Brian Solis Reveals Why You’re Thinking About the Customer Journey All Wrong

People have been trying to kill the funnel for years, but in 2015 it seemed like everyone in the marketing world finally declared it dead. The new emperor? Long live the customer journey.

While most would agree that customers no longer go through a linear process to purchase a product—if they ever did—it seems like a lot of marketers are just trading in their funnel diagrams for infinite loops and calling it a day. In other words, it’s largely been a change in semantics, rather than a change in thinking.

Enter Brian Solis: highly respected Altimeter analyst, author, speaker, lover of magnifying glasses, and a man who is apparently never afraid to help Shaq with a quick workout.

Last year, Solis published a fantastic book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, which, fittingly, is brilliantly designed. The book shows how to create a user experience with your brand that’s unified, emotionally impactful, and empathetic to how your customers actually interact with your company. Recently, I chatted with Brian about how brands can get out of their own way and start designing their businesses for the world we live in today.

So the book is called X: The Experience When Business Meets Design. When a lot of people hear business meets design, they think of open offices and glass conference rooms. But you’re talking about something quite different here.

At a high level, what that subtitle means is that the future of business is unwritten. It really isn’t written. By that, I mean the problem with business is that it’s all rooted in legacy models and perspectives. A lot of these things are 60 years old: the whole idea of the funnel, the whole idea of management layers. All of these things are archaic and are not meant to be agile or adapted in what lies ahead. This is why you see so many startups able to be nimble, creating fresh infrastructures from scratch, because they’re going out and creating and solving for new markets.

I’ve found over and over again that there was no working standard to what an experience is, and as a result, people would then tend to look at it through a very narrow lens. For example, [they’ll say,] “Great experience is good customer service, and we’re going to improve our call centers, improve the scripts that they use.”

That’s the problem, right? When we live in an era where companies like Contently can come out of nowhere and start kicking ass, or companies like Uber can completely take down industries, you have to be much more dynamic and much more aggressive about what you’re going to do. If you’re going to compete, stand for the soul of experience.

What elements are most important for a really great customer experience?

When people talk about customer experience, they look at little slivers of the customer life cycle—really only just what they’re responsible for. None of them are really working together. This is why you hear conversations about politics and mismanagement. The definition of customer experience is the sum of all interactions with your brand throughout the lifecycle: from marketing, to buying the product, to using it, to having to talk to representatives, to being part of the loyalty program. Every instance, every touch is accumulated into one customer experience.

What do we want the customer experience to be? What do you want someone to feel? If you think about it, that’s what an experience is—it’s an emotional reaction to that moment. It should be designed. A great customer experience is one that you design to deliver a certain series of reactions that add up to the brand.

We used to tell people what a brand was, and we used to reinforce it with imagery and marketing and fancy messaging. Today, your brand is the sum of all experiences people have and share about your company, and they should all be in alignment.

It sounds like, in a lot of ways, you’re rethinking the funnel.

As a natural byproduct, the funnel is completely reinvented. For example, I reverse-engineered Apple. I inspected everything from the website to the box, to their videos, to their advertising, to the retail display. I even studied the people they hire as iPad geniuses, the job descriptions, what they say about that job. I studied the person whose job it was to test all the boxes for the iPad, the box design. I put it all together in one chapter with the visual that shows the entire Apple experience—how they redesigned the funnel, and how all that innovation was driven by the experience they wanted you to have with the product; how they wanted you to feel, how they wanted you to use it, how it was aspirational, and how it was reinforced in every one of those step-ups.

Say you’re not the COO or CMO, you’re someone at the mid-level of a company, but you really want to change the way that your company approaches things. What advice would you have?

The book is very inspirational in nature for this very reason. The change always starts from the middle. Someone who’s living the digital lifestyle and sees how things are different, sees in the workplace how things aren’t necessarily working in that direction, and they’re feeling the sense of urgency because every day they don’t move forward, they’re actually moving backwards. That person has to make the case, and that case can be made.

One simple way to do that is called a customer journey map. They’re looking at the map as it exists today, and they’re becoming empathetic, which is a very key word. Sympathetic is where a lot of businesses are making decisions: “I’m assuming we have to invest in mobile because we get lots of data [about] the mobile consumer.” They can understand that because they probably use their phones too.

But empathetic—they’re going through the journey, and they’re finding out their website sucks; they can’t make decisions; they have to hop devices; there’s message confusion; the content marketing is all over the place; it’s not saying the same thing that customers reported saying; it’s not saying the same thing that every other department is saying. You start to document all the areas of friction, misalignment, chaos, and you prioritize it.

Smarter people put numbers to it—like how much they’re probably losing as a result, how many supporters are dropping off—so that you can say, “All of these things are broken, we need to fix this, we need to stitch together a much more efficient journey. Here’s how much it would cost. Here’s who we need to work with.” They get an executive sponsor to at least start some of this stuff. That gains momentum. Once you start to fix a lot of things, you start to also be open to innovation. What if we tried this? What if we did this?

I love the idea of empathy. It seems like that would extend to the channels you use. Most consumers are not going directly to your website and going through that kind of magical journey that a lot of marketers imagine, but they may be becoming aware of you on SlideShare, Pinterest, Instagram, or some outside platform.

Yeah. I talk about a lot of research I’ve done with Google. We looked at what we called micro-moments. It was exactly what you just said. If they’re introduced to you through Pinterest or Instagram or YouTube, what happens next? What does that journey look like? It’s often on the phone. It’s always contextual—I want to know, I want to buy, I want to learn. It forces you to see just how broken your journey is based on the real-life behaviors.

I came up with this term in the book called “mediumism.” That’s where companies react like they normally would to anything by simply creating these branded presences and doing what they’ve always done: taking a channel-centric approach and not an experiential approach, understanding how somebody can engage in Pinterest and how is that different from Youtube, and how is that different from Instagram, etc.

What could the journey be if they’re all working together? That’s really where a lot of innovation starts to come up.

How do you recommend going about that and really understanding how to use all those channels?

The easiest way is customer journey mapping. I introduced the whole concept of Hollywood storyboarding—why Disney used storyboarding for Snow White. What does a storyboard mean? You could come up with your characters; you can get to know them; you can test the believability of the story. Is it meaningful? Is it inspiring? Does it change your life?

I tell the story of how Airbnb hired a Pixar artist because they were so inspired by the Disney story with Snow White that they storyboarded their company. Who are the owners? Or the renters? What is the real journey? They storyboarded this whole thing out so well that it led to that massive rebranding that Airbnb came up with: the new logo, the whole idea of communities, the playbook for owners, the whole conference for owners. The whole idea is that you can be inspired to change your entire company around it.

I love that Hollywood-style approach. I have one last question: Who is your favorite wizard?

Oh, wow. Real wizards?

Yeah, a real wizard. Or a real wizard in the way we think of Dumbledore as a wizard. Not like Rand Fishkin is an SEO wizard—unless you want to make it that.

I didn’t spend much time with wizardry over the last decade, but I can tell you that when I was younger, I always had a fascination with Merlin and the whole idea of King Arthur and the crusades. Merlin was always my go-to wizard. If you want to use that as the metaphor for what inspires me in all that I do, I talk about how Walt Disney is my personal wizard. I used a lot of his philosophy to drive the idea of experience architecture.

Image by Csaba Peterdi

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