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In northern Virginia, we are plagued by shopping centers with the most horribly engineered parking lots ever seen—some lots capable of holding thousands of cars, but with as few as ONE entry/exit! And many of these goofily engineered areas seem to be plagued with "parking pockets": Just when you turn a corner and think you're on your way to escape from the "lot of doom," you dead-end at a random curb and are forced to turn around and find another way out.

As I toured one such parking lot one weekend, frustrated and digging my nails into the leather on my steering wheel, it occurred to me how much this is like customer experience on a larger scale.

Imagine a plot of land from the top down. Beyond a parking lot, your landscape may be a piece of land that is relatively untouched terrain or a plot of ground with existing buildings, roads, signs and features. Let's call this parcel of land your "landscape for brand discovery."

People can enter your property in many different ways. They may drive right through it, follow a trail, fly by, hike through the forest, paddle in on a canoe, drop in with a parachute, hitch a ride with someone... or, heck, swing in from a vine! Sometimes we can predict where they'll come from, and sometimes they'll just surprise us. You get the picture. These are our customers.

We are marketers, product managers, business planners, customer service experts, designers, IT professionals. We are the architects, the engineers tasked with collectively sculpting the landscape to create an organized, safe, and pleasing environment for exploration and discovery. Our job is to anticipate where the people will come from and carve out a system of paths, signs, or instructions that will lead customers to a desired and satisfying end.

Often, the challenge is that we work in teams in a disjointed manner. As a result, we can often fail to fully complete or connect customer pathways (at a programmatic level) to ensure customers have a cohesive experience—or set of experiences. As a result, the customer landscape is often complicated by challenges that can frustrate the journey and undermine success.

In an age of customer experience playing an increasing role in economic value, loyalty, and market differentiation, it's important to recognize these areas of disconnect. Jumping into the customer's shoes and exploring the landscape for brand discovery is a great way to search out the common pitfalls that damage customer experience. Consider:

  • Dead ends. Leaving customers with no outlet or a sense of "unfinished business" can contribute to frustration and a very negative brand perception. Steer clear of creating dead-end conversations with customers and always provide clear direction, "navigational" options, and an outlet for resolution.

  • Roadblocks. Do obstacles on the path prevent your customers from taking the next step or getting what they really want? Forcing your customers to deal with unanticipated or irresolvable barriers (e.g., price, availability, features, service) will taint their experiences and lead to dissatisfaction.

  • Detours. Are there areas of the cross-channel experience (gaps, disconnects, or distractions) that invite customers down an undesirable path? Good programs keep audiences focused by proactively anticipating and responding to customer need and staying the course to drive desired outcomes.

  • Loops. Nobody likes to get the run around. By checking the logic of your interaction and dialog sequences, within and across programs, you can identify dynamics that have the potential to run customers in circles. It's important to fix these areas of circular logic in every channel to minimize frustration and produce satisfaction.

  • Rough terrain. Are there areas of your experience that exhaust the customer? Are they asked to jump through too many hoops on the pathway to loyalty? Asking too much of customers can establish barriers to entry that negatively impact results. Ease the journey to ensure customers feel like coming back.

  • Hazardous drop-offs. These are especially predominant in the post-transactional areas of service and support. Does experience unexpectedly drop off in any area, leaving the customer cold or causing injury to customer relationship? How we finish is as important as how we start. We are stewards of our customers and their experiences. It's important to guide them in safe passage if we want future loyalty.

  • Merges. As customers move from one path to another (e.g., Silver to Platinum Member) are the changes presented clearly—and celebrated as necessary? Over time, customers often shift segments. They also may participate in multiple programs or offerings and purchase multiple times. It's important to ensure that the relationship between transactions, programs, and offerings are clearly presented and seamlessly offered across channels.

  • Entry, exit, and access points. Do customers "circle the block" looking for your driveway? Is it intuitive for a customer to find you, or access transactional information, products, and services? Make it easy for any customer to engage and disengage with appropriate ease.

  • Way-finding. Is the way clear? Is the path well illuminated and marked? Do your customers know where to go, how to transact, and what your benefits are? Shoot for an ergonomic experience that naturally fits with customer behavior patterns and is intuitively simple. Test and improve this constantly.

Taking the time to rise above our limited perspective can help us more rationally assess the terrain and the pathways we have created for customers. We can also better understand customer perception, behavioral patterns, logic, timing, and movement across channels, programs, and segments. We can then uncover and correct the common pitfalls that disrupt positive customer momentum.

As we heed the lessons learned, we also become wiser and more agile in meeting changing customer needs.

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image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (www.livepath.net).