Article

The promise of sustainable customer journeys

– unlocking commercial value by leveraging the customer experience

Published

June 2022

Authors

How do you effectively translate sustainability efforts into increased business value and customer satisfaction?

Many companies are working hard to improve their sustainability efforts, and some have come considerably further than their competitors. However, there are still very few companies that have successfully capitalised on improved sustainability performance. A common problem is that mere product attributes are not sufficient, as the entire customer experience is not perceived as substantially more sustainable to drive additional willingness to pay. This resulting in sustainability initiatives in many companies are seen as a cost rather than investments.

Designing the customer experience with this in mind can be an effective tool to translate your sustainability efforts into business value. This article outlines eight aspects to consider when creating a customer journey that can achieve increased perception of sustainability.

Our experience and market observations show that sustainability is becoming increasingly important for consumers’ purchasing decisions. This results in companies facing pressure to develop sustainable solutions, making it a central part of their value proposition and ensuring that the entire customer journey meets the expectations of the customer.

Let us start with an example

A company producing outdoor products, with tents accounting for a large share of their revenue, is investing heavily in becoming more sustainable.

They were differentiating themselves by offering products that not only fulfil the regular requirements of tents in terms of size and use case but that were also produced to minimise the environmental impact. The materials used were either renewable or recycled. They were actively working in their upstream supply chain achieving 100% renewable energy used at tier 1 suppliers. Since 2017, the company has been on a journey to shift all transport fuels to renewable ones and has actively engaged in inspiring others to do the same.

But the efforts and investments that the company put into making their products more sustainable were not reflected throughout their customer journey, which left the company feeling that they did not create business value in their way of measuring success and value.

So where did it go wrong?

The one thing that left many customers disappointed was the non-existent opportunity to repair and buy spare parts months or even years after the purchase. This resulted in low-score reviews coming in many months after the purchase was done – something that the company experiences as becoming a growing concern for their brand with customers becoming more aware.

We know from experience and market observations that sustainability is becoming increasingly important in consumers’ purchasing decisions and is changing the purchasing behaviours of many. As a result, companies are facing pressure to develop sustainable solutions and make them a core part of their value proposition, ensuring that the entire customer journey meets customer expectations.

The insight from the example shows the importance of ensuring that the sustainable customer journey is truly sustainable from A to Z and that you do not have any slip-ups at individual touchpoints that will undermine the entire experience for your customers.

The sustainable customer journey

Below is an example of the customer experience when you buy a pair of jeans, here using MUD Jeans as an example. At each touchpoint in the customer journey, we provide concrete tips on how MUD Jeans today communicate and what they can improve to increase the customer experience.

A sustainable customer journey consists of numerous touchpoints, and each of these touchpoints must support the overall message

Example: online customer journey

First impression

Make sure that your message is sharp and to the point and that the customer value is visible at first impression.

MUD Jeans example: the customer sees “Jeans for you and the planet” when entering the webpage. The next thing is concrete examples of what the company is doing in this area, leaving the customer with the impression that MUD Jeans seems to be a responsible company, aligned with their values.

Product selection

Showcase high level the difference in price and sustainability impact for complete range. If possible, give the customer alternative to lease instead of buying.

MUD Jeans example: the customer gets the option to buy and lease the jeans. Both prices are visible. The customer is also offered a discount if returning an old pair of MUD Jeans.

Product purchase decision

Be transparent, and show the impact of your product based on a range of parameters. Tell the story behind the work, and if higher price, explain why.

MUD Jeans example: the customer gets detailed information about the product impact compared to industry standards. Transparently showing the supply chain, materials used and resources saved compared to the industry standard: 92% water, 70% CO2e etc. (measured by Ecochain from cradle to gate).

Product delivery

Make sustainability choices for your customers to create a smooth and easy experience. Provide clear data on benefits and price of the choice compared to alternatives. Deliver the product in a sustainable way by using minimum packaging and renewable fuel transport.

MUD Jeans example: the customer does not receive any information on delivery options and no information on the type of delivery. In this case, the preferred way would be to either give different delivery options and the climate impact or only having one option and making sure it is the most sustainable one.

Product usage

The majority of the customer experience happens during the product usage phase. This experience should reinforce the message that has been communicated through the decision phase. Living up to the sustainability aspects that have been communicated earlier.

MUD Jeans example: the functional properties of the jeans are not significantly affected by its sustainability properties, so the importance of this step varies. The quality and durability should be great so that they can be used for a long time.

Product reuse and repair

Design new customer touchpoints to provide services where customers can pass on products and repair the product if needed. Services to prolong the life length of products.

MUD Jeans example: the customer has the option to lease the product, and it will be passed on to the next customer. But the experience would be improved if the customer had the option to repair the bought jeans, leading to prolonged life length of the product and strengthening the overall message of a circular product.

Product recycling

Making sure that the products are effectively recyclable and communicating this to customers enhance the sustainability of the product. The recycling workflow experience should be simple, thus encouraging that behaviour from the customer.

