At the end of a recent journey mapping project, a client had this to say to my team:

“Wow. This is the best journey map we’ve ever created.”

But when I asked the client what made this journey map so special, they replied frankly:

“Well, I think it’s because this time we actually talked to our customers.”

My heart sank. Creating a customer journey map without talking to your customers is one of the most common mistakes made by people who are just getting started with journey mapping. I wondered how much time and money his team had spent on previous maps containing assumptions about what customers experience versus what they actually experience.

As the Director of Highland Solution’s Customer Experience Practice, I’ve spent hundreds of hours helping our clients understand customers so that they can design products, services and experiences that meet their needs. Journey mapping is a process that provides companies with a holistic understanding of their customers’ experiences, illustrating where breakdowns occur and when change is needed.

On the surface, the concept of a customer journey map sounds fairly simple. A closer look at what goes into creating an effective map, however, reveals how daunting a project like this can be without the right processes and frameworks in place. Research reveals 82% of organizations have their own customer journey maps, but fewer than half (47%) actually use those maps effectively.

Developing your own customer journey map doesn’t have to be overwhelming. When done right, journey maps provide your team the information they need to make every customer interaction the best it can be. And at a time when brands are searching for competitive advantages, journey maps play a big role in helping organizations stand out with exceptional customer experiences.

While there’s no one way for your brand to map out your customer’s journey, we’ve identified five key must-haves to get the most out of your maps:

1. Talk to your customers (not your sales team)

Many organizations think they can cut corners when creating a journey map by not speaking to actual customers.

Knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. What customer segment should we start with? What questions do we ask? How do we capture the interview data?

All of these questions can create anxiety and lead some organizations to default to their sales team to fill their research gaps. But even your customer-facing employees can’t replicate the actual feelings and thoughts your customers experience as they interact with your brand—at best, you’re left with a close approximation. To create an effective journey map, you absolutely must talk to your customers.

The good news? You don’t need to talk to all of them; research reveals you can talk to as few as five customers to gather 80% of the research insights you need.

There are also tools to support resource-strapped teams get the most out of each interview. Using a guided storytelling approach, for example, lets you walk your customer through the experience of the product or service you want to learn more about. Rather than prepare a long list of questions, guided storytelling relies on memory-recall techniques to dial in on the story of the customer’s unique experience. It’s an easier way to frame up the customer’s journey, using their own words and perspectives, and accurately captures how people feel about your brand’s buying process.

2. Focus on one journey at a time

The best journey maps tell a single story. While it’s tempting to try and capture multiple journeys in one map, resist the urge! Focus on telling the story of one customer segment really, really well.

It’s totally fine to go with your gut here and most organizations instinctively know which journey they want to map first. But if you’re still struggling to narrow your options, think about your overarching strategic objectives and business goals. What customer is the organization focused on right now? What do we need to improve in order to really grow and where do we feel stuck?

Our journey mapping clients often start with their most dominant and familiar customer journey, which is often most closely tied to revenue. For example, in our recent work to document the journeys of students at a higher education institution, we started by mapping the traditional for-credit student journey. While we considered starting with not-for-credit or international students, the for-credit student journey captured the broadest number of students within the organization.

3. Capture opportunities that emerge from the mapping process

Once you’ve finished creating your map, don’t leave the room until your team has identified the opportunities for improvement that emerged during the mapping process.

We find that there are six categories most opportunities for improvement fall under:

  1. Process improvement. A redesign of an existing process that’s causing customer frustration.
  2. Training opportunities. A need for customer service or support team training. This typically involves having your support team review the journey and understand the emotional and social experiences that customers are having at each stage.
  3. Deeper research. When additional qualitative or quantitative research is needed to better understand a question or insight that emerged from the mapping process.
  4. Digital transformation. Taking an existing analog process and making it digital.
  5. Service design. Intentionally designing the way a service is delivered to ensure better customer outcomes.
  6. New product development. The creation of an entirely new product or service offering in response to the findings of a customer journey.

4. Prioritize opportunities related to feasibility and impact

After you’ve identified all of the possible opportunities from your map, write them down on stickies and place them on a blank wall. This will serve as the foundation for your impact and feasibility matrix, where you can prioritize which opportunities you want to tackle first.

On your matrix, you’ll rank each idea by 1) how feasible it is to achieve and 2) the impact it will have on your organization. At the conclusion of this exercise, you should be able to see the highest-impact, highest feasibility ideas in the upper right-hand corner. Now it’s time to make a plan.

5. Create a plan of action while everyone’s in the room

Once you’ve identified the opportunities you want to prioritize, simplify the process further by breaking them down into quarterly projects to pursue over the next year. To keep these projects moving and to ensure work is done on time, assign one point person to drive each opportunity and establish a regular meeting cadence to share project status updates.

Journey mapping can help organizations of all shapes and sizes to better address their audience’s pain points and deliver appropriate solutions. While the process at times can seem daunting, it can make a significant impact on your business’ bottom line and strengthen long-term customer loyalty. 

By putting yourself in your customers’ shoes, you gain first hand knowledge of what makes the best customer experience—and what interactions are most likely to drive them away. With a greater understanding of how customers engage with and feel about your brand, the more you’re able to create interactions and experiences to lock them in as customers for life.