Evangelizing Omni-Channel (Why It’s NOT the Answer)

One of the topics that we set out to discover during out surveys past two years (note: take our survey this year, please? was whether organizations and practitioners were already on board with the concept of omni-channel.  What we found out was pretty much in line with what we expected: it is too early for them to focus on it.

Alas, the main problem we found (both outside of this research project as well as those people we tapped for follow-up discussions) was the lack of definition of omni-channel.  Indeed, there is confusion between multi-channel and omni-channel – and this is the biggest hindrance to its adoption.

We all understand single-channel as it is the origin of all customer service.  Customer service was provided person-to-person, over the phone via call center, or (in the case of more modern companies) via email or chat or any other single-channel.  Even as we grew operations and added new channels (e.g. from call center to simple contact center supporting email) we continued to support the channels separately as single-channel.  This was done partly by lack of understanding by call centers of what a contact center did as well as by not having available methods to share resources and technologies.

As we began to evolve customer service and added more channels (and found ways to share the underlying technologies and solutions – like knowledge bases and rules servers) the concept of multi-channel began to emerge.  Either as a fully integrated solution where all common components are leveraged and shared or as a collection of single-channel solutions that share some components in different ways, multi-channel became the definition of a contact center that had more than one channel operating successfully, had some integration between them for supporting tools and components, but was not yet fully operational as a single solution for all channels.

The concept of operating all channels as one always lacked one component: a single, combined, all-encompassing data model that allowed a transaction to be tracked across all channels and all interactions. If, for example, a customer started at the web site to find marketing information about a product, continued with an email asking for clarification of pricing, a phone call to further clarify an obscure point in the literature, then purchased the product via a third-party eCommerce site and came to a physical store for technical support in their minds that is one interaction, one experience.  For the organization that would be a minimum of five interactions (and in some cases, a much scarier multiple of that).

Closing this gap between expectations and delivery is where the idea of omni-channel becomes attractive.  There are two parts to delivering to this model and the first one is the technology necessary to make it happen behind the scenes.  This has been solved by leveraging and aggregating common components before – but usually falling short at cross-channel tracking.  Implementing the ability to use a single, common data model that pulls in data from multiple systems and interaction and maintains them as a common interaction is the first challenge – omni-channel cannot happen before cross-channel integration exists in the contact center.  We are just beginning to see implementations of cross-channel tracking and the initial results are encouraging.

Once cross-channel tracking is present, organizations can then focus on using that data and technology model to deliver to customers’ expectation of a single, cross-channel, and cross-interaction experience based on intent (the second of the portions of omni-channel).

If you think that omni-channel is as simple as delivering across channels, go back and read the paragraph above: it needs to be based on intent (thus, changing at each experience), based on previous and future predicted interactions (while keeping them together as one – whether it is a new one or a continuation of a previous one), and play equally across all channels (while realizing there are differences between channels that may not allow for equal delivery of all interactions across all channels).

The complexity of an omni-channel delivery is just barely starting to be addressed by organizations, and it is mostly the lack of understanding on their side of the myriad complexities associated with it that makes it slow going.  As one of the respondents of the survey told us when we followed up, just the idea of understanding what differentiates one interaction from the other based on intent causes a migraine.

Technology is available (hint: it requires multiple vendors from different technology sections) and desire is there – the lack of tangible methodologies and use cases (or even better, case studies and lessons learned) is what is causing it to not be fully adopted in real life.  Even if the organization can get past the lack of information and the complex technical aspects, political considerations and infighting are the next challenge to overcome – how to make different departments or business units work together towards a common goal.

Our surveys (2013, 2014) showed that only a handful of people are working on implementing omni-channel, while a large number (still short of mainstream adoption at one-third of the market) is doing something about it.  This is a good start.  The next best step is to evangelize and agree on a common concept of what omni-channel means so we can focus on growing adoption, finding lessons learned, and write the case studies that will help push adoption to higher levels.

At the end, the message to get across is that by implementing a two-stage omni-channel solution (infrastructure for the organization and software solutions to deliver to customers’ expectations) is getting the organization closer to the three R’s that encompass the organization-customer relationship in this age of the customer:

Right answer; Right channel; Right time.

SHAMELESS PLUG – While this was written in 2013 (but never published before) as a result of findings to the survey that year – it is still applicable today (and going forward).  If you want to help me find more insights like this, please take our survey this year… many thanks.