys. A good rule of thumb is to put each major customer experience through an annual mapping exercise to ensure improvements are continually being made by analyzing the data year over year. Other triggers for updating a journey map include major modifications to a product experience, changes to how customers perceive the market, or M&A events.

Once customer journey mapping becomes ingrained in your organization, it will be easier to ensure that all new experiences are intentionally designed for maximum customer happiness.