Like many marketing buzzwords, the term ‘Omni-Channel’ has become the latest iteration of our ever-evolving industry, succeeding CRM and marketing automation. But few brands in today’s competitive market have a true understanding of what that really means, and even fewer are delivering a truly omni-channel service to their customers.

The cost of investment in technology, the disconnect between marketing and IT departments and the rigid operational structure of a business can all have an impact on a brand’s ability to deliver omni-channel successfully, but do brands actually need to deliver it at all? And if they do, is it an achievable goal for today’s retailers, or little more than a fool’s paradise? Pamela Bath, Managing Director of leading marketing service providers Blueberry Wave, deconstructs the industry’s latest marketing model and argues that it’s the experience, not the channel – that counts.

At its simplest, omni-channel marketing is the ability to create a seamless customer journey across all brand touch points by offering more than one route to purchase at any one time. It’s multi-channel done really well. The concept sounds simple, but very few retailers are delivering this seamless experience. To understand why, let’s look at the challenges in implementing an omni-channel service – and whether we really need to be doing it at all.

Many would argue that technology is the central barrier to omni-channel; it requires an enormous investment and, although the cost is slowly coming down, very few companies have the budget to be fully multi-channel. Indeed, numerous retailers are still recovering from the recession, and beyond that, there’s still a lack of investment in getting databases right, which should be every brand’s first port of call. So the possibility of running an omni-channel system which links your website to your stock control, your social media and your digital platform is a pipe dream for the majority of retailers.

Making smart investments

But even with investment in the right technology, sophisticated omni-channel systems can easily backfire on the retailer if it’s not joined up to a brand’s organisational structure. There’s little point in developing a sleek system if your brand proposition isn’t right or your customer service is poor, and marketing and IT departments need to work much more closely together to join things up. And that’s the real challenge; not simply making use of these channels, but connecting them up by bringing the online and instore experience together.

Many brands think they’re omni-channel because they’re making use of a lot of channels. But if a customer goes online having just bought something from your store, and your website doesn’t know that so remarkets something they’ve already purchased, then omni-channel becomes meaningless. Conversely, if a customer’s had a fantastic experience looking at cameras online with a well-known electrical retailer, that experience is going to be tremendously disappointing if they then go in store to buy, only to be told by a clueless shop assistant that they’ve never heard of the product, or that it’s out of stock.

So what’s more important for effective omni-channel marketing; investment in your brand, or investment in your technology? I would argue that you can’t have one without the other, but developing a great brand experience and proposition to create long-term loyalty should almost always be the focus. Because if it doesn’t lead to loyalty which delivers to the bottom line, what’s the point of investing in it?

And this, to me, is the single greatest challenge; too often, the customer experience is being led by the latest technology, with brands constantly trying to shoehorn their service into whatever systems are in vogue – whether it’s omni-channel, marketing automation or CRM.

A great retail experience

But creating great customer experiences can be achieved with no technology at all, and that’s what should be driving the use of technology – not the other way around. Lidl, for instance, is a beautiful example of a successful single-channel model.

Lidl are widely known as a low-cost, no-frills shopping experience where price is always going to be the major motivator. That’s their niche, and it all comes down to having that key point of difference to compete in the marketplace.

For Lidl, cost has always been their main point of difference, so there’s very little they could gain from going omni-channel; they simply concentrate on what they’re good at. And they’re delivering great customer experiences because the price point is so low that a customer’s expectations match that – people expect to get a limited service in accordance with their spend, so when Lidl actually deliver great customer service then those brand expectations are vastly exceeded.

Similarly, Argos is a great example of a retailer who knows their market and have invested heavily in both their technology and their brand proposition, driving people in-store from online and creating a seamless journey where customers know exactly what they’re getting.Brands like John Lewis are following suit by bringing people from their warehouse to the client-facing front-of-house in offering an efficient click-and-collect service, while B&Q have taken the online experience in-store: allowing customers to easily scan in a product’s barcode and check stock levels or access reviews.

What consumers want

But whether your proposition is online, in-store or multi-channel, you have to remember that consumers don’t think in terms of channels; they think in terms of shopping experiences. They don’t know or care if it’s mobile, online or offline – they think in terms of a single interaction with a brand, and they simply want an informative, simple, seamless buying experience.

These experiences are defined by brand expectations, and as marketeers, we must manage these expectations; delivering great retail experiences. But organisational structure can be the block to implementing the omni-channel process, as it was in the days of CRM. Straddling the traditional marketing and IT departments should be a Chief Customer Officer, whose role it is to think only about what the customer actually wants and the organisations tasks to deliver it – because if your marketing is led by IT and their project list of available functionality, it forces your business into a purely sales-based funnel; and that’s where opportunities are missed.

The focus on placing technology over customer experience has also been driven by a desire to anticipate and accommodate the spending habits of a new generation of shoppers – millennials – but cross-platform marketing to a brand-neutral, digital generation with a short attention span is pointless until they have the wallet share in 15 or 20 years’ time.

Baby boomers have different expectations to millennials, as well as a disposable income -so brands should be segmenting for their proposition accordingly. It’s about looking at the relevance of your audience to the product you’re trying to sell, and understanding whether your focus should be on omni-channel accessibility or customer experience. And if it is customer experience, that can’t be concentrated purely on a sales event; it has to be a much longer lasting experience to create loyalty.

Joining up the dots

So what defines a great omni-channel experience? Essentially, it’s about connecting your brand proposition (whether it’s price, service, experience or product range), with what your customers want. And they want ease and accessibility –i.e. sell me the products I want in my environment, not yours – and the ability to take all their interactions with them so they don’t have to restart conversations all over again online or in-store. They don’t want to be presented with information that’s wrong or out of date; they want accuracy from touchpoint to touchpoint.

Both of these factors equate to time; consumers value that more than anything, and they don’t have time to keep repeating the same information to brands when brands should already know where their customers are in the retail journey. Amazon might not have an in-store presence – yet – but they’re the perfect example of a joined-up retail experience. They remember all the things I’ve put in my shopping basket so I can come back to it anytime on any device, they know what I’ve bought before so they can suggest similar things I might like, and above all, they allow me to complete my transaction in a single click, without having to keep entering my card details.

And that really is the key to effective omni-channel marketing; removing all the points of disruption to making a purchase, and covering all your bases so that your customers can shop anywhere they like, at any time that suits them. There’ll always be brands which work better online, and ones which work better in-store; I can’t imagine many brides buying their wedding dress online without seeing it and trying it on first, for instance.

So as marketeers, we have to fit the deliverables around those two factors. We now have a multitude of data-driven ways of understanding what consumers want, and the role of technology is to help us meet and deliver great retail experiences using whatever technology will enable that – whether it’s through the latest app or through Ethel in the corner shop asking how your family is; which is still a channel, and one that can’t be ignored.

Again, it comes down to customer choice and the level of customisation they prefer, whether it’s having a personal shopper to guide their in-store experience or no human interaction whatsoever. The omni-experience is the next step on the road to delivering that choice through meeting customers’ individual expectations.

In five years’ time, privacy laws could change this landscape completely and consumers will probably be able to set all their shopping and advertising preferences from their chosen device – but for now, while marketing is still in the hands of the advertisers, it’s in our power to create great experiences for our customers which deliver to the bottom line. So let’s deliver it!

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