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Customer Experience

There’s no such thing as omnichannel: the customer is the channel

Published on Wednesday, June 29th 2022


What do you mean, there’s no such thing as omnichannel? Is that actually true?

Well, yes and no:

Yes, there’s no such thing as omnichannel: customers don’t lose any sleep over the concept of ‘omnichannel’ or care about what it actually means. It’s a jargon word. Likewise, customers don’t suddenly consciously decide to start buying online or stop going to brick-and-mortar stores. Online and offline channels are intertwined. Together, they offer customers more options, with smartphones often being catalysts or gateways between the digital and the physical world. Whether they are private individuals or businesses, customers want convenience and a good experience regardless of the channels they are using.

No, there actually is such a thing as omnichannel, and it deserves a thorough strategic, financial and organizational approach. The prefix ‘omni’ is the main stumbling block for most organizations. At first, being everywhere for everyone seems like a good strategy. However, even though the shelf life of a single channel is rather limited, it’s not really about ‘being everywhere at all times’. Even if your organization does use all channels, that doesn’t necessarily make them of value or relevant to your customers. What matters is making the right choices and being where your customers are, and wowing them with a remarkable experience that is seamless and consistent.

You can learn from your mistakes, but the consequences could be disastrous

In the last century, the paper catalogs issued by mail order company 3 Suisses were hugely successful. The company initially focused on fashion items, but soon branched out into other areas. Its customers placed orders by phone and received products by mail. Back in the day, it was quite a disruptive model. Then came the advent of e-commerce, and the company shifted its focus to online stores. It ultimately proved to be its death knell. By ignoring or at least underestimating its catalog sales, which were still popular in a certain customer segment, its business model ended up collapsing. It failed to turn the tide, and its Belgian branch went bankrupt.

But things don’t necessarily need to turn out that way. Look at Netflix, for example. Physical home movies hadn’t been a growth market for a very long time, but according to the latest figures, the hugely successful subscription streaming service is now achieving a solid revenue of $200 million from physical sales in the United States. It’s all about being relevant and catching the eye where it really matters: the United States is huge, with some very remote areas that may have poor cellular reception at times. Those kinds of customers don’t want to have to contend with ‘digital-only’ options. In the end, a channel is nothing more than an enabler, be it online or offline. It’s not a starting point or a goal in itself. The customer is the starting point. The customer is the channel. And Netflix understands this all too well.

Getting started with omnichannel – some pointers:

1. The importance of a vision

Everything hinges on defining a clear, company-wide, omnichannel vision and omnichannel customer experience. Everyone in the organization must understand why the vision and common goal are so important, as this makes it easier to align initiatives. For omnichannel to be a success, the business side and IT side of your organization need to be on the same page. Your ultimate goal must be negotiable, specific and measurable.

The management team has to drive the omnichannel vision forward. It must be brave enough to fully engage its human and other resources to genuinely put the customer first in the development of new products, services, solutions and platforms. The right strategy and the resulting decisions are crucial to this process. The omnichannel customer experience has to be more than just a buzzword. It should be universally embedded in the organization’s vision, strategy, culture and structure.

Of course, your omnichannel approach should also take into account your own business model and DNA. This requires strategic reflection about what kind of organization you want to be and the importance of your own mission and values.

2. Silos belong on a farm

One company, one vision. Just like ‘the customer comes first’, this may seem obvious. Even so, it’s a common challenge in many organizations. If everyone – and therefore no one – is responsible, you will probably never achieve a holistic vision. In practice, there are often as many visions as there are departments. If you fail to define the responsibilities and, most importantly, put a decision-maker in charge, you risk getting bogged down in separate initiatives that benefit no one – least of all your customer.

Change management and the entire organization’s active participation in omnichannel are essential, especially during the optimization process. All too often, employees of local stores see their own company’s webshop as ‘the enemy’. Reward systems are sometimes based on the performance of the local stores, but they should look at a higher level. For example, a 1% annual sales drop in local stores is fine if the webshop is growing by 10% each year. You need the right type of change management to ensure all the organization’s employees embrace omnichannel.

