What Pinball Taught Me About Mapping Customer Journeys & Building Perfect Digital Experiences


I started playing pinball in the 1980s and I never stopped. Back then, my dad used to work at a bowling alley. It was one of the first to have a giant video arcade. Every Thursday, he’d take me to work, and I’d play games while he tended bar. When I got my first real job after college, the first thing I did was buy a Guns ’n’ Roses pinball machine. Now, I have seven of them in my basement.

My Pinball and Print Journeys

Chaos is one of my favorite things about pinball. Physics and nature all tend to chaos in the end. No matter how hard you try, and no matter how well you play, you end up losing all your turns, then it's game over.

On a lighter note, pinball is also an example of a perfectly-structured customer journey. You drop a coin into the slot, pull the plunger, and start playing. You have milestones along the way. There are targets and bumpers to hit, lanes and ramps to traverse, traps to avoid, and sequences to complete. If you learn the patterns and master the physics of a game, you get super jackpots, extra balls, multi-balls, and replays.

The gameplay—or customer journey—is the actual product, not the machine itself. Pinball is a metaphor for life and for a smart way to do business. Now, I didn’t major in pinball, I have a degree in English Literature, and ended up doing document design at a print service provider after I graduated. In fact, the CEO from that service provider is a current Quadient client.

At the time, I didn’t know that document design was part of an ecosystem that was served by a larger software industry. I ended up learning some brute force coding and late 1990s document management software. When I transitioned to the software side, I ended up working as a consultant, traveling across the country designing insurance and financial documents.

In 1999, I helped a print service provider redesign the mortgage statements they were sending out for a large percentage of American mortgage lenders. I added "billboard messages" to the middle panel of every invoice, as the industry transitioned from coupon books to monthly statements. I helped turn that empty middle panel into advertising for additional financial services.

These ads went out with roughly 30% of the home mortgage statements that were issued in the United States at the time. There were thousands of variations that advertised everything from establishing lines of credit with second mortgages to using your home as equity to buy a lake house or a yacht.

This is how I learned that customer communications were a powerful and effective tool for many departments within a business. Originally, these ads were an afterthought handled by the operations team. But responsibility shifted over to the marketing department and the sales team because these panels created new business opportunities.

Unfortunately, we saw what happened to the mortgage industry. Lenders focused on the initial sale and nothing else. These customized ads were the primary touch point, and there was little or no consideration given to the customer journey as a whole.

Staking My Career on Mapping Customer Journeys

Based on solid research and forward thinking from Quadient's Product Marketing Management team, I asked our executive committee for permission to build a customer journey mapping utility back in 2014. I explained the risk, but I also made it clear that this would become a critical tool for understanding our clients' CX strategy. The result was Quadient Customer Journey Mapping, a platform that allows business to walk in the shoes of their customers.

It is vital to understand how to connect customer communication to the customer lifecycle. In my experience, this can be difficult because people often don’t talk to each other in businesses. This is not because they don’t like each other, but because they all have different skill sets and approaches. Account managers don’t speak the same language as marketers. Tech support teams and sales reps have different takes on what a customer experience—or CX—looks like.

Quadient has developed software that allows each of these people to work on their part of the customer journey without having to go through everyone else. We provide user interfaces that are matched to the skills of specific users. This way, we are not over-training people, but presenting them with the right buttons to push, with only the features they need to do their jobs.

All of this happens behind the scenes, and is invisible to customers. For example, someone in sales may have realized that a product description on the company website is out of date. They can use Quadient’s built-in chat channel to tell a colleague on the web design team to input the right information.

The sales rep understands that the product description is a vital touchpoint for a potential customer, and that posting the wrong information may result in a cancelled order, or worse, no order at all. The web designer understands that the product description must be presented in a specific way that is consistent with every other product description on the site.

If you combine the expertise of these two people with customer journey mapping, you know exactly what the prospect’s experience will be when they click on the product description. You understand that they will either click on the buy button, move to another product description, or leave your website entirely.

Creating a True Digital Experience Platform

If they do click on the buy button, you then take them to the order page, the shipping page, and finally the payment page. If you’ve done your job right, and you’ve mapped the entire customer journey, you’ve already set up touch points for things like product returns, tech support, warranty inquiries, and even product disposal. Clicking on the buy button is often where the customer experience starts to fall apart.

The customer experience doesn’t stop when they hit “Buy.” In fact, it’s just getting started.

Customers are pushed from one system to another, over and over again. Order processing is one system; payment and shipping another. Online tech support is provided via a chat plugin that uses fonts, colors, and design elements that clash with your corporate branding. Your print invoices and your web invoices look nothing alike. You get the picture. More accurately, you get the pictures.

Mapping a customer journey is one thing. Creating a coherent digital experience—or DX—is another. This is why Quadient has focused on creating a digital experience platform (DXP) from the very beginning. Many of our competitors think in terms of one channel or system at a time, but we like to look at the overall picture. It’s one thing to have a killer website, but to reach all your customers, and to fulfill all your regulatory obligations, you also need to make email, mobile apps, PDFs, and print documents part of your overall customer communications strategy.