MUD Jeans example: customers are offered to return the old and worn-out jeans through an easy-return experience, and the customer is getting a discount on a new pair, creating another incentive for the customer to send back the product to MUD Jeans. On the webpage, the customer can read about the recycling process from return to new product.

To create a customer journey reflecting your sustainability initiatives, it is highly critical that you design all touchpoints with a focus on the impression that you want to provide to your customer. It may be challenging, but based on our experience, we have identified eight aspects that you need to consider when designing your sustainable customer journey:

Eight aspects that you need to consider when designing your sustainable customer journey
  1. Understand the short- and long-term needs and preferences of your relevant customer segments and markets through qualitative surveying as well as by studying market trends and behavioural patterns. When it comes to sustainability aspects, make sure to evaluate and understand their areas of interest and their willingness to pay with respect to these. This gives solid guidance on the customer experience design, where to pay special attention and where to invest additional resources. Check whether and how previously unreached, attractive customer segments can be won in the future by means of a more sustainable value proposition, e.g. by offering a leasing or rental model and thus enabling a much larger number of people to afford it or by making your products newly eligible for customers.
  2. Map the key touchpoints that are most important for the overall customer experience or the buying decision. Focus on making these touchpoints, and the perception of them, as sustainable as possible. Prioritise one or two positive peaks over mediocrity across all touchpoints. However, despite prioritising one or two touchpoints, do not jeopardise the full experience by forgetting about sustainability in other touchpoints (as in the first customer example).
  3. Find new and circular touchpoints when the world and business are shifting towards a more circular economy. Identify the new customer touchpoints created by the shift from linear to a circular business model and where you can play in the future. To create an experience in line with this, it must be possible for your customers to reintegrate their used products into the economic cycle. You benefit the most when your company itself creates these opportunities. For example, you can provide a place, tools and know-how to your customers on how to repair their products on their own. Another possibility is to give customers an opportunity to return their products after use to remanufacture them or provide a platform through which customers can sell products they no longer use. Lastly, you can opt for a delivery model with increased life cycle responsibility through either a leasing model or a complete “as-a-service” offering, where customers primarily pay for utility. This usually implies better alignment between commercial and sustainability considerations, thus making increased sustainability incentivised and less financially constraining. These models not only enable more sustainable customer experiences, but they also offer the possibility of intensified customer relationships and higher customer lifetime values as a result.
  4. Strive towards full transparency for your customers. Create trust by being transparent about what you know and what you do not know. About what you do and still intent to do. Bring along the customers on the transformation journey, and make the information simple and easily accessible. Link the communication to the already identified needs of your customers, and build trust by transparently sharing product sustainability performance data. For B2B companies, these can be a starting point for co-developing new solutions.
  5. Find and leverage digital tools to enhance the sustainability of your offering and amplify the desired customer experience. Technology can improve the customer experience in several dimensions in terms of perception and satisfaction but also in terms of fundamental value proposition and improved products. One important example is how the usage of digital tools can drive increased circularity. By creating enjoyable and uncomplicated digital interfaces that allow and encourage customers to engage in inverse logistics, i.e. various forms of reuse/recycling, you can achieve increased sustainability and satisfaction at the same time. This can lead to improved customer loyalty and brand associations, ultimately delivering higher profitability.
  6. Utilise your ecosystem to create a more comprehensive and sustainable offering. Utilise partnerships in the delivery, usage and end life of your service or product. You must think beyond your own company borders when designing a sustainable customer journey. Identify up- or downstream partnerships that can add value to your offering, increase its sustainability or enhance the desired sustainable customer experience. These partnerships might include online retailers, fossil-free delivery couriers, repair service providers, co-investments in recycling infrastructure and capabilities.
  7. Develop organisational readiness and capabilities to secure a genuine and convincing sustainability message to customers. The experience must be consistent along the whole journey and, therefore, across all touchpoints with human interactions. Your salespeople must be trained on how your sustainability efforts fit into the overall value proposition to be able to conduct efficient value selling. The same applies to all other employees with customer contact, e.g. logistics, finance or aftermarket. In addition, to achieve great customer-centric sustainability capabilities, it is necessary to change the conversations regarding sustainability in your company and ideally having sustainability deeply reflected in the company’s vision and culture.
  8. Develop incentives to nudge customer behaviours and accelerate sales and impact. Educate and build in incentive models nudging your customers towards the more sustainable options. Keep in mind the cultural differences and maturity in different markets when for example communicating the value of your products and services. If given different alternatives, make sure that the sustainable ones are attractively incentivised in some form.

Want to accelerate your initiatives towards a more sustainable future?

We need to start accelerating more sustainable solutions and make them easily accessible for the many people. At Implement, we help companies translate their sustainability efforts into increased competitiveness and customer satisfaction. Very often, this journey starts with understanding the needs of your customers and what drives value for them to truly bridge the sustainability initiatives with one’s commercial strategy and execution.

If you want to exchange ideas of what this could look like for your company, please reach out to: