Omnichannel – Myth, Reality or Utopia?

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Omnichannel – is it a Myth, Reality or Utopia?

Over the past 20 or so years the way products and services get sold and customer service as well as marketing get delivered changed dramatically. Gone are the times where a potential customer was addressed via a radio- or TV-spot or an ad printed in a newspaper, advertising mail in the mailbox … – well, it still happens, but the focus shifted dramatically.

We started off from one single ‘channel’ – customer goes to the store and interacts with a person – and added an ever increasing number of additional ones, like the ones mentioned, plus many more.

For retail businesses the store will not go away. Generally spoken, human interaction will stay important, probably increase in importance; human customer service will not vanish – but is likely to change … please hold this thought.

In today’s omnichannel world we also have telephone, e-mail, web-delivered ads, mobile apps, branded and white-label communities, social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., knowledge bases in combination with self-service, chat, messenger applications like WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Snapchat, iMessage; chat supported by ‘machine intelligence’, exposed via so called chatbots, and what not. The list could virtually go on and on.

This is all supported by and implemented on a platform that leverages integrated applications, which work on a joint, or at least consistent data model – with clean data – utilizing strong real-time analytics capabilities that powers both, customer segmentation and knowledge categorization for efficient search. And it delivers a great customer experience.

In Real Life

Uhhm, I am just awaking from my dream …

Omnichannel is currently all the rage. Be available where your customer is, be consistent regardless of the communications channel that the customer uses at any time, and regardless of the changes of channels the customer chooses to make. Use the knowledge and information of previous interactions to the customers’ benefit. I, too, think that it is the right idea, and approach – at least for now.

The History – and a Glimpse into the Future?

We started off with just one single channel. Every interaction happened in the store – and via word of mouth. That is easy enough to handle but then changed very soon, as described above.

The situation changed to being in the need to support a low number of independent channels, especially in marketing, but also in service. Content, and knowledge, were created and disseminated into these independent channels. This got somehow optimized. The information was made available for use in several channels. Born was the notion of cross channel.

From there we went on to think of and to support multi-channel concepts by integrating the various applications and their data stores. We arrived at the era of suites.

However, additional channels emerged and thanks to cloud computing and decentral budgets as well as lacking trust into IT departments, the pendulum swings from suites to best-of-breed solutions – all the way back to the 90s. As a consequence, platforms start to emerge. The number of communications channels that need to be supported, grew, and continues to grow.

Additionally, customers increasingly demand being addressed personally and relevantly, on the communications channel of their choice.

And they want to be able to get to the information themselves, be it marketing-, product information or service documentation. This is largely thanks to advances in computing technology and the emergence of smart phones, and needs to be addressed by companies.

So, we arrived at the era of omnichannel, where companies feel the need to achieve a seamless marketing, sales, and service experience, regardless of the communications channel a customer uses at any given time. Including as per yet unknown channels.

Again, this is a lofty goal – very lofty!

Meanwhile companies start to realize that they cannot achieve this goal in its full epic breadth and depth, especially as they are also confronted with the need to be profitable, which obviously prevents them from throwing an infinite number of dollars at solving this problem.

The overwhelming complexity of this scenario simply cannot be fully accommodated for at this time.

Job-to-be-done thinking and customer journey maps evolved, which gave the ability to provide touch points for customers that can get offered by the companies in a manageable way. Advanced segmentation helps in limiting the offer to different customer groups, thus increasing the company’s relevance. Combined with sufficient computing power the relevance of the delivered content can be increased, too.

On the service side we see communities and self-service approaches being developed and employed.

Still, there are many databases with different aspects of data/knowledge that are not integrated, due to above best-of-breed approach and lacking pre-existing platforms in many businesses.

The Crystal Ball

And all this doesn’t even take into account the physical world. Talk about retail stores and people! This fragmentation harms the customer experience.

Again, neither the retail store nor human customer service will vanish!

But in reality, there is no real omnichannel experience delivered, with the possible exception of a few technologically very advanced brands.

Nor needs to be!

