We've been in the thick of several customer experience-related projects at work, and I've been paying particular attention to the experiences I've been having and creating. This past Valentine's Day weekend provided excellent moments and examples.

My husband and I stayed at a hotel we'd never been to before on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, and they clearly take experience seriously: from the personal welcome we received upon arrival, to the unexpected chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne delivered to our room, to the coffee-to-go—made the way I had been requesting it in the restaurant—when we checked out.

With that experience in mind, I thought it a perfect time to write on the topic of mapping the customer experience.

If customer retention is a top priority for you, and you haven't embarked on a customer experience mapping initiative, you need to get on it! But before I jump into the finer points of customer experience mapping, it might be useful to make sure we're all on the same page about what we mean by "customer experience."

When we refer to customer experience at my firm, we mean the points of interaction between the customer and an organization. Those touchpoints include, among others, interactions associated with pricing, purchasing, servicing, payment/billing, support, and delivery of your organizations offerings (goods and/or services).

How customers evaluate their experience is based on their perception of the actual performance of the organization compared with the customer's expectation. In 2005, James Allen from the Harvard Business School found that although 80% of businesses state that they offer a great customer experience, only about 8% of customers feel the same about their experience. Understanding that "perception versus expectation," and the gaps across all experiences, enables you to create customer experience performance targets and key performance indicators.

Now, back to customer experience mapping. A customer experience map enables your organization to deliver an experience that sets it apart in the eyes of your customers, hopefully resulting in loyal customers that advocate your goods/services. Creating a map identifies the gaps between expectations and actual experience, thus allowing for the closing of those gaps via the development of necessary skills and processes.

A major problem that arises is that many organizations often mistake creating a process map with creating a customer experience map. Though they're similar, the focus of each is quite different: A process map describes your company's internal processes, functions, and activities and generally uses the company's internal language and jargon; on the other hand, a customer experience map describes the customer experience in, and only in, the customer's language.

Mapping the customer experience can be challenging because the customer experience is typically quite complex, cutting across divisions, departments, and functions.

So, to help you succeed in creating your customer experience map, here are five key steps:

1. Start with the universal touchpoints that can be applied across all of your customers (you can create more specific experience maps as time goes on).

2. Make a list of all the touchpoints. For each touchpoint write a description, method of interaction, and customer expectation. We have found that this step is best accomplished by...

  • Involving as many people as necessary, including members of your customer advisory boards, to identify all touchpoints
  • Holding working sessions and conducting interviews to capture and incorporate the expected and actual emotional, experiential, and functional experiences for each touchpoint

3. Document what you learn and produce a visual illustration (map).

4. Use the map to identify areas working well and those that need improvement. Focus on those areas that are known as "moments of truth"—those crucial interactions that determine whether the customer becomes or remains loyal.

5. Build a plan to address James Allen's "Three Ds," which he believes enable organizations to offer an exceptional customer experience:

  • Design the correct incentive for the correctly identified consumer, offered in an enticing environment.
  • Deliver the proposed experience by focusing the entire team across various functions.
  • Develop consistency in execution.

Many organizations find using a third party to be extremely helpful in creating their customer experience maps.

(And, yes, we will certainly return to the hotel in San Antonio.)

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image of Laura Patterson

Laura Patterson is the president of VisionEdge Marketing. A pioneer in Marketing Performance Management, Laura has published four books and she has been recognized for her thought leadership, winning numerous industry awards.