A customer journey map is an essential tool for visualizing customer motivations. Businesses all want their product/service to be the solution to a customer’s problem, but understanding the exact nature of that problem can be the hardest part.

For one, customers often don’t fully understand it themselves. For another, their decision-making process is complex, sometimes based more on emotion than facts. And the multifaceted ways in which they interact with your brand are not always in your direct control.

But a customer journey map can provide valuable insight for your business to improve the things you can control. It also emphasizes a problem-solving relationship to the customer as opposed to a purely transactional one. And it provides an in-house reference document in the form of a relatable customer narrative, making it easier to get all employees on the same page.

Cartoon illustration of a car buyer going through the customer journey
Design by OrangeCrush

With all that said, the question of how to create a customer journey map can seem as complex as the customers themselves. There are many different approaches depending on your needs, goals, and audience. To demystify this process, we’re going to walk you through all of the considerations for building your own customer journey map.

Key elements of a customer journey map

Before we get started on creating a customer journey map, there are a number of key terms and concepts that are important to understand.

A customer journey map is a time-organized chart that plots the actions that a customer takes to find a solution to a problem. It pays particular attention to their interactions with a business along the way and their emotions throughout.

Customer actions can include thinking about the problem, conducting research, and testing a product. For businesses, there is usually a desired outcome to these actions such as making a purchase, signing up for an email list, or reading content. A customer journey map essentially provides a blueprint to bridge the customer’s actions to the desired outcome.

Spotify customer journey map example
A customer journey map provides a timeline that charts a customer’s interactions with a brand and their emotions throughout. Image via Spotify

The customer’s journey (sometimes called buyer’s journey, sales funnel or customer lifecycle) on its own is a timeline of the particular phases that a customer goes through throughout their relationship with a business. What constitutes this timeline is up to the business to define, depending on how granular they want to get, but it is commonly defined by three stages:

  • The awareness stage: the customer becomes aware that they have a problem
  • The consideration stage: the customer actively seeks out solutions to the problem
  • The decision stage: the customer eliminates and narrows down potential solutions

Because target audiences are made up of many different people, marketers often use a buyer persona—a fictionalized representative customer avatar—to stand for a group of customers that are similar demographically and/or in terms of their business needs. Both the buyer persona and the customer journey map act as tools for visualizing data.

The buyer persona gives us a hypothetical character to represent the audience statistics and a customer journey map puts that character in a story, in which we imagine their day-to-day lives and their conflicts.

Check out our complete guide to buyer personas>>

Customer journey mapping also identify touchpoints, which are moments of interaction with the brand. These can be direct or indirect. A direct interaction is usually under a brand’s control, such as an advertisement the customer sees or a staff member they speak to. An indirect interaction might involve a review on a third-party website or word-of-mouth from a friend.

Touchpoints can vary wildly in terms of how substantial the interaction is, but each one—no matter how seemingly inconsequential—contributes to the overall impression a customer forms of a brand.

An isometric illustration of customers moving along a track
A customer journey map visualizes the path buyers move along. Illustration by Orovor

Sometimes overlapping with touchpoints are pain points, specific instances of barriers that prevent a customer’s actions. Pain points can include everything from an exorbitant price to a slow-loading website to inscrutable business policies. Pain points can also refer to issues that the customer has with a rival business, and researching these can help you frame your services as the better alternative.

How to create a customer journey map

1. Set goals in relation to customer actions

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how a customer journey map should look because that will depend on what information you want to focus on and why. To this end, it is important to start by setting up clear goals on what you expect to get out of your customer journey map.

The goal of customer journey maps in the broadest sense is to explain customer behaviors and motives to employees within an organization. But in a more specific sense, the goal lies in the action that you want the customer to take by the end of that journey. Some examples might be:

  • To convert: you want non-customers to make the choice to become customers
  • To resolve a complaint: you want existing customers to expediently navigate through customer service to solve problems or get questions answered
  • To adapt to changes: you want to retain existing customers through product, service or business model changes
Illustration of a mountainous road with divergent roads
Customers have many paths in solution to problems. Design by Yuri K

Just as the customers themselves are seeking solutions to problems in their lives, a customer journey map must act as the solution to a specific, measurable problem you have observed—be that a high number of cart abandonments on a shopping site or an increased volume of customer support calls.

It is important to note that customer journey maps can also explain where you are going right. For example, you may notice that one product is performing better than another, but you don’t know why. Because customer journey maps aim to explain motivations, creating one for the buyers of the better-performing product can help you replicate that success elsewhere.

2. Focus on a specific customer segment

Once you have decided on a goal, the next step is to choose a particular audience segment or “type” of customer to focus on. While the action you want customers to take—such as purchasing a particular product—may apply broadly across your audience, the journey to get there will vary depending on the different motivations different customers have. With this in mind, a customer journey map should focus on and fully illustrate one specific journey.

Illustration of different customer avatars
Character designs by Spoon Lancer

Because a customer journey map tells a story, narrative cohesion is essential. This means avoiding too many branching paths and divergent motives—all of which create confusion. Instead, you can always create multiple separate customer journey maps for each audience segment.

Creating specificity out of an entire audience is where the buyer personas come in. These are the main characters in the customer journey story, complete with a fictional name, hobbies and lifestyle (supported of course by target audience research).

Deciding which buyer persona to focus on involves connecting the goal you established in the previous section to common pain points shared by that category of buyers. We’ll explore these more in the following section.

3. Research common customer pain points

Illustration of people leaving reviews on a mobile app
Feedback is essential to crafting a customer journey map. Illustration by felipe_charria

Because stories revolve around conflict, you want to start your story off with a particular problem that the buyer encounters. In the beginning, the customer may not be aware that this problem has anything to do with a business or product.

