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Meeting Connected Consumers with True Omni-Channel Experiences Requires a New Approach

Creating a differentiated, compelling, and valuable customer experience has never been easy.

But in reaction to further ratcheting up of customer expectations many companies, large and small, have seen the need to quickly rethink how they present themselves in the interconnected physical/digital environment often referred to as the omni-channel experience.

Over the last several years, I have worked with Fortune 100 retailers, service companies, and other digital groups looking to meet their customers in a new way and to be cohesive across this landscape. I want to share what I have learned - sometimes the hard way - and help you to get off on the right foot.

To that end, I've created a punch list of sorts that shares a few principles from my experiences you should check in on when you get started and while you are on the path:


  1. Without connected goals and leadership, there won't be a connected experience.
  2. Create a team culture of silo crashing.
  3. User experience in the trenches must be everyone's game.
  4. Clear the path for technology.
  5. Eat your own dog food.
  6. Focus on integration or witness the disintegration.

Keep in mind that these aren't a low bar but I’ve seen that the work put into these behind the scenes team and company elements will, often more than the digital work itself, lead to your success or foreshadow your failure. Not meeting these out of the gate is not a reason to avoid getting started, but they are meant to serve as a guidepost to keep your focus on so your project doesn’t slide sideways on you.

Without connected goals and leadership, there won't be a connected experience.

When senior leaders, designers, and technologists from very different in-store and digital camps are responsible for separate channels of a business, there are bound to be differing views of what it will take to be successful. Heck, even defining what successful means is a complicated endeavor.

A comfortable trap is created when your leaders and stakeholders nod their heads and say,

“This work will be successful when our users are able to purchase what they want wherever they want through this new cross channel digital experience".

You could stop and bask in your newly found concrete answer, but in this new omni-channel frontier, it takes the next level of persistence. You must ask, "Why?”, and, "What do you mean by that?", to uncover the meaningful nuggets that lie underneath:

"Well, I want those in-store purchases to ring up as website revenue and build my revenue line";

or,

"I really need to make in-store sales more efficiently with the same number of staff";

or,

"We are really short on foot traffic lately, so I hope these experiences drive more customers”.

My, those are dramatically different problems to solve.

The game here is not to necessarily get everyone agree on one goal; that's not possible. Instead, you must cut through the tempting agreeable nowheres by asking why, and to get each unstated goal on paper or on a big white board in front of the team, then playing them back to the leaders of all channels as a mantra going forward. Then, and only then, will you have a chance at solving these problems and becoming successful.

Create a team culture of silo crashing.

This work in its essence is about seamless transitions between disparate parts of your company. People, processes, or technology too rooted in one channel will vastly limit your ability to progress.

Listen intently during one of your meetings for omni-channel initiatives. If

“We do X, I’m not sure what they do…”, or, “It’s only our responsibility up until here…”,

are the type of comments often heard, reframe the question:

"What would the customer expect to happen regardless of how we work internally?”.

You'll likely get a very different answer - often a quick answer - that starts with, “Of course they would want..", and usually has at least one “but” in the response. These are signs that the team sees limits in what they can affect that you, as a leader, can help remove.

Focus on building a team that can see the light at the end of the tunnel that is guided by the customer. The right team will tirelessly ask the question,

“Why can't we do that?",

to the enabling channel teams until it is done and done right, with no regard to the walls of the organizational silos they are walking through. Applaud small wins in these areas; it takes a lot to overcome organizational inertia, but once you get going, there will be no stopping you.

User experience in the trenches must be everyone's game.

Creating user experience in this new connected space is hard when you’ve created successful in independent digital or physical work in the past, you need a team ready to leave their preconceptions at the door. You need a strong, multidisciplinary team of researchers, designers, product developers, and technologists ready to get in the trenches to find out what the customer wants. You need to build a team that clearly puts the user first, builds prototypes fast, and has methods to show the user new ideas until something hits. The best team members work outside of traditional role boundaries: think designers that build, technologists that concept, product managers that sketch, all with focus on discovering what the user wants.

Take a page from Nordstrom who created a ‘flash-mob’ of sorts with their innovation team, swarming their sunglasses department with designers, