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Omnichannel – Myth, Reality or Utopia?

3D Earth - FreeImages.com/Jamie Woods

Omnichannel – is it a Myth, Reality or Utopia?

Over the past 20 or so years the way products and services get sold and customer service as well as marketing get delivered changed dramatically. Gone are the times where a potential customer was addressed via a radio- or TV-spot or an ad printed in a newspaper, advertising mail in the mailbox … – well, it still happens, but the focus shifted dramatically.
We started off from one single ‘channel’ – customer goes to the store and interacts with a person – and added an ever increasing number of additional ones, like the ones mentioned, plus many more.
For retail businesses the store will not go away. Generally spoken, human interaction will stay important, probably increase in importance; human customer service will not vanish – but is likely to change … please hold this thought.
In today’s omni-channel world we also have telephone, e-mail, web-delivered ads, mobile apps, branded and white-label communities, social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., knowledge bases in combination with self-service, chat, messenger applications like WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Snapchat, iMessage; chat supported by ‘machine intelligence’, exposed via so called chatbots, and what not. The list could virtually go on and on.
This is all supported by and implemented on a platform that leverages integrated applications, which work on a joint, or at least consistent data model – with clean data – utilising strong real-time analytics capabilities that powers both, customer segmentation and knowledge categorisation for efficient search. And it delivers a great customer experience.

In Real Life

Uhhm, I am just awaking from my dream …
Omni-channel is currently all the rage. Be available where your customer is, be consistent regardless of the communications channel that the customer uses at any time, and regardless of the changes of channels the customer chooses to make. Use the knowledge and information of previous interactions to the customers’ benefit. I, too, think that it is the right idea, and approach – at least for now.

The History – and a Glimpse into the Future?

We started off with just one single channel. Every interaction happened in the store – and via word of mouth. That is easy enough to handle but then changed very soon, as described above.
The situation changed to being in the need to support a low number of independent channels, especially in marketing, but also in service. Content, and knowledge, were created and disseminated into these independent channels. This got somehow optimised. The information was made available for use in several channels. Born was the notion of cross channel.
From there we went on to think of and to support multi-channel concepts by integrating the various applications and their data stores. We arrived at the era of suites.
However, additional channels emerged and thanks to cloud computing and decentral budgets as well as lacking trust into IT departments, the pendulum swings from suites to best-of-breed solutions – all the way back to the 90s. As a consequence, platforms start to emerge. The number of communications channels that need to be supported, grew, and continues to grow.
Additionally, customers increasingly demand being addressed personally and relevantly, on the communications channel of their choice.
And they want to be able to get to the information themselves, be it marketing-, product information or service documentation. This is largely thanks to advances in computing technology and the emergence of smart phones, and needs to be addressed by companies.
So, we arrived at the era of omni-channel, where companies feel the need to achieve a seamless marketing, sales, and service experience, regardless of the communications channel a customer uses at any given time. Including as per yet unknown channels.
Again, this is a lofty goal – very lofty!
Meanwhile companies start to realise that they cannot achieve this goal in its full epic breadth and depth, especially as they are also confronted with the need to be profitable, which obviously prevents them from throwing an infinite number of dollars at solving this problem.
The overwhelming complexity of this scenario simply cannot be fully accommodated for at this time.
Job-to-be-done thinking and customer journey maps evolved, which gave the ability to provide touch points for customers that can get offered by the companies in a manageable way. Advanced segmentation helps in limiting the offer to different customer groups, thus increasing the company’s relevance. Combined with sufficient computing power the relevance of the delivered content can be increased, too.
On the service side we see communities and self-service approaches being developed and employed.
Still, there are many databases with different aspects of data/knowledge that are not integrated, due to above best-of-breed approach and lacking pre-existing platforms in many businesses.

The Crystal Ball

And all this doesn’t even take into account the physical world. Talk about retail stores and people! This fragmentation harms the customer experience.
Again, neither the retail store nor human customer service will vanish!
But in reality, there is no real omni-channel experience delivered, with the possible exception of a few technologically very advanced brands.
Nor needs to be!
Companies need to prioritise. Looking at current technical trends only few channels are really important. For one the human touch. Mobile; already now a third of all web access happens via mobile devices. Conversational interfaces are increasingly becoming important, too.
According to Esteban Kolsky, customer service will look totally different from what it is now in ten years’ time. He is a firm believer in automation. So am I.
We are facing self-service and communities as the main channels for customer service and even pre-purchase decision making. There are estimations that 90 per cent or more of customer service interactions can be automated. And I really wouldn’t disagree. What is the first thing we do when confronted with an issue? We use Google to research a resolution.
Information that we receive online from companies pre-purchase (and in service scenarios, too) will increasingly be delivered by explorative algorithms (AI’s).
So, where are we bound to?
1.     Businesses will develop a strong focus on mobile delivery of digital content, be it for marketing or service; this very well also means via voice (bots), and via humans. On the longer run automated voice and interaction via other devices than the smartphone will gain increased importance. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and VR/AR are giving us some direction here.
2.     We will see customers triage between branded apps that they will use for preferred businesses, ‘aggregator’ apps for needs based access (e.g., ‘I want to order food, but do not know what’, …), and finally messaging apps with their embedded company channels/bots. The latter two categories might merge. Neither category, app or messaging, will vanish; however, there will be a consolidation, as customers will not want to deal with dozens of apps on their mobile devices. This was one of the ideas behind Epikonic – maybe we just have been too early …
3.     With the rise of messaging apps and newer protocols, especially WebRTC, the importance of telephony as a separate network/technology will fade away. Telephony, especially with businesses, will merge into the data/app stream, mainly helping both parties; with an advantage for the business, though.
4.     Seamless interoperation of self-service or community service with human service, due to improved automation and ‘intelligent’ software; human intervention will become the exception, and if it comes to human intervention, there will increasingly be more relevant information available to be used by the agent.

This will not happen in the next few days, but it will. Watch the trends.

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