For example, a customer going through their budget may come to the conclusion that they need to start cutting expenses—which could involve spending less on products or selling off an expense like a car.

As with most factors in the customer journey map, the more personal and realistic you can make these problems, the better. And in addition to understanding what they don’t like, it is important to find out what they do like about competitor brands.

To this end, listen to real customers describing their experiences in their own words. These are a few standard methods for soliciting customer feedback:

  • interviewing representative samples of specific audience segments
  • reviewing transcripts of customer support/sales calls
  • recording a visitor’s session on a website
  • conducting surveys via popup, email or SMS.

Besides general feedback, it is also important to cover pain points at various stages in the customer journey when soliciting feedback—this will help you track the customer’s emotions along the journey map. For example, a survey given to a new site visitor will give you different insight from a survey following a refund.

Once you have a good grasp on the customer’s pain points, you can focus on the options at their disposal to solve them. For example, customers may be limited in terms of budget or immediate location.

4. Catalog all touchpoints

As the customer searches for solutions to their problem, they will naturally begin crossing paths with your business. They may come across an advertisement that offers them a solution and a product review that reaffirms or negates that solution. It is important to catalog all of these touchpoints.

At this stage, cataloging means creating an exhaustive and neutral list. You don’t need to evaluate how well your business is managing these interactions—only where and when they can potentially occur. Touchpoints are opportunities, regardless of whether your brand is currently taking advantage of them.

Illustration of office workers solving a problem
Illustration by Illia Kolesnyk

Touchpoints also share an inherent relationship between the customer’s needs at particular points in their buyer’s journey.

For example, when a customer has reached the consideration stage, they are looking for information to compare and contrast, and a useful touchpoint could be an explainer video or blog article. They can also relate to pain points: a customer who is on a tight budget might encounter a promo code for a business while listening to a podcast.

There are also touchpoints to consider beyond the end of a customer journey, regardless of whether that journey was successful. For example, the customer may have ultimately passed on your product, but a continued relationship through email or advertisements will help you keep up brand awareness for future consideration.

5. Organize data into a chart

With all of the above information at hand, we can now construct our customer journey map. This commonly takes the form of a table chart.

Horizontal axis

The horizontal axis will contain the timeline, showing the customer journey progression in stages from left to right. As mentioned, the awareness, consideration and decision stages are just one way of framing the timeline.

Example of a customer journey map
The particular stages of the customer journey are up to the business to define. Image via Nielsen Norman Group

A brick-and-mortar business might instead track the customer’s physical location from the parking lot to different departments in the store to the cash register. If your customer journey map is looking at something more specific, such as the customer service experience, your timeline may consist of events like “First Contact,” “Escalation,” and “Resolution.”

If your product is something that customers use throughout the day, like business software, you may want to use a literal timeline that segments the day into morning, afternoon and night—this is sometimes called a “day in the life” customer journey map.

Vertical axis

The vertical axis will contain all of the variables to the customer experience. Some of these we’ve already listed, such as customer actions, pain points and touchpoints. There are others you may wish to include depending on how detailed you want your map to be:

  • The customer’s immediate goals for each stage of the journey
  • The customer’s immediate emotions
  • Teams responsible for managing certain touchpoints or stages of the customer journey
  • Suggestions for changes or improvements to business practices
Example of a customer journey map
Image via Bright Vessel

While more detailed maps can provide more context, too much cluttered information can also become difficult to parse. Don’t forget that a journey map is meant to act as an easy, relatable guide for the potentially many employees within an organization to understand the customer’s experience. Keep the information relevant and succinct.

When describing the customer’s actions or emotions, keep in mind that the journey map is meant to tell a story. Use your buyer persona and customer feedback research to craft a scenario that is particular, realistic and empathetic. The customer’s actions and emotions form the trajectory of the journey while the more factual elements such as touchpoints serve to give fuller context.

Perfect the overall design

Lastly, let’s talk about design. While the most basic setup for a customer journey map is effectively an x,y graph, there are good reasons to be more creative.

Infographic design for a 3D technology brand
Infographics are great for visualizing timelines through creative graphics. Infographic design by ticaxp

Considering the purpose of the map is to visualize the customer journey, it is much easier to do so with an artful design (such as an illustrated infographic) than a plain spreadsheet. Along those same lines, employees who are not as up-to-speed on marketing jargon might better retain visual information. To this end, it can be worth the effort to contract a graphic designer to create a customer journey map that will have more of an impact in a presentation.

6. Change the customer journey map with your business

Although the customer journey map is depicted as linear, it has no real end. After a purchase, a customer’s experience will inevitably fluctuate, and they will periodically find themselves reevaluating their loyalty to one brand. By that same token, even if a customer’s journey leads them to a competitor’s brand, they may find themselves back in the consideration stage in the future, giving you a second chance.

Illustrated infographic design showing customers moving along a path
Infographic design by _ELM_

To set yourself up for success, once you’ve drafted a customer journey map the next step is to improve your touchpoints and mitigate a customer’s pain points. And once you’ve implemented changes to your business practices, you’ll need to return to step 1 in order to update your customer journey map with accurate information. In essence, the customer journey map is a living document—as ongoing as the customer journey itself.

The end of our (customer) journey

A customer journey map is more than a thought experiment or a narrative exercise. It can be a window into the lives of customers and a guide for helping them solve their problems. It is also a communication tool within a business to extend this insight to all involved.

This last point means that a customer journey map must be persuasive in addition to informative. It has to get through to everyone from temporary employees to executives. While you can create a functional journey map with a simple chart, ensure your branding is strong enough to have everyone on board to implement your strategy.

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