Companies need to prioritize. Looking at current technical trends only few channels are really important. For one the human touch. Mobile; already now a third of all web access happens via mobile devices. Conversational interfaces are increasingly becoming important, too.

According to Esteban Kolsky, customer service will look totally different from what it is now in ten years’ time. He is a firm believer in automation. So am I.

https://twitter.com/ekolsky/status/791046753382338560

We are facing self-service and communities as the main channels for customer service and even pre-purchase decision making. There are estimations that 90 per cent or more of customer service interactions can be automated. And I really wouldn’t disagree. What is the first thing we do when confronted with an issue? We use Google to research a resolution.

Information that we receive online from companies pre-purchase (and in service scenarios, too) will increasingly be delivered by explorative algorithms (AI’s).

So, where are we bound to?

  1. Businesses will develop a strong focus on mobile delivery of digital content, be it for marketing or service; this very well also means via voice (bots), and via humans. On the longer run automated voice and interaction via other devices than the smartphone will gain increased importance. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and VR/AR are giving us some direction here.
  2. We will see customers triage between branded apps that they will use for preferred businesses, ‘aggregator’ apps for needs based access (e.g., ‘I want to order food, but do not know what’, …), and finally messaging apps with their embedded company channels/bots. The latter two categories might merge. Neither category, app or messaging, will vanish; however, there will be a consolidation, as customers will not want to deal with dozens of apps on their mobile devices. This was one of the ideas behind Epikonic – maybe we just have been too early …
  3. With the rise of messaging apps and newer protocols, especially WebRTC, the importance of telephony as a separate network/technology will fade away. Telephony, especially with businesses, will merge into the data/app stream, mainly helping both parties; with an advantage for the business, though.
  4. Seamless interoperation of self-service or community service with human service, due to improved automation and ‘intelligent’ software; human intervention will become the exception, and if it comes to human intervention, there will increasingly be more relevant information available to be used by the agent.

This will not happen in the next few days, but it will. Watch the trends.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Your blog immediately triggered a memory, “As seen on TV . . .” A throwback to the halcyon time when my age was represented by a single-digit number. I think that Omnichannel is not revolutionary, but simply a modern term for a solution that vendors have used since the ’60’s – or even earlier. “As seen on TV” connected customer experiences on disparate platforms or channels. Something that’s no different from what vendors are doing – or trying to do – today.

    “As seen on TV” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_seen_on_TV) helped consumers draw connections between TV commercials, product packaging, and the retail store displays. What vendors do today with Omnichannel addresses the same issue, albeit with new technologies in a more complex and fragmented communications landscape.

    I don’t think of Omnichannel as a myth or a utopia. Just a new word that describes a familiar tactical approach to a long-standing selling challenge.

  2. Omnichannel is all three of what you’ve identified in the post title and ccompoents (self-service, communities, digitization, etc.) – a myth, a reality, and a utopian concept. What drives, or should be driving, a lot of the attention and investment here is competing to create a truly superior, positively differentiated experience and high percieved, and personalized, value for the customer.

  3. Hi Andrew, thanks for reading and commenting! I agree, ‘omnichannel’ is rather a new word, coined by vendors, than something breathtakingly new. Still, it is overused, and suggests that every business needs to be there on every channel – which it doesn’t. I think that we need to move on from this notion to something like, … well, how about ‘smartchannel’ or ‘channelless’ or ‘channel agnostic’? The channels themselves will change, e.g. I think that over time phone as a separate technical channel will fade away. Why not just using the existing data channel that also transmits the web site and/or the chat? In summary I think that businesses need to reconsider their channel strategies.

    And, yes, it describes an approach, but also an objective – and this objective is rather a Utopia. The myth is that it must be reached and reality is that companies struggle reaching it.

    Open to further discussion, of course 🙂

    Cheers
    Thomas

  4. Hi Michael, thanks for your comments. I’d agree, also see what I just replied to Andrew. I also agree that businesses need to really strongly consider what their customers want to achieve and then work on making this valuable and easy for them.

    Thomas

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