Where Omnichannel Thinking is Going Off the Rails


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This is probably going to sound heretical, but maybe it’s time for customer experience professionals to take a step back from that “omnichannel” marketing buzzword and look at the big picture. That’s likely a suggestion that will sound like it’s as much paradox as heresy, considering that most strategists, digital or otherwise, think that omnichannel is the big picture – but that may be where it’s going off the rails.

Yes, companies need to create that seamless customer journey. Yes, the era of the customer has arrived – although it’s hard to envision a time when businesses weren’t in the era of the customer, if one thinks about it. Yes, it is customer experience that defines that era, in part because mobile, social and other technologies have changed their expectations. Yes, the millennial demographic is a cultural driver for omnichannel strategies, but it’s well past time to understand that with some context and common sense – and Farhad Manjoo, writing for the New York Times last week, finally said it: Millennials are a myth.

So, in a sense, is “omnichannel,” but let’s think about what Manjoo is getting at first. His piece focuses on how corporate America is chasing the millennial mystique while overlooking the time-honored truths about any generation or group. They’re not monolithic, there’s really no such thing as a representative millennial speaking for an entire cohort, and marketing, in particular, is losing both its credibility and its dignity insisting that this emperor needs new clothes – so we should find shiny new ways to sell them.

Manjoo’s piece includes an interview with Laszlo Bock, head of human resources at Google, and Bock gets to the heart of it. If you look at millennials and identify what their underlying needs and aspirations are, Bock says, “there’s no difference at all between this new generation of workers and my generation and my father’s generation. Every single human being wants the same thing in the workplace — we want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to just leave us alone so we can get our work done.” In other words, they’re just people. It’s a loss to business to have to hire consultants tasked with erasing preconceived notions about them.

The same dynamic is at work when we chase “omnichannel” as if it were marketing’s unifying theory of everything, and miss the entire point of what being customer-focused means, from the standpoint of who customers are. To speak of “omni” anything is to conjure up images that are almost deified. As marketers, we are now ever-present. On the basis of our data and our geo, we are now all-knowing. It’s subtle, perhaps, but the problem with omnichannel-think is that the vision is entirely about defining us.

So the problem isn’t really that our marketing strategies are integrated – they should be. The problem isn’t that the customer’s journey shifts smoothly between the physical store experience, the mobile app, or simultaneously screen and store; that’s reality, and customer experience is enhanced by the access. But what’s getting lost in the race to capitalize on all that omni-connectivity is that it’s just not about us.

In the big picture that we’re missing, customers want context but they remain the creators of their own lives and define what that context means. Where companies are missing the mark, and perhaps failing their customers, is when they treat omnichannel as if it were glorified stalking – with the emphasis on their pop-up presence, rather than the autonomy of people acting on preferences in their own time.

Whether you’re a millennial or not, there’s a good chance – following Bock’s wisdom – that we’ve all heard the same advice in a self-conscious moment: The truth is that the world is complicated, people are busy, they’re thinking about their own lives and schedules, they hear their own internal dialogue all day, and the cold reality is that your existence, most of the time, isn’t that exotic to everyone on I-95.

So if they want to hire a software vendor or an auto mechanic, buy flowers or buy pizza or buy a house, they do so because they’re people and not because they’re data. When our omnichannel strategies rely too heavily on demographics and data analytics, and on the algorithms that decide “what is supposed to happen” on the basis of market segmentation drilled down to a social profile, they’re doomed to failure.

Just as the hype about millennials needs that well-deserved critique that Bock and Manjoo offer, so do the corporate techniques, omnichannel included, that companies are relying on to build brand. Manjoo is damned straightforward in a spot-on assessment: “If your management or marketing theories involve collapsing all millennials into a catchall anthropological category — as if you’re dealing with space aliens or some newly discovered aboriginal tribe that’s suddenly invaded modernity — you’re doing it wrong.”

That doing it wrong part, because it rests entirely on assumptions about who people are and how to reach them, is true of any customer experience vision that preens in the mirror about its own capacities to be all things to all people, everywhere, all the time. The truth is that customers aren’t that impressed, because they stubbornly cling to their own contexts – and that means they just want to shop with the better tools they now have, enjoy the level of quality and service they expect, and share that story with peers. To that end, companies still see room for improvement in getting the basics right on any channel!

