by Dov Rosenberg –
What do Amazon, Geico, Costco, and Ford all have in common? They are brand names that everyone recognizes immediately, even though their business models are much different from each other. This article will explore how generating “brand awareness” is not limited to Big Tech and how ALL businesses can drive more profitability from their Customer interactions.
Dot coms and e-commerce companies have always been at the forefront of monetizing their customer interactions for better or worse. These companies tend to capture a wide variety of customer-related data regardless of if they have a business purpose for the information now. A central theme of their business models has been to grab market share any way they can even at the expense of profitability. The prevailing thought was that once you have customers – you can deepen the relationship with them and eventually drive profit from the relationship. What started as a web-only interaction has emerged into a multi-faceted ecosystem of interactions with their customers. This “omnichannel” approach is focused on trying to provide consistent interactions no matter how a customer reaches out.
What does “Omnichannel” mean?
Omnichannel refers to the idea that no matter which mechanism someone interacts with an organization, their experience is consistent and provides the information they are looking for without having to look for it. Today, consumers have several different “channels” to interact with businesses – brick and mortar stores, websites, Twitter, Facebook, phone, or text. A solid omnichannel strategy requires investments in all of these areas to consolidate the capabilities. The rest of this article will help identify critical areas where those investments should be made to provide the most significant return on your investment.
Key 1: Customer-Centric Viewpoint
In order to maximize your investment in an omnichannel engagement model, it is necessary to reset your viewpoint on how your customers interact with you. Traditionally, most organizations have evolved over the years into their current engagement model. As new technologies are introduced, the new processes are usually installed in parallel with the “old way” of doing business. Some customers use new ways of engaging; others continue to use the old way.
It is important to create a single view of the customer across EVERY interaction entry point to bridge the gaps between the physical world and the online one. This includes understanding as much as possible about each customer and using that information to tailor their next experience with you to be more rewarding to them. Capturing customer preferences, activities, and past interactions (including orders) AND using that information to help guide and improve the next interaction is crucial to building customer loyalty and trust.
Not all customers are equal. Returning customers are the primary driver of sales growth. Happy customers are more likely to recommend your products and services to others. Applying that principle to every interaction can help drive your customer engagement strategy to pay attention to those customers who are your biggest advocates. Being able to capture and track important customer interaction information AND to use it during each subsequent interaction is key to finding and rewarding your most loyal customers.
Customer loyalty isn’t limited to one channel – ANYTIME a customer chooses to interact with your organization in ANY manner regardless of whether or not they have identified themselves, that interaction should be researched and tied to a profile. Even generic customer interactions can provide valuable insight into the interests and behavior patterns of your customer base. The sheer volume of data that is generated by all of these customer-interactions makes it difficult to analyze it, categorize it, and make use of it on time.
Consider a small business with a local clientele with a limited marketing budget. If they can determine which neighborhoods bring them the most business and which products those buyers prefer – targeting those areas with offers for their preferred products is a no-brainer!! Now imagine being able to do that on a national scale – that is better than winning the lottery. Building out the capability to process this data is a key success factor in being able to develop a customer-centric viewpoint of your customers.
Investing in bringing consistent customer data to every interaction channel should be a high priority in building your omni channel strategy. If you can develop a consistent view of your customers and how they interact with your business, you will be able to better serve them in ways that your competitors cannot. This leads to the next key strategy to pursue – Customer Service.
Key 2: Customer Service Strategy
During the COVID pandemic, customer behaviors accelerated their rate of change in how they interact with businesses. Customers that were slow to move to an online world for their commerce activities were given no choice. Amazon became the “gold standard” for customer service while minimizing the need for in-person interactions. Traditional brick and mortar establishments that relied on their employees as their primary customer interface are now struggling with the “new normal” that is changing every type of business. Personal relationships are being transformed into online relationships. The successful businesses will be those that embrace the “delivery culture” that has evolved and build their customer service strategy around it.
For too long, there has been a gap between the online and real-world customer experience. Purchasing a product online and being able to return it to a physical store should be the expected experience, not the exceptional one. A customer service strategy that leverages local brick and mortar presence with 24/7/365 online convenience in a seamless experience to the customer is a massive differentiator against the pure-play internet-only retailers. Many people are more comfortable being able to speak to a human than deal with an automated “bot.” This past year, Amazon enlisted retailers like Kohl’s to serve as a drop off point for Christmas returns. Customers could drop off the returns at the store that they requested on Amazon without having to pay return shipping. Kohl’s further added to the convenience by offering in-store credit for doing the return. Kohl’s gains more foot traffic in their stores; customers gain the convenience of not having to pack something back up and drop it off.
In 2018, a survey of 1200 shoppers found that 62% said free returns and exchanges would make them more likely to be a return customer. 31% preferred to buy online and return in-store (BORIS). In 2019, a similar survey cited that Buy Online, Pickup In-Store (BOPIS) has more influence (68%) than free returns and exchanges. Customers like the convenience of online ordering more than the possible cost savings, but they prefer the ability to do hassle-free returns as well.
