How to ensure your omnichannel strategy doesn't become an omnishambles

29th Mar 2016

“Omnichannel” is, at the time of writing, a high score on business buzzword bingo. Seamless customer experiences across multiple devices and channels is much talked about but rarely achieved.

But to flip the standard rhetoric around: do consumers think they are “omnichannel”?

We decided to ask them as part of our recent ‘Omnichannel Swap Shop’ research. My colleague Dr Tanya Alcock and I ran in-depth interviews with UK consumers about how and why they shop, bank, entertain themselves, get insurance and interact with government. When you ask them if they are omnichannel, you tend to get a look of confusion. They don’t see themselves as omni-anything. They are goal directed. True, they have a lot more channel options to get them to that goal, but it is the goal rather than the channel that matters to them.

More channel choices tend to drive them towards the usage of more rather than fewer channels – and evidence is showing that smartphones accelerate these behaviours. They do not think of channels in isolation but combine them and make decisions based on their motivation, context and attitude towards the channel in question. This doesn’t mean that we stop using the high street, it just means that we use it in a slightly different way – occasionally substituting it but also enhancing it by the use of digital channels.

To get omnichannel strategies right, we need to understand a bit more about what is driving these consumer behaviours. Our interviews revealed a few factors that need to be considered that might make the difference between a good omnichannel strategy and an omnishambles:

Understand why consumers choose the channels they do

A critical strategic challenge is to try and figure out not just which channels consumers are using, but why.

The fact that we tend to flip between channels is really not unusual – it will depend on convenience, context and accessibility.

For consumers the digital world has a number of advantages. Digital channels put them in control – as long as they are easy to use. They provide access to a huge amount of choice. They are accessible whenever and wherever the consumers want them and they can choose to do things in their own time. Because it is easy to compare products and prices, there is a perception that they are getting better bargains online. They also often appreciate the easy, personalised experience of sites like Amazon.

It’s always difficult to buy something online if you don’t know what you want – from inspiration to impulse buys, the high street trumps digital. The ‘try street’ is also still very much in evidence – we often still like to squeeze fruit and check if 'my bottom looks big in this'. Although much has been made of ‘showrooming’ in the retail sector (i.e. comparing products and prices in store then buying online), this appears to be only the case with a small minority of consumers.

There are less rational reasons that also dictate our channel choices – our emotional context can change our behaviours.

‘Visionaries’ are positively motivated consumers. They want to move house, look great at a wedding or throw the perfect party. Because this matters to them, they are willing to invest time and energy into researching options. They use many channels to do this but may look for advice from others and may be particularly risk averse (particularly seen in a phenomenon called ‘parcel paranoia’ when you buy something online and then worry that it will get delivered on time and in one piece).

As customer experience people, we tend to get unhealthily obsessed with channels.

If things go wrong they can rapidly mutate, Incredible Hulk-like, into a ‘customer-in-crisis’. This is a negatively motivated consumer who tends to have very little patience with automation (unless it is extremely simple) and often wants to hand the problem over for someone in customer service to solve. They are more likely to lift the phone, leap onto webchat or whinge on social media (or all of the above).

Life isn’t all about extremes of positivity or negativity, that would be exhausting. Some tasks are neutral – paying bills, buying carrots – and ‘utilitarian’ behaviours kick in. Utilitarians don’t need a “WOW” experience, they just want things to be quick and easy and, if digital channels do this, they are more willing to embrace them.

To make omnichannel work, businesses need to establish what users are trying to achieve and what goal state they are likely to be in. This is especially important if you want people to shift to “lower cost” channels (e.g. the “digital by default” strategies that are being pursued by many government departments at the moment). If people simply aren’t able to meet their goals through the lower cost channels, then any attempts to drive them onto such channels will often result in consumers switching to higher cost channels or (if there is choice) another supplier.

Remove “channel blindness”

As customer experience people, we tend to get unhealthily obsessed with channels. We also tend to silo channels organisationally to make life easier for us.  What happens in branch or in store tends to stay there and it’s often the same in the digital space.

Even within silos there are silos – the social media team may not have access to a phone and the contact centre agent might not have an email address. This results in extreme channel blindness which means that consumers have to work hard as they shift between channels.

There are many inherent challenges in integrating the digital channel into traditional physical environments. Technologies are often deployed in store and in branch with a cost-cutting mentality rather than a mission to improve customer experiences and integrate channels. The danger of this is that it can cause too much of a focus on price and convenience. This only strengthens the advantages of digital channels.

As we move into a more connected internet of things, personalisation becomes increasingly possible in store and branch. Location-based services, wearable devices, video and smartphones can be used to identify consumers as they move around both digital and physical spaces.

‘Clienteling’ technologies on smartphones and tablets are increasingly being deployed to help front line employees to access more data on consumers, products and services so that they can also create more personalised experiences. This technology could also be used to bring live employee help into digital spaces by allowing remote customers to talk to store or branch over video, webchat and social media.

It isn’t just about the technology – although having that integrated is a good start. It is also about rewarding employees in-store for activity in the digital space and allowing consumers to be in control of how much data they let organisations have when they switch from one channel to another (otherwise it could get a bit creepy).

Use effective signposting

It is perfectly normal behaviour for consumers to take different roads to get to their destination in the omnichannel world. The challenge is to make sure that their journeys don’t take them down channel cul-de-sacs. They may need signposting en-route and reassurance that they are heading in the right direction – especially important for channels like social media because it may not be appropriate to put personal details into a public space.

Signposting shouldn’t stop with the digital world, though.  The boundaries between physical and digital are blurring, so technology needs to be more integrated across both to make customer experiences better. Using technologies that help consumers find things in physical spaces that they have already viewed online could cut out the whole experience of running up and down aisles.

Given the omnichannel swap shop is probably not going to stop, it is vital to ensure that we look at building customer experiences and journeys from the consumer’s point of view, not the channel’s point of view. That could prove to be the difference between an omnichannel strategy and an omni-shambles.

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