Those basics don’t change simply because a potential customer can research products online before setting foot in your bricks-and-mortar location. Besides, they’ve been doing that for years, and everyone knows that. They don’t change because e-commerce options let them tap a screen, or because after they do they can just pick stuff up nearby. It may be heretical, but what omnichannel needs to get right as it grows beyond its buzzword stage, is that marketing hasn’t “suddenly invaded modernity” either – and the respect and responsiveness customers want in this generation is the same thing they wanted in the last one too.

Amas Tenumah
Amas Tenumah is a customer experience consultant and founder of BetterXperience (www.bettercxperience.com). He has helped improve profit margins for businesses of all sizes with client-focused strategies to enhance revenues, drive new and repeat business, and delight customers.


  1. This is a marvelous, well-written and wise wake-up call. I use to chastise the ardent champions of CRM as the be-all of wizardry when I witnessed their high-tech side so dominate the high-touch side that its proponents completely forgot the “R” in the middle of the acronym. Omni has a similar potential of becoming the mecca of marketing stereotyping and risking our completely missing the crucial point that customers are far more similar than they are different! Hopefully, your post will be the start of a healthy vigorous discussion about how we build in important customer-centric safeguards to keep us on the rails.

  2. This shouldn’t be about channel-targeting one demographic/lifestyle group, or even microsegment, of customers. If the objective is to optimize interactions, and overall experience, for each customer, then an organization needs to identify desired modes of contact, and desired outcomes through these modes, for all customers (and each customer). Giving customers the option, and opportunity, to choose how they interface with vendors is what omnichannel is all about.

    As noted in the post, the challenge is that most organizations never make the investment to learn what channels customers prefer, they just assume.

  3. First, this is a great article.

    Second, the topic isn’t omnichannel but people.

    Third, who cares because the article is right on.

    Amas thoughtfully explains that the current thinking about generations is leading us in the wrong direction. We are all individuals, no matter when we were born, and we want to be treated as individuals. The onmichannel issue is that because some channels are very new and not well integrated into an overall communication infrastructure the users feel unsatisfied. Well, they will get over it and the onmichannel stuff will mature.

    So remember, treat us as individuals. Find out how we want to be treated and then do it. Don’t generalize – it will disappoint you and piss me off.

    Thanks Amas

  4. Maybe one day zombie CX pros will learn and wake up. The overcomplicating is a disease, people are people.

  5. Sorry, but I think this is just off the mark.

    Ultimately, everything is about people — on that point i clearely agree. In the ideal world, our marketing, sales, delivery, service and support efforts are infinitelty customized to the specific needs and preferences of each and every indivicual. Absent such an ideal, however, we deal with targets, groups or segments — call them what you will — that represent some level of generalization about the people within the category.

    Any given generalization is meaningful in that for a particular application the groups that are identified are comprised of individuals that share key common characteristics and that the individuals from different groups have some key differences in their characteristics. The similarities are differences that are salient depends on the application and context: the best segmentation is that in which groups are internally as homogeneous as possible and the various groups are as heterogeneous as possible on the criteria that matter (i.e., the criteria that are important to whatever the objective is).

    This doesn’t mean the members of any given cohort are zombie replicas of eachother. And it doesn’t mean that members of different groups don’t share any number of commonalities.

    In trying to build meaningful segments marketers and companies face numeropus constraints: imperfect information (both missing info and wrong info); a less than perfect understanding of the key criteria; and the practical limitations of managing too many cohorts.

    Until we get to segments of 1 — true 1-to-1 marketing — we always willl need to define and aim at groups that represent some level of generalization. This is all about efficiency and rationalizing the allocation of resources.

    As to whether or not Millennials are a “myth:” that shows a weak understanding of the concept of generations, just one of an almost infinite number of ways by which marketers, demographers and others characterize groups of people. For some applications, generational differences may be important; for other, such differences are irrelevant.

    Sorry, Amas, but I think this one is wide of the mark


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