Real Challenges in an Omni-Channel Future

Garry Lee | Chief Executive Officer

Recently I chaired a roundtable at Europe’s Customer Festival on the subject of ‘Omni-Channel engagement: following the clues left by your customers to build a truly Omni-Channel journey’.

The discussion went off in a number of directions and I’m delighted to say it surprised me quite a few times, so I thought I’d quickly share the output of the discussion. Consider this a group blog on behalf of those that sat around the table with me!

Do something achievable

There was a consensus that the biggest mistake people make is trying to do too much, too quickly. This can doom you to failure, so the key is picking off the things you can achieve, showing progress and gradually building towards an omni-channel future. I thought this was exemplified in the comment ‘why do all channels needed to be seamlessly linked immediately’? By putting yourself into the mind of the customer, think of the channels where they would expect a seamless journey and focus your efforts there first. It’s not the end of the world (yet!) if a store manager doesn’t know every online action of a customer that walks into their store. However, if that same person moves between the website on a laptop and the app on his phone, he should expect his experience to be seamless and both devices/channels to know what he did on the other.

It’s all about the customer

On the theme of thinking like the customer, there was a long discussion on the best way to plan for an omni-channel future and a big part of that centred on how to put the customer at the centre of that planning. I found this particularly interesting as I hear and read a lot about how companies are ‘putting the customer first’ or ‘empowering the customer’. The marketers on my roundtable were really advocating assessing the structure of departments / companies and changing them so that everything revolved around the customer experience. This was proposed as the best way to avoid the problem of politics getting in the way of delivering an omni-channel experience. I was really surprised that this was such a major concern. For a long time I’ve held the belief that the two biggest things stopping omni-channel were data silos and internal department structures. Whilst these are clear issues (see more on data silos later) it was the problem with departmental structures that was larger than I realised. My thoughts on this area were that the different channels / devices would compete for a customer’s interaction and find it hard to play well together to create a seamless customer experience. However, it’s actually a step before this that we see the first issues, where areas like fulfilment, sales, customer services etc… are all set up differently and not working together. It’s actually getting these issues resolved that people saw as the first big hurdle to tackle internally.

One potential answer to this conundrum is ‘ownership’. I asked who the marketers felt should own omni-channel. Interestingly the general feeling was less about who and more on just ensuring that one person was given that responsibility. There was no preference for that person to be the CMO, CIO, CTO, CX Director, eCommerce Director etc… The key enabler would be clear ownership of omni-channel with buy in from all the key parts of the business, not just the marketing team.

Closing off the subject of people, one central theme was that Customer Experience teams need to be involved throughout the omni-channel process and development. We have to be aware of the classic ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’! When you consider building a genuine omni-channel experience, mapping out the customer journey and ensuring it works across channels and platforms is something your customer experience manager / team should always be involved in. On a side note, I asked how many people around the table worked with (or were) customer experience professionals and the response was around 90% - if I asked this question 12 months ago the answer would have been below 50%, which is a great result in my opinion.

Without the data it's just not possible

You are never more than a few paragraphs away from a data reference in any blog I write and this subject is no different! It’s not a big stretch to say that unless you can get your data to be accurate, in the right place and actionable you will not be able to implement an omni-channel strategy. This was certainly an important discussion for the group as the participants were extremely nervous about the best way to go about making these different databases, CRMs, SCV etc… work together. One person commented that she already had four different CRM databases without even thinking about the individual channel’s data silos, so how could you ever expect to join this up? Again, the general feeling in the group was not to try and take on too big a challenge initially and start with a layer that works around the different sources of data and build this up over time. Start with the data you believe you need to enhance the customer experience across different channels and devices. In an AGILE development world we call this a minimum viable product and this was certainly the feeling around the table – put in place a customer data platform with the minimum you need to achieve an improvement and evolve it.

Why can Amazon do it?

When we were discussing examples of where brands are getting things right, retail seemed to be a common industry example because people are seeing traditional bricks and mortar businesses attempting to tie the retail outlet to online activity with things like iBeacons, GPS technologies etc… Rightly, people often cite Amazon as a business that seemed to understand the importance of omni-channel early on in its evolution. One thing I would add is that Amazon benefits from massive budgets and no offline presence, but actually the biggest reason they excel in this area (and many others) is that they built their business around the customer from day one. They don’t have the same traditional functional structures because from the off, Jeff Bezos not only said that the customer is king - he built his business around that ethos.

The one sector that was highlighted as having real challenges was travel, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, travel crosses geographical borders and you’re impacted by different laws and ways you can use data. So, while you might be able to get your departments working in unison, they might not be able to apply the ideas across countries in the same way. This doesn’t stop omni-channel strategies but it does make it a much more difficult proposition. My advice would be to get it right in one region and then show the others it is worth the time and effort. The other reason the travel sector struggles is the ‘persona issue’. The example people put forward was someone booking a flight or hotel, where one booking might be made as a business traveller, on another they are making the booking for their family. Understanding this is important to the customer experience and it’s not easy. One simple technique I’d suggest is being flexible with your personas and allow customers into more than one persona, then allow clever personalisation to customise your communications, whatever channel you are using. For example in an email communication you could have different areas that are populated based on different actions, allowing you to highlight offers and ideas that work for both their persona types. One other more direct approach would be asking the customer more directly what they want communication about, one thing I’ve seen a lot is that business and leisure travellers would happily just receive emails about leisure ideas and not the business travel they do – put the power in the hands of the customer.

What’s in a name?

I want to end with an insight from one of the group – if we can stop giving these initiatives buzzword names, like omni-channel strategy, then we have a better chance of getting internal buy in!

Senior people that you need to convince for budget and resource have been burnt over the years by ‘CRM’; ‘Big Data’; ‘SCV’ etc… and omni-channel runs the risk of sounding like yet another expensive idea that won’t deliver a practical output. So as was suggested on the day, just tell your manager you have an initiative that makes ordering for the customer more ‘convenient’ and vastly improves their customer experience – then you’ll get their interest.

Always remember, whilst we might be calling it omni-channel (and some people will still mistake it with multi-channel) the customer, the important person to remember, doesn’t see channels! To put it another way, the customer is channel blind. To them, whether they are interacting with your brand on a phone, a laptop, receiving an email, seeing a banner, browsing the website – these are all the same – digital interactions. The only online users that mentally note they are moving across channels or devices are the people already in the industry and it’s unlikely they are your target market!

So to conclude – think like your customer, not the marketer; keep it simple; data is king (always)!!

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