A comprehensive customer service strategy focuses on the following key themes:
- Ease of use – customers can interact with the customer service process via any channel – in person, phone, text, chat, online, with equal capabilities at any time.
- Consistent experience – every customer service channel has the same information about the transaction.
- Ability to provide service – every customer service channel has the ability/authority to resolve the problems without any hassle.
- Efficient – the process has to be efficient in closing the customer service request as quickly as possible. The longer it takes, the less satisfied the customer will be.
Designing the optimal customer service strategy requires a careful analysis of the customer pain points, not the technical limitations that are in place that are causing them. Once the pain points are identified, and a solution is designed – then the third key to success comes into play—integration over point solutions.
Key 3: Integration before Creation
Business is not a static process; it is continually changing based on external factors. In many cases, an organization has significant investments in its customer service infrastructure that make it challenging to adapt to the changes required to adjust to the changes. In many cases, it easier to just purchase another program that solves a specific problem than it would be to integrate that capability into existing applications. However, as soon as another new program is interleaved into a process – a new complexity is added to the current data maintenance and consistency landscape. The ability to have a consistent view of the customer across channels becomes more difficult.
This is not a simple problem to solve. Old applications can become black holes of investment that require specialized skills that may be in short supply (i.e., COBOL developers) or are inflexible for the company’s future needs. These applications have most likely evolved over decades of usage and embody complex logic that may be undocumented or difficult to recreate. Moving to a 3rd party application may be an option – but would probably require significant effort in rationalizing the gaps between the old and new.
One strategy involves separating the data from the applications. By standardizing applications that operate against a common organizational data structure, it can significantly reduce the complexity required to change out the applications at a future date without compromising the underlying data. This contract then becomes the standard that all future applications must interact with instead of creating another silo of information that needs to get reconciled across business activities. This can be a challenging process to undertake – requiring significant analysis and often hard decisions about what is valuable and what is not. The upside to this exercise is a solid data model that represents the FUTURE state of your business that is independent of the applications that got you to this point.
All future applications that get purchased or created should be expected to honor the “contract” of the new data model. This becomes an enabler of a unified customer service strategy and a holistic view of your customers.
Key 4: Map Cross Channel User Journeys
To develop an omnichannel engagement strategy, it is critical to fully understand the ways that your customers can engage with your organization. A user journey is a path that a particular “persona” can take with your organization under a specific set of circumstances. A single persona can have multiple user journeys that they can follow depending on where in the life cycle of their transaction they are in. For example, a frequent shopper at Walmart.com or a physical Walmart store may have one or more of the following user journeys:
- Product research – during this journey, the customer is exploring available products that might meet their needs. They may be reviewing other sites, comparing product reviews, checking availability in the local store, or looking for alternatives. Customers that find a reliable source of information for the product research journey will return to that site for future product research. The primary goal of this user journey is to establish credibility and trust for future purchases.
- Product purchase – this journey is focused on streamlining the purchase of products to encourage successful conversion from research to purchase. This journey could also include upselling activities that encourage additional purchases, either based on the current or past purchase history. The primary focus of this journey is to get to the payment journey.
- Payment – This journey, while potentially short, is focused on providing valid options for processing payment. In-store, options may be fewer than online but could include gift cards, coupons, credit cards, cryptocurrency, or store credits. Each of these is additional micro user journeys that need to be considered.
- Fulfillment – this journey includes the actual fulfillment of the order, including tracking, status updates, and delivery.
- Customer Service – this journey includes any subsequent interactions after ANY of the previous journeys. This can consist of automated responses, online forms, phone calls, social media, etc.
Bottom line, understanding the many ways your customers interact with you is critical in developing an effective omni channel engagement experience.
Key 5: Employee Enablement
No matter how advanced your data models are or how integrated your systems have become, the house of cards will collapse if your employees are not adequately trained and incentivized to provide an outstanding customer service experience. The weakest link in the chain may be your carbon-based lifeforms. It is essential to ensure that all of the people that participate in the omni channel engagement model understand the bigger picture and how it is designed to work together. At the end of the day, if the data in the system is not accurate because someone in the chain made a mistake and if the person on the customer service line is not empowered to correct it, your investment will be wasted when that customer takes their business elsewhere.
Create an Effective Strategy
An effective omnichannel engagement strategy is a combination of technology, process, and people designed to provide consistent results no matter how your customers engage with you. A weak link in any engagement channel will reflect poorly on the whole process. It is better to provide fewer paths to join that are complete and optimized than to provide many paths that are inconsistent and unreliable. The “delivery” culture that Amazon and other online retailers have changed customer’s expectations for all aspects of commerce, including brick and mortar. The successful companies will be those that focus on the customer experience first.