As digital technology has enabled shoppers to easily research and buy products online, sellers have been scrambling after them, trying to understand and satisfy their wants. Savvy companies, however, are using new tools, processes, and organizational changes.
The explosion of digital technologies over the past decade has created “empowered” consumers so expert in their use of tools and information that they can call the shots, hunting down what they want when they want it and getting it delivered to their doorsteps at a rock-bottom price. In response, retailers and service providers have scrambled to develop big data and analytics capabilities in order to understand their customers and wrest back control. For much of this time, companies have been reacting to customers, trying to anticipate their next moves and position themselves in shoppers’ paths as they navigate the decision journey from consideration to purchase.
Now, leveraging emerging technologies, processes, and organizational structures, companies are restoring the balance of power and creating new value for brands and buyers alike. Central to this shift is a fresh way of thinking: Rather than merely reacting to the journeys that consumers themselves devise, companies are shaping their paths, leading rather than following. Marketers are increasingly managing journeys as they would any product. Journeys are thus becoming central to the customer’s experience of a brand—and as important as the products themselves in providing competitive advantage.
McKinsey’s marketing and sales practice has spent more than six years studying consumers’ decision journeys. The term (as explained in “Branding in the Digital Age,” HBR, December 2010) broadly describes how people move from initially considering a product or service to purchasing it and then bonding with the brand. More narrowly, the term can refer to the sequence of interactions consumers have before they achieve a certain aim—for instance, transferring cable service to a new address, or even
Best practitioners aim not just to improve the existing journey but to expand it.
Through Forbes’ experience advising more than 50 companies on journey architecture, infrastructure, and organizational design; our deep engagement with dozens of chief digital officers and more than 100 digital-business leaders worldwide; and our research involving more than 200 companies on best practices for building digital capabilities, we have seen this shift unfold. And although it is still early, we believe that an ability to shape customer journeys will become a decisive source of competitive advantage.
Companies building the most effective journeys master four interconnected capabilities: automation, proactive personalization, contextual interaction, and journey innovation. Each of these makes journeys “stickier”—more likely to draw in and permanently capture customers. And although the capabilities all rely on sophisticated IT (see the sidebar “New Journey Technologies”), they depend equally on creative design thinking and novel managerial approaches, as we’ll explore later.
Automation involves the digitization and streamlining of steps in the journey that were formerly done manually. Consider the analog process of depositing a check, which used to require a trip to the bank or ATM. With digital automation, you simply photograph the check with your smartphone and deposit it via an app. Similarly, researching, buying, and arranging delivery of, say, a new TV can now be a one-stop digital process. By allowing consumers to execute formerly complex journey processes quickly and easily, automation creates the essential foundation for sticky journeys. This may seem self-evident, but companies have only recently started to build robust automation platforms expressly designed to enhance journeys. And consumers can readily see who does it well. Superior automation, while highly technical, is something of an art, turning complex back-end operations into simple, engaging, increasingly app-based front-end experiences.
Building on the automation capability, companies should take information gleaned either from past interactions with a customer or from existing sources and use it to instantaneously customize the shopper’s experience. Amazon’s recommendation engine and intelligent reordering algorithm (it knows what printer ink you need) are familiar examples.
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