How to create an omnichannel experience
Before any retailer can map out a strategy for a seamless omnichannel customer journey they need to understand its definition, avoid skipping important first steps and establish a strategy well before embarking on the effort.
If done right the benefits are bountiful for retailers and consumers. If done wrong consumers will leave and not return and most likely share the poor customer experience everywhere, and as headlines reveal, that kind of social attention isn't good. Just ask United.
The initial step is understanding what defines a seamless omnichannel experience.
Understanding customers' needs
As Laurent Simonin, CEO of Smart Traffik, explained in an email interview with Digital Signage Today's sister publication, Retail Customer Experience, it's all about reducing the gap between online and offline.
"A seamless customer journey comes under the influence of social media, mobility, geolocalization and the fact of being constantly connected, and provides a frictionless experience that will harmonize the customer journey, whatever the point of contact is between him and the brand/retailer," said Simonin.
While consumers have many sales and interaction channels available they also have some new expectations, said Simonin. Today's consumer wants to address a single entity, regardless of the channel used: face to face, mail, email, phone, social media, web and wants to be identified and recognized by the brand or retailer.
The consumer wants to be able to use different services, or even a succession of various channels, like click and collect and "homogenous" information on products, prices and support, regardless of the channel: the e-commerce platform, on the phone with an agent or via email or online chat.
"This is the omnichannel customer journey. It goes beyond multi-channel, which involves the implementation of different communication channels with no connection with each other. While omnichannel is the transition from one channel to the next with no breakage," he added.
Lyle Bunn, an analyst/advisor/educator of dynamic place-based media, noted that a seamless customer experience is about a seamless omnichannel experience and customer engagement in a multichannel world.
"The investment in omnichannel is an ‘open-for-business' stance," he shared with Retail Customer Experience in an email interview.
"Omnichannel responds to a current business essential, and seamless omnichannel provides engagement suited to the use context. While 90 percent-plus of consumer purchasing happens in-store based on the tactile experience, try-on/fitting, discovery and immediate fulfillment. The gratification of physical discovery in shopping, along with the richer process of product comparison gives in-store endless appeal, while mobile offers social input to a decision and online offers sourcing ease," he said.
Yet, as another expert shared, creating and providing the seamless customer journey isn't something consumers should have to be aware of as they simply want to shop in whichever channel they choose.
"When designing the experience remember that your customer doesn't understand channels — they are the channel. Customers shop without any reference to channels. Put yourself in the customers position and see if the new experience helps you make a purchase decision easier than before — if it doesn't, the experience won't go over well with customers," Ricardo Belmar, senior director, worldwide enterprise product marketing for InfoVista, told Retail Customer Experience in an email interview.
The starting point and best practices
Belmar recommends starting out by gaining executive and technical support.
"Great omnichannel experiences start with the internal organization.You need support from both the business and IT from the beginning if you want to be successful. Often marketing leads an initiative that brings new technology into the store but without IT supporting it, it will be hard to scale the solution to all stores," he shared, adding "both groups need to work together from the beginning, and IT needs to understand their role is to be supportive, not to explain why something can't be done."
Simonin echoed that advice.
"The biggest challenge is transforming the corporate culture and its organization first," he said.
Once that collaborative partnership is in place, Simonin advises taking some small steps. These can be as simple as providing online consumers with detailed information about nearby physical locations and best way to access that physical storefront.
"When the online to offline presence is insured, we can start building online contact points that will drive customers to the stores. Online reservation and book an appointment are ways to allow shoppers to research products and services online, and complete their journey at the physical location. Ship-from-store and workshops are other drive-to-store widgets that can be implemented to the omnichannel strategy," he said.
Avoiding common missteps
As with any technology and strategy there are common pitfalls and missteps. One, according to Simonin, is accumulating various tools that aren't consistent.
"Rather than seeing omnichannel, it is easier to try to match each challenge to an existing solution. As a result, brands end up with an accumulation of so-called ‘omnichannel responses,'" he noted.
"Omnichannel should be approached as a global picture. It can be addressed step by step, but must follow a properly thought guideline," he said.
Belmar recommends ensuring the customer's experience is on target throughout the process of development.
"Before putting your new experience into a store to test, visit the store, watch how people shop, and become a customer yourself to validate that the experience really makes shopping better. I'm always surprised when I ask retailers if they've gone to a store just to shop and experience it for themselves and so many tell me they haven't. Not just at your own store, but visit a competitor's store. See if their experience is better or worse. Don't just rely on theory. Walk your stores and see for yourself," he said.
Basics and a strong foundation matter
He also warns that oftentimes retailers sometimes jump over a critical aspect — such as evaluating the infrastructure supporting the experience.
"Namely, your store network, both for wireless in the store as well as the WAN link out of the store. Many new omnichannel experiences retailers craft for the in-store experience rely on mobile devices (either the customer's or an associate's) and these two critical support pieces for the experience are often overlooked until it's too late," noting that not all Wi-Fi is created equal.
"Where you install access points in the store matters. Sometimes even the merchandise causes interference with the signal and this should be taken into consideration during installation. Then, make sure you not only have enough bandwidth on the network out of the store to handle the new apps being brought in, but also make sure you have a prioritization and quality of service system in place on that network so you have full control of the experience," he said.
For example, if the new experience uses an app on a mobile device that takes five seconds to refresh a screen customers won't wait.
"Those five seconds will feel like an eternity. Without a system to manage application performance on your network you won't be able to guarantee the user experience," said Belmar.
Why strategy and philosophy are critical elements
Developing a seamless omnichannel experience isn't just about optimizing efficiency of various channels, added Simonin.
"It places the shopper as the core of its strategy, instead of maintaining institutional silos, and aims at delivering consistent and homogenous experiences to customers, to increase their commitment and the conversion rate," he said, adding that user expectations are high during the entire purchasing journey, regardless of the chosen channel, time and place.
For example, a salesperson in a physical store should have all the key information related to his customer's past interactions to better advise him, he noted.
"Achieving these goals requires more than tools. The implementation of a real omnichannel approach is often part of large-scale digital transformation projects, that themselves adopt a phased-approach contributing to interconnect existing systems. The key ingredient to these client-focus transformations is the data analytic."
He offered up an example of a successful approach. A leading European telecom aimed to tap its ecommerce platform as an access point to its physical stores. By using several of Smart Traffik's widgets it ensured coherence and consistency of store information across the web. It also deployed online reservation and store pickup capability, extending the option to special sales and clearances.
Another client, a French cosmetics and perfume luxury brand, deployed the company's 'store locator' widget and after seeing successful results and greater shopper engagement it pulled in the appointment widget for online reservation at a physical store location.
"Of course, all brands and retailers move at a different pace according to their business plan. Adopting a strategy step by step can be relevant in that it follows the learning curve of the client," said Simonin.
"The challenge we face is to always make sure we build the best solutions according to our clients' needs. We develop our solutions directly upon their existing mode of operation, which requires adaptability and flexibility. We work with white label and tailored solutions to guarantee an unchanged image to the brand."
Image via Istock.com
Judy Mottl / Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.