What is the customer journey? A guide for eCommerce companies

Published on 2023-06-30 by Tessa Anaya

Shopping online involves much more than simply clicking “buy now”. We explore what the customer journey means to SMEs and explain how to create your own customer journey maps.

what is the customer journey and how to map it

One advantage of today’s e-commerce tools is that small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) have access to unprecedented levels of data about their customers —both existing ones and potential new ones.

They also have powerful software to meet customers’ expectations and can serve up experiences that make it easier for buyers to get what they need.

These two capabilities are the key to delivering meaningful customer journeys. If brands can establish all the steps that a customer goes through when completing a certain task, they know where and when to intervene to make that journey easier.

In this article, we explore what a customer journey is, what steps it might include, and how SMEs can map their customer journeys. We also explore some of the software that companies can use to help them do this.

What is the customer journey?

A customer journey describes the series of connected experiences that a customer has with your company. This doesn’t just begin when they walk into your store or land on your website, and it doesn’t end once a sale is complete. Forward-thinking businesses extend their journeys from the moment a customer starts to define a need right through to the point where they become a loyal advocate for your brand —and beyond. 

Marketers often talk about customer journeys in the context of sales. These journeys begin with the customer becoming aware of a brand or product (through an ad, for example) and follow them through the decision-making and purchase phases. Many journeys now include the follow-up marketing your brand might send to turn a new customer into a repeat buyer.

A company may have many different customer journeys depending on the different types of customer it has, what products or services it offers, and how it markets and sells them. Mapping out specific journeys that people undergo when using the brand’s software or website (defined as the user experience), for example, can be useful to improve the experience. However, this article focuses on customer journeys as they relate to sales.

The 5 steps of the customer journey

Although there is no approach that suits every situation, most e-commerce customer journeys include these major steps.

1. Awareness

The first step in making a sale is to make your customers aware. This might be simple awareness of your brand, but it may be more complex than that. If the product or service in question is very innovative, your task might be making the customer aware of this new category. You might even have to educate them about the need for such a product or service in their life. Few people would have considered buying a personal computer when they first went on sale. It is a marketer’s job to communicate how this product will make a customer’s life easier.

2. Consideration

Once a prospect is aware of the need and the fact that you could meet it, they may begin to consider a purchase. At this stage, they have plenty of options. There might be competitors who offer similar or identical offerings, at various price points and with various levels of service. You need to understand what can help them make up their mind (more information, free delivery, an extended warranty...) and deliver it to them with as little friction as possible.

3. Conversion

This stage takes its name from the fact that businesses ‘convert’ a prospect into a customer. Successful brands convert customers by making it as seamless as possible for them to make a purchase. Some companies spend millions optimizing their e-commerce sites for this. And there is buyer intent software, which can help you track customer journeys and establish how likely someone is to buy on a particular visit. But there are good basic practices that you can implement for free by researching ‘conversion rate optimisation’.

4. Retention

It is cheaper to retain a customer than to acquire a new one, so once you have gone through the first three steps, you can make the most of your investment by giving the new customer a reason to buy again. This phase is about deepening the relationship through multiple mutually beneficial interactions. Now you have the advantage of knowing more about the customer —including their purchase history— and you may have their permission to collect more data and send them special offers tailored to their needs.

5. Advocacy

Loyal, enthusiastic customers are invaluable to any brand. More advanced SMEs will look to turn regular buyers into advocates by asking them to leave online reviews, for example. They can incentivize customers by rolling out loyalty programs, which may offer points or rewards for purchases, leaving reviews, or attending events.

Setting up a loyalty program: Research shows that Canadians have been using loyalty programs to help them manage high prices. Such incentives are key in maintaining a loyal customer base, especially during economic uncertainty. Before setting up a loyalty program for your eCommerce business, check out the five best customer loyalty program software in Canada.

Benefits of using a customer journey map

Delivering journeys that work for both customers and brands requires careful mapping. Gartner cites mapping as one of the three key factors in customer experience success, along with defining customer personas and dedicating enough resources to customer journeys after a purchase. (Did you know, for example, that online shoppers in Canada say the most important aspect of their shopping experience is a confirmation email after purchase?) 

However, mapping is neither a quick nor definitive process. According to Gartner:

“Organizations that develop end-to-end journey maps improve cross-functional collaboration and CX success. But developing journey maps is not a one-and-done exercise — journeys change as customers change. Similar to developing personas, journey mapping takes time and is iterative.”

How to map the customer journey

Developing a customer journey itself has several aspects. Just as there are many possible customer journeys, even within a smaller company, there are many ways to map one out. Customer journey mapping tools can help you physically map out the journey and visualize the customer experience across different touchpoints, but careful planning will be needed as well. Consider the following when sketching out yours:

Establish which journeys you will map

Make it clear which customer journeys you’ll be tackling first. This ensures that everyone is aligned around a common goal. It also prevents a relatively simple, linear map turning into a complex decision tree because nobody can agree on what’s actually being mapped.

Get a handle on your persona data

Cassandra Nordlund, Director, Advisory, Gartner for Marketers recommends starting with robust data about the customers for whom you’re mapping the journey. “It’s really hard to design something —or redesign something— for someone that you don’t know,” she says. Nordlund suggests breaking down data according to your various customer personas to understand their motivations, and desires. Your customer relationship management (CRM) and e-commerce platforms will be valuable sources of data. You can also use buyer intent software to help you establish what visitors to your site are trying to do.

Make the most of your internal expertise

Not all SMEs will have enough data about their customers to build a comprehensive journey map. If your customer base is small, or if you’re just starting out, you will need to rely on your own people to fill in the blanks. Assemble a team that can help you establish the steps a customer goes through and their frame of mind as they progress. Consider a mix of talents: marketers, customer service, web experts, designers, and data scientists can all bring valuable perspectives.

Run your map past customers

For SMEs that may have limited data on which to base their customer journeys, getting outside opinions can be an important step. Once you have drawn out your journey map, run it past some of your customers to check whether it reflects their experiences when dealing with your brand. Market research software offers a convenient way to gather opinions and analyze the resulting data.

Make your journey map work for you

If you have put time and effort into this process, make sure it results in actions that create value. When making changes to improve a journey, measure the outcomes so you can say for certain whether they were beneficial or not. Your map will also need to be updated from time to time, so set a regular schedule to review it with your team.

Map your customers’ journeys and improve their experience

Better planned journeys can result in better experiences for customers, greater loyalty, and better results for your business. With the right techniques and tools, any SME can create meaningful journey maps that justify the effort spent. 

Looking for e-commerce software? Browse our catalogue!

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Tessa is a Content Analyst for GetApp, delivering software-related insights to local SMEs. She was featured in the Globe and Mail, La Presse, the Financial Post, and Yahoo.

Tessa is a Content Analyst for GetApp, delivering software-related insights to local SMEs. She was featured in the Globe and Mail, La Presse, the Financial Post, and Yahoo.