What’s the hype about an omnichannel strategy?

8 min read
Artwork by Bárbara Fonseca

A while back, I attended the Omnichannel Exec Forum in our hometown of Lisbon.

I know, I know. This event happened in March and it’s already May. But you see, much has happened since then. I moved desks, traveled to three new cities and most importantly, I welcomed my baby boy, Sebastião, into the world.

But back to the event. It was attended by professionals from multiple sectors: retail, automotive, e-commerce, and pharma. The headline for the event was Omnichannel and its challenges. But, what exactly is omnichannel and why are so many companies interested in it?

What’s in a name?

Omnichannel, per definition, refers to “the multichannel sales approach that provides the customer with an integrated shopping experience. The customer can be shopping online from a desktop or mobile device, via phone, or in a brick-and-mortar store, and the experience will be seamless.” It differs from multichannel in which it implies an integrated strategy, as opposed to the mere ability to interact with users on multiple channels.

If you consider the companies that rule the retail, auto or pharma sectors, the majority of them are over 50 years old, like H&M or GSK, and some — take Renault and BMW for example — are over 100 years old. Most of these companies’ senior leaders were born into a non-digital native generation and developed solid business models that, in a non-digital world, drove these companies to become very successful.

However, in 2019 and despite having been around for over 20 years, the internet and mobile computing are still driving huge changes in the way in which companies and consumers interact. Think about companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Alibaba, which 20 years ago were of little value and are nowadays some of the most valuable businesses in the world.

If you were a 50-year-old, successful business being challenged by newcomers, wouldn’t you invest resources in trying to adapt? Would you not do your best to avoid jeopardizing your leadership?

That’s precisely why companies are trying to decode how to adapt strategies to the current reality, where the internet and millennials are becoming kings.

Age is not just a number

An important chunk of successful businesses built around offline channels are struggling to keep up with the disruption of digital-native companies.

At these companies, an overwhelming majority of senior leadership teams are baby boomers or early Generation Xers, which are mostly non digital-native. They grew up in a world where brick and mortar was the norm, word-of-mouth was practically the only source of information available and testified the early stages of the current business and technological revolution.

Generation Y and Z, on the other hand are digital natives, grew up in the midst of the tech and business revolution, have access to unlimited amounts of information and an endless variety of goods and services. Perhaps the words that best describe this model are convenience and immediacy.

Generational gaps have always existed, although we are probably going through the fastest changing era ever, which lays the ground for wider-than-ever generational gaps. It is unsurprising that senior leaderships take time to comprehend how millennials and generation Z communicate, organize thoughts and make decisions the way they do.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve come up with an example to help us think about how baby boomers and millennials go about buying a car. Let’s have a look at the McKinsey customer journey model as a guideline:

The trigger for both baby boomers and millennials to buy a car is the same: the need for transportation to get to and from work and other social activities. Both would also initially consider car brands they know and public transportation, but millennials would, in addition, think about all the mobility platforms at hand, such as Uber, Lime, among others.

As for evaluating their options, baby boomers resort to word of mouth and mass media, while millennials have other inputs from mass advertising, online advertising, word of mouth, social media and both online and offline media.

The moment of purchase takes places at a car dealership for baby boomers and millennials, but the latter could also order a car from an online marketplace. After the purchase, baby boomers and millennials alike would go about telling their friends in person about their new car, but millennials would post a photo on several social media channels as well.

The difference in amount of channels and information consumed by both generations is evident. The gap is clear and alongside the effort required to understanding, integrating and adapting to these shifts.

Key learnings from the Omnichannel Exec Forum

For many senior leaderships, it can be hard to fully understand the importance of each one of these channels and their influence on the customer journey. Perhaps this is why companies invest so many resources in training, industry-relevant events, consultancy, and innovation-focused teams.

Every company is trying to make sense of omnichannel and how to approach it correctly. Here’s what I learned.

There is no universal formula

But there are tried and tested guidelines and principles. As defined earlier in this article, a successful omnichannel strategy means being present in both digital and offline channels, taking into account owned and earned media and having a consistent, integrated business strategy across all of them.

It means being aware of the customer journey and the importance of each channel along that path and what to provide to customers or prospects at each stage. It’s important to be mindful that there will be important variations in these, depending on industry, geography and demographic.

Identify the channels that your (prospective) clients use

Websites, blogs, paid or earned media, marketplaces, retailers, user communities, phone, chat, email, social networks. With so many channels at hand, it’s important to understand which are relevant, and when. At what stages of the purchasing journey are clients visiting your website? What’s the weight of online versus offline channels? What’s the influence of earned media in the process?

Without knowing where customers are spending time or looking for information, it’s challenging to successfully provide it to them.

Convenience and immediacy are kings

There seem to be facts that are common across all industries. Phone support is dying out and email will likely go next. The earlier you go in the generational pyramid the more relevant this becomes. The importance of non-voice channels in the customer experience journey is growing year after year, being replaced by email, chat, earned media and self-service platforms like user communities and social media (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter) or information aggregators (Trivago). Information should be made available in a simple, fast, and convenient fashion, or users will get it elsewhere.

Tailor information to the right needs

Once the channels are identified, be sure to prioritize access to the right information. What’s the trigger that’s leading users to interact with you at each moment? Are you delivering the information they are looking for in a convenient way? How satisfied are they after each interaction?

Technology enables brands to access unprecedented levels of information about clients, so it’s about leveraging that information to deliver the best experience.

Be experimental but consistent

In a fast-paced, innovative business context it’s important to iterate and measure. Trying new approaches is key to staying relevant and successfully engaging with customers. No matter what you try, ensure it is consistent with your strategy and remaining channels.

Attribute ownership to the transformation process

Often times this process implies a significant transformation across the business. For these cases it’s important to attribute ownership to the right team and perhaps most importantly, obtaining senior leadership buy-in or executive sponsorship.

When correctly executed, an omnichannel strategy involves multiple stakeholders and will likely have a profound impact on the status quo. Failing to find the people with capacity to drive this will jeopardize the outcomes of the transformation and consequently the business’s capacity to keep up with competitors.

Summing up, if your business primarily grew up in a non-digital era and you’re looking to stay relevant, it’s time to consider having a serious omnichannel strategy, sponsored by senior leadership and fully integrated with your business. After all, customers are everywhere all the time, so be where they are.

Oh, and just one more thing: be sure that all your channels allow for you to connect with users in their native language. If you want to take the next step with your multilingual customer support, you’re welcome to reach out to us.

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