In short, don’t allow departments and channels to compete with each other. Instead, ensure synergies and consistency. Remember that the customer is the channel, and the customer doesn’t care about conversions. Say goodbye to silos, because they fragment the bigger picture for the customer. Silos belong on a farm, not at the drawing board of your omnichannel vision and approach. Always keep that in mind.

3. Don’t just assume, get to really know your customers

Having a shared vision is one thing, but knowing – really knowing – your customers is another. You can’t have one without the other. And there’s the rub. Everyone knows that understanding customers is important, and we all tend to assume we know our customers, but is that really the case? It could be the case that we assume too much, and we don’t focus enough on the actual data and customer experiences. The story of 3 Suisses teaches us how disastrous assumption-based decision-making can be.

In the end, it all comes down to finding the relevance of a particular channel for your customers within omnichannel. You should do that from the outside in: they are the starting point. And this is only possible if you have a complete picture of your customers, their context, and their needs and expectations – and if you accept that this picture can change. After all, people’s contexts, needs and expectations can change. For instance, consider the stages of life: the needs and experiences of a recent graduate are very different from those of someone older or a person who is about to retire.

Consequently, it’s essential to listen carefully to your customers (and by extension to your own employees) based on a data-driven approach. Collect your own data about your customers and their customer journey, use external data, and actively survey your customers. If you want to know something, ask them.

As marketers, we must keep our ears to the ground. We must visit and talk to real customers. We need to understand their identity, their experiences, their passions and their needs. Just ask and listen. Move beyond the stereotypes. That’s why we challenge all our Unilever marketers to spend at least 100 hours a year with real customers, rather than just looking at PowerPoint summaries of ‘the customer’.

Silvia Wiesner, General Manager and Sales Vice President, Unilever Belgium and Luxembourg @ BAM Marketing Congress 2022

4. Be bold enough to take things one step further and think in terms of ecosystems

Knowing your customers is the first step, but your organization should also have the courage to actively involve your customers in its operations. If you build a lasting relationship with them and you give them a platform to interact with your organization about certain topics, they will become more involved. It’s exactly these types of customers who will give your organization valuable information on how it can plan for its future.

LEGO is a great example of a company that fully embraces omnichannel in all its aspects. The well-known toy brand has physical stores that provide a strong experience, websites, specialized websites for specific target groups, social media, an augmented reality catalog, its own LEGO movies, and more. It has developed this immensely powerful ecosystem together with a wide range of contributors, not just their partners. Time and again, LEGO actively involves customer groups – consisting of both children and adults – in their product development and co-design processes.

Of course, we can’t all be like LEGO. Above all, it must be feasible for organizations to realize and monitor everything both in an organizational and financial sense, but nothing should stop you from thinking big and starting small.

5. Keep measuring, optimizing and developing

As the saying goes, standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards. Implementing an omnichannel customer experience is not a static thing you can set up once and then simply give free rein within your organization. The common thread is your customers, and they change. Your organization therefore needs to move with them by continuing to measure, survey and ask questions. You can’t just stay stuck in the present: just because something works now doesn’t mean it will still be relevant next year.

Omnichannel is relevant both for B2C and B2B

Virtually every organization has omnichannel on the agenda, or at least understands its importance. In B2C, the emphasis may be a bit different than in B2B, but don’t forget that business customers are also consumers in their spare time, and they inevitably bring that experience into their business context. Moreover, large, data-driven and extremely customer-centric organizations such as Amazon, Coolblue, Netflix, Lemonade and Airbnb are setting the omnichannel bar ever higher.

These companies don’t reflect the average approach, but they do set the standard, including for B2B. Take Maersk, for instance. The world’s largest container shipping line relies on targeted acquisitions to strengthen its own omnichannel expertise and meet their customers’ needs more effectively. Its website allows you to chat with employees, book online, track, manage and pay for shipments and access all kinds of information, fulfilment services and products. It’s all there to simplify the supply chain for its customers.

From vision to reality

You can’t develop and implement a well-designed omnichannel vision overnight. This is a long-term process with multiple steps and phases. It’s a reflection exercise about the strategic ‘why’, the tactical ‘how’ and the operational ‘what’ of omnichannel. As your business partner, we can offer you our expertise – wherever you are in this process. We can help you to refine the why and align your stakeholders, make the tactical switch, or implement a specific solution on an operational and technological level.

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