Customer journeys are quite the hype right now. In the CRM space they may perhaps take second place only to Big Data. But if so, it’s a close second. And like Big Data, there’s a lot of value in the concept. But it’s important to understand that customer journeys are not the holy grail of marketing. Making them the focus of a customer strategy is naïve and dangerous.

Of course, each customer makes his or her own journey across channels and devices. Some journeys take more popular paths than others. When companies analyze and visualize popular journeys, they can learn about areas where they need to invest more in the customer experience. This includes parts of the journey, for instance, where they tend to lose customers or upset them. They can also learn about attribution: which action during the journey contributed the most to the ultimate sale or other favorable outcome. But… that’s all insight distilled from aggregated historic journeys by looking backward.

Where many companies succumb to wishful thinking is when they try to apply such insight to the future of every customer. Trying to force all customers down a pre-defined path to ensure a specific journey is the road to bad customer experiences and smaller returns.

Prescribing journeys in a hyper-dynamic, multi-channel, multi-device world in the middle of an emerging ‘Internet of Things,’ (where for all practical purposes ‘things’ may soon become customers as well) is like trying to play a chess game from the opening move to checkmate without considering your opponent’s moves. Once upon a time, in another era (say, the 1990s), companies only had a few channels to interact with customers, and those customers had two devices (a non-smartphone and a PC). This pretty much ensured that the customer would follow the path the company laid out for them. But those days are gone, with hardly a trace left. Customer Journeys in the 90s were like a merry-go-round: utterly predictable, start to finish. No customers were lost during the ride. These customers could not compare products and prices with the tap of a finger, look for opinions on social media, or buy globally. A little later, journeys evolved to resemble a roller coaster more than a carousel, but brand loyalty and in-bred behavior still mostly persevered in a generation where Millennials did not yet have buying power.

Realistically, today’s customer journeys can only be compared with the trajectory of the ball in a pinball machine. You can score a lot of points if you keep the ball in play, but it’s hard work. And it would be silly to do any long term planning that involves trying to predict where the ball will be in five minutes. Getting the high score in pinball is about reacting optimally to the ball’s immediate trajectory and situation.

In real life this means a company must be ready to deal with a customer in the best possible way whenever and wherever they appear. Big Data on millions of customer journeys should be used to optimize the customer experience at every touch point. We may try to nudge a customer toward a target path or destination, without tilting, but it’s foolish to assume we can get them there every time. The odds increase, however, if we can keep the customer in play long enough.

In a hyper-dynamic world, context is everything. You need to understand how customers navigate your company, but you can’t script how their journeys unfold. This is 1:1 101. Every customer is unique and should be treated as such. Applying scripted interaction flows to today’s channels and customers is the modern equivalent of blanketing large customer segments with one-size-fits-all marketing campaigns. The fact that we now do marketing on digital channels shouldn’t mean that bad marketing gets to more customers faster. The customer needs to be won over time and time again with deep personalization. And this goes far beyond using the right surname and form of address. This means using an interaction model that’s fully contextual. One that can anticipate what’s right for customers - When someone clicks or swipes, answers a question or presses a menu option; when someone tweets or posts, changes location or thumbs an approval; when someone is upset or abandons a basket, their context changes and a freshly personalized action may be required.

These actions cannot be scripted and cannot be retrieved from last night’s analysis. Try to have a good conversation with someone using a script. Now try listening and responding appropriately. Notice a difference? With any conversation, context is everything. And conversations are what you’re having with your customers.

Moreover, the more contextual the interactions, the less static the customer journey is for customer. In state-of-the-art customer engagement solutions, every detail (click, response, selection, mood, etc.) of every customer journey can now be stored in a high definition Big Data repository. The journeys can be analyzed to enhance the customer experience and understand attribution. But customer interaction needs to be 1:1, and contextual and prescriptive journeys are anathema to that. Customers should not be nudged onto a journey but led towards value. And the path to achieving that value should always be right in front of them.