Once upon a time the customer journey

Michele Caprini
In brief
To what extent is it possible for retail to respond promptly and effectively to often rapid and unpredictable changes in demand? And consequently to what extent is it really possible to offer a personalized experience through all direct and indirect points of contact with the consumer? Whatever answer you come up with, it is not definitive: the paths through which the purchase choice is made are innumerable and varied. For sure, there is only one initial effort: identifying and understanding the origins and links between retail, digital media and communication.

One of the main reasons for the interconnection between retail, digital media and communication is the evolution of the customer journey. Today those who buy go through different stages of awareness, evaluation and conversion, both in-store and online. Furthermore, many buying behaviours are no longer attributable to this or that channel, nor are they exclusive to specific platforms.

This interconnection has been accelerated by COVID-19, but it certainly is neither contextual nor subsequent to this. The complexity of the customer journey has been steadily increasing for years, making its traceability much more difficult and any claims to control it unrealistic

The customer journey and lost linearity

Tracking the customer journey is not an easy challenge, due to the multiplicity of direct and indirect points of contact with brands and the speed that characterizes the various stages of the customer lifecycle. Indeed, the customer is more convinced than ever that those who sell should understand his needs and expectations and makes them the discriminating factor of choice. All this, however, often exceeds his own wishes and awareness.

While it used to be crucial to create opportunities for impulse purchases in the store or a supermarket aisle, in the digital age the customer journey has infinite origins and paths: for the retailer it can start with the loyalty card and end up competing or collaborating with Netflix.

COVID-19 has accelerated a natural market trend: the consumption share on online channels has increased dramatically, forcing almost all sectors to scale up their digital experiences or, as in the case of FMCG, adopt them for the first time, with aftershocks that will be felt for a long time to come.

eCommerce has grown in D2C websites and beyond. People who buy a brand’s products today frequently do so on marketplaces all over the world, such as Amazon, eBay, Mercado Libre, Taobao and many others. Social media platforms have moved towards building their own eCommerce capabilities and many brands have taken notice by investing accordingly, given that most channels also offer advertising options. The result is a physical, online and media communication ecosystem from which it is difficult to opt out.

Digital marketing

Consequently, brands, advertisers and digital marketers are intertwining their spheres of action, in a context where the effectiveness of consumer communication must be balanced with the adequate – and problematic – allocation of budgets. Let us try to summarise the spirit of the moment in this way: from “enter into the shop and buy from me, today” to “enter into the shop or the website, have a direct experience, create your wish list on your smartphone, follow us everywhere and come back wherever you want”.

Retailers sit on a wealth of shopping data and can choose whether or not to focus on their own channels. Marketplaces rely on the number of customers and on the influx of traffic, where brands are an element of appeal and enjoy the privilege of promoting to large audiences unreachable in any other way. Advertisers need to model their intervention on the online behaviour of consumers, combining demographic and behavioural data and the specificities of time and place.

Digital marketing seems to be a possible synthesis of such complexity. The speed, compulsions and often irrationality of the customer journey are answered by direct interaction with the customer (who is, is no longer or will be there) and the timeliness of the intervention, which are denied by the traditional forms of marketing and advertising. Less planning, less mediation, more immediacy, autonomy and governance of the commercial action: retail in the era of connected customer passes from here.

This applies to corporate websites, mobile apps, social media presence, search engines, advertising, email automation and direct or indirect proposition on marketplaces. But there is a but

Uniqueness of vision

The increase in touchpoints has been seen correctly as a strategic opportunity for business transformation and control (or, at least, conditioning) of the customer journey, through a hyper-connected, omnichannel relationship with customers. But the advantage given by technology can be lost in the fragmentation and dispersion of management tools.

In retail, the single unified vision of the customer is fundamental, and must be based on the uniqueness of the data. This, in turn, should be matched by the interaction between the various business divisions, which is not the norm.

What is instead much more normal is that customers are flooded with irrelevant, untimely and contradictory messages. Let us think, for example, of a negative experience with a delivery or a product on which the customer service is already working to solve the problem and, nevertheless, the customer receives an upsell email or a review request. This due to the fact that the trouble ticketing system, the CRM and the mailing and campaign management tools are only calibrated on their own specific profiling.

The customer journey and, more generally, the customer’s relationship with the brand and the store cannot be addressed without consistency of approach. Confusion cannot be added to complexity; the impossible synthesis of one and the other is a sure recipe for bad results.

E pluribus unum

The obligatory question at this point is: given the dispersion of the points of origin, is it really possible to control the customer journey?

It is certainly not easy, but technology allows good coverage of the pre-purchase journey. When a customer is recognised in the various channels and at different points of his journey, the synthesis of information allows access to a single unified vision and act promptly. However, it is necessary to make the data consistent, homogeneous and easily accessible by each business division and by the partners involved in the commercial action: one single profile for everybody.

In order to obtain the maximum possible from the knowledge of the customer journey, retailers must collect data, process it and act accordingly, combining typical distribution practices with the technologies, skills and functionalities of sales, marketing and communication, whose boundaries are now difficult to trace or, at times, missing altogether.

This as a premise and at the same time positive consequence of the relationship with the customer in terms of visibility, recognition, competitiveness, sales volume and profitability. These needs have always been essential, regardless of the technological maturity of the moment.