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The customer journey is a seashell, not a line

“Where are you? The board says your flight landed over an hour ago…”

Where was I? Rifling through a sea of about 200 suitcases, only to discover that mine hadn’t made it to Chicago. In fact, it had never left Lisbon. I picked a bad time to pack a light carry-on. My sister-in-law’s wedding was in two days. After traveling for 18 hours, I dragged myself over to the lost baggage counter. An extremely empathetic agent gave me details on where the bag was, several phone numbers to call, and relayed the hard truth that I shouldn’t count on it arriving before the wedding.

Family weddings make for a great reunion with people you haven’t seen in a while, especially after you move abroad. They all wanted to know how I was settling into life in Portugal, if I liked my job, and how my transatlantic travels went. But soon my misfortune became the small talk of the hotel block and every greeting started with “So, has your suitcase made it here yet?”

Lucky for me, I was in one of the world’s great shopping cities. Armed with the knowledge that I’d be reimbursed for any necessary purchases, off I went to make myself wedding-ready. By the time the rehearsal dinner rolled around, the greeting turned to “Hey! Wait, where’d you get that dress?” to which I began responding “Oh, this? Courtesy of my airline!” The shoes I was wearing on the dance floor? “Sponsored by my airline.”

Spending three days of quality time with over fifty people after that kind of traumatic incident could have been a tinderbox for negative press about my chosen carrier. In this situation, a little honesty and some quick action to remedy the situation turned me into, frankly, a walking advertisement.

We are the champions

Customers want to stay loyal — it’s human nature. Rarely do they just lose interest; but it takes just one negative experience to push someone away. In a B2B context, deciding to quit a service is usually a month-long decision, during which companies consider alternatives to decide which best fits their needs, before eventually making the switch. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

By the time businesses start thinking about this, it’s usually already too late. That’s why it’s important to be present throughout the whole customer journey. How you help a customer, especially when they’re in distress, is what makes them more of an advocate than when they started.

In B2B sales, we sometimes refer to this advocate as a “champion,” a term coined by Brent Adamson and Matt Dixon in their book The Challenger Sale. A champion helps us understand the landscape at their company, lobbies for us with colleagues, and helps spread the word about their successes once they become customers.

We may think of the champion as a helper of the sales process, but that would be giving ourselves in sales too much credit. The champion is the one driving the decision: they’re brave enough to take a risk and passionate enough to convince others to follow.

If you’ve seen any depictions of a customer journey before, you’ll probably visualize a timeline with a beginning, a middle and an end. It starts with the potential customer becoming aware of the product, and it ends with them happily using it. You’ll hear some companies pair this with a mantra like “land and expand” — using one sale to create other opportunities within a customer account.

As Director of Revenue Enablement, I’m in the business of studying the entire customer journey, and identifying when and how we can improve our win rate. In other words: when and how we can exceed customer expectations. The pressure points in the customer journey come when they must adjust to a new point of contact. I would argue that alignment between customer-facing teams is the single most important objective in creating a fantastic customer experience. For Unbabel, we think about the following jumps in the customer journey, which must be handled delicately:

  • From interacting with our marketing team and our website to the first interaction with a salesperson;
  • From working with a salesperson to working with the team that implements the solution;
  • From implementing the solution to developing the ongoing relationship with the customer success contact.

Achieving great alignment and communication allows you to always be growing the relationship with the customer, no matter who their current point of contact is. I picture the customer journey as a seashell, rather than a straight line, spiralling from the inside out. The journey is not linear, neither is it a tight circle; it builds on itself. Every friction point or miscommunication — and they will happen eventually — becomes an opportunity to show your champion how you handle difficult situations.

How to create the seashell effect in your customer journey?

Treat your champion like a person

Extend all the empathy, recognition and transparency you can. Don’t forget to act like a person. The human connection is what makes people want to stay loyal. Imagine that after every conversation and every exchange your champion has with you, they talk to a colleague, and that the colleague asks them how they like working with you. It could happen at any moment, so be sure that they have mostly positive things to say about you.

At Unbabel, we have a tradition of sending a “boom” to the entire company to celebrate our wins. It could be when we make a great hire, close a new customer, or achieve a big milestone in product development. Recently our VP of Alliances sent a “boom” of a new kind: one of our customers won a major award at his company. When you feel a customer’s win as strongly as one of your own, you know you’ve developed a great relationship.

Enable your champion

Let’s face it, these days we have little direct control over the purchase decision. We can’t force people to buy. Most of the decision-making happens out of sight. The best way we can hope to influence the decision is by preparing the champion to make their case. Ask lots of “what if?” questions to prepare them for possible setbacks. When they have questions for you, forget the flowery language and answer them simply. They need to be able to do the same when they sell your product internally.

One of the ways we enable our champions at Unbabel is by sending a summary email after each call we have. Sometimes it seems like overkill. But the goal is to create complete transparency and capture the customer’s situation and where they see value. A dedicated champion will take their own notes, too, but the email becomes an additional resource and a check on mutual understanding between both sides. The added benefit? Anyone who joins the Unbabel team can step in at any time and be able to get up to speed quickly on that relationship.

Anticipate friction points and prepare for them

When a problem arises, it’s not just you that’s taking the heat — it’s your champion as well. They put their name behind you, so help them look good. Map out the places where you have the most to gain from under-promising and over-delivering. It’s tempting to try and impress your client by making lots of promises, but breaking those promises will make your seashell effect collapse. Take the long term view and plan how to manage a potential issue: including the right communication before, during, and after (this is where a playbook comes in handy). You’ll avoid losing precious time finding a solution after the problem happens.

Within the first few months of working with a new customer, we focus on timelines as the place where we can consistently meet expectations. We set a goal for how fast we can deliver something and look to beat that goal. A lot of the buffer time we need to build into these timelines is due to the back-and-forth internal communications between teams working to support the customer. By automating or improving the communication flows, we can shrink timelines by 20 to 30%. When teams aren’t aligned, it’s a hard event to meet the timelines we’ve committed to.

At the end of the day, whether the decision is making a big corporate purchase or booking your next plane ticket, there’s no way to remove all emotion from the process. People intuitively connect with people, and they love to share their experiences with others. Let’s make sure that when they do, they become champions.

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