Omni-channel brands start with culture

So, you want to be an Omni-channel brand?

Omni-channel is described as a seamless experience for the consumer regardless of their mode of interaction. In other words they and your employees have the same product, options, pricing, delivery and service options no matter where they are in your brand / purchasing ecosystem. All customer history and preferences are available online, to your operators (phone & chat) and in your brick & mortar locations. At no point does the customer have to “re-educate” your employees on their history with you, and at no point do your employees have to explain why “we’re different” in the store than online. No matter where customers and employees are, access to information and capabilities is the same.

There are some omni-channel proponents that suggest this concept extends beyond, and even breaks down the barriers between, brands. While a bit Utopian and the comparison to social media adoption is a bit of a stretch for me, I like the concept.

In any case, how do companies start down the omni-channel path? Broadly, there are two areas companies have to tackle. One, cultural / organizational and the other technical. Before tackling the latter, companies need to address the former.

An Omni-channel Culture

There are several cultural impediments to an omni-channel experience and any one of these can trip up the effort to roll it out.

Us vs them.

I’m not talking about your company vs the consumer (if thats an issue, you’ve got bigger problems). I am addressing departments vs departments or silos within the company. Some of these tensions are organizationally driven. Major retailers still segment their online store from the off-line stores with separate inventory for in-store vs online (which I understand, but…), and the two cannot leverage the whole; customer are turned away because they don’t have access to inventory within the company. I’ve also seen online departments that only get credit for sales through the online channel and don’t derive benefit or credit from sales to the in store channel on which they assist. Assets and benefits need to transcend groups or departments so that internal barriers do not interfere with the customer experience.

Beyond the sales channels, there is often tension between sales and support services or accounting / billing. This tension is often a derivative of no unifying mission and results in the “its not my job” mentality, often supported by intentional technical barriers between departments. How often have our calls been transferred from sales to billing and we have to re-introduce ourselves and our issues? When this happens, I am told that “they are on a different system.” While this is a technical issue on the surface, companies need to ensure it is not the result of a policy that requires the barrier to exist.

Margins rule

There was a time in sales when every salesperson was directed to “get the most” out of every sale – milk it for the margin. When companies look at pricing strategies, the same perspective seems to apply. The online pricing and the in-store pricing is different. Sale prices online are not available in the store. This stems from either a disconnect between the two, or an attempt to squeeze margin from one place at the cost of a cohesive customer experience.

There are legitimate reasons for different pricing strategies online vs in store, geographically or even time of day. As companies consider these strategies, they must consider them within the greater vision of an omni-channel experience for their customers. If the pricing strategy does not support the vision, then it should be forsaken, even at the cost of short term benefits.

Companies need to take the long view of the customer relationship and standardize pricing in order to be ready for the omni-channel experience. Temptations to implement short term ‘fixes’ need to be avoided. For line managers, pricing adjustments (up or down) are an “easy’ tactic. Senior management must establish the culture that dissuades this behavior. Its not easy, but an omni-channel experience requires it.

Short term value

When we implement a new program we are often impatient about seeing results. This can have a devastating affect on omni-channel initiatives. We have two instincts to mitigate.

First, the impact of omni-channel is not immediate. Consumers might not be aware of it right away as they tend to only notice when things go wrong. They won’t notice a lack of conflict between online and offline, or the seamless transfer of contact from one department to another. They’ll simply accept it.

What is key is that we’ll see the attrition of customers decrease over time as we mitigate their frustrations. If we are fortunate and our competition has not successfully adopted an omni-channel approach, we can even capture some of their customers. When we implement omni-channel we must guard against our desire to see an immediate and big change.

Second, our employees who may have been focused on ‘closing the sale now’ must accept that this is a brand’s customer and the relationship transcends the transaction. It is okay if the customer needs to take a step back or do more research. It is okay if they shop in store and buy online later or the reverse. The shopping experience is not limited to the store or the website; it covers a longer period and will likely include both. With patience we may create more sales over time while nurturing the customers wherever we are in contact..

Starting with culture

Like so many things, the technical challenges, though not trivial, are not the challenges we need to tackle first. Our companies, our cultures need to be ready first. No matter the technology, it is about people. Give your employees the right tools, in the right culture and you will have customers for the long haul being nurtured across all interactions.

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