Managing a Multi-Channel Digital Experience

Think of the way you buy and use a smartphone. You can read about the device and the various plans on your provider’s website, or you can visit a brick-and-mortar store. You then have the option of ordering your device online, on the phone, or in a store. If you have questions, you can open a chat window, contact the call center, or speak to a rep in person. You can even order a new device on your current smartphone if you’re an existing customer. At the end of the day, you still have to sign a twenty-page contract before you can activate your device.

The desired outcome is always the same. You walk away with a new phone. Over the lifetime of your device, you may need technical support. You may have questions about billing, or your voice or data usage. Again, you’ll have several ways of contacting your service provider.

If they’re on top of their DXP game, your service provider will provide you with the same information and the same quality of service no matter what channel you use to communicate.

This means the printer who supplies the in-store contract you sign uses the same terms and the same design language as the e-signature provider who allows you to activate your phone online. If you choose paper billing, you will be mailed an invoice that is formatted in the same way as the one you view online. This will help you to avoid confusion if you ever lose the physical copy of your monthly bill.

A well-managed multi-channel digital experience is a blessing when customer communication is going well, but it is even more vital when things go wrong. Say you asked your insurance company to mail you paper invoices but forgot to tell them that you moved. Unintentionally, you could find yourself a couple of months behind on your payments. If your insurance company is on top of the digital experience, they’ll contact you. They’ll send an email, a text message, or a push notification to your app. They’ll cycle through the channels to contact you without having to coordinate four separate infrastructures to get in touch with you. As a result, you’ll avoid late fees, and you won’t find yourself without insurance in the event of a crisis.

Making all of this seamless is what we do at Quadient. We are laser-focused on giving businesses the tools they need to develop personalized mobile and web experiences that are also aligned with non-digital communication channels.

Following Amazon’s Lead

Companies that proactively manage their customer journeys and provide a seamless digital experience have control of their destiny. They can move in any direction they choose. One such company is Amazon. Now, they send you a photo of your package on your porch to let you know it’s arrived. You get visual confirmation on your order status page, not just a text note.

Companies that provide a superlative customer experience can move in any direction they choose.

Amazon has been buying up companies left, right, and center. They acquired Whole Foods last year and moved into the brick-and-mortar grocery business. A few weeks ago, they bought PillPack, an online pharmacy that delivers to the lower 48 states. Shares of pharmacy chains like CVS and Rite Aid fell because investors know that customers will follow wherever Amazon goes.

Amazon’s customer experience is that good. Think of things like 1-Click shopping, same day delivery, and Amazon Prime. People pay for the privilege of shopping on Amazon, and they get a TV and movie streaming service as a bonus. That is one heck of a digital experience. If you’re serious about providing the best in CX and DXP, follow Amazon’s lead.

Making Every Customer Feel Like a Pinball Wizard

Let me loop back to pinball here. I started by saying that a pinball machine is the perfect metaphor for a complete customer journey, but it is also an excellent way of looking at a digital experience or a multichannel customer approach.

When you walk into a really good arcade, there are dozens of pinball games. They all work the same way, but some are more fun than others. Game design makes the difference. If you talk to a real fanatic like me, I can tell you all about Pat Lawlor, the guy who designed "FunHouse" and "The Addams Family" (the highest selling pinball machine in history.) His latest machine, 2017's "Dialed In," features Bluetooth connectivity to an app that remotely operates flippers, a Twitter integration to share your score, a selfie-mode using a camera on the playfield, and a 27" HiDef screen full of animations. All of that combines to tell the story of a mobile phone app gone wrong as the game unfolds. 

Like Amazon, Lawlor knows what people want, and he keeps adding new and exciting twists to his games. Pinball manufacturers seek him out because he knows how to challenge players and how to keep us entertained by using the latest technology to move the industry forward.

And speaking of players, I’ll leave you with one more analogy about the kinds of customers you want to attract. If you’ve gone to an arcade, you know there are two types of players.

The first is the kid who shows up with a roll of quarters and goes from game to game, blowing all their money in an hour. The second is the kid who puts in one quarter and spends an hour getting the high score on their favorite game. Which one do you think is the better customer?

The answer is the second one, the so-called pinball wizard. That kid came in day after day and plunked quarter after quarter into a single machine. They know every bumper, target, and lane. They know how to angle a ball, and how to lean into or push a machine without tilting it.

Your number one customer is not the one who spends the most, but the one who spends consistently.

That kid is your evangelist. The other kids watch them play and line up at that machine after they’re done. This is also the kid who will spend all their money mastering the next pinball game they fall in love with. They may even grow up (or not grow up) to have pinball machines in their basement like I do.

In the long run, you’ll make more money from the kid who can play for an hour on a single quarter. The kid who goes from machine to machine is not your customer. Sure, you’ll get their roll of coins this week, but next week, they’ll have moved on to comic books or action movies.

If you want to create long-term relationships with your customers, you have to make every single one of them feel like a pinball wizard. You do that by understanding their customer journeys and providing them with unforgettable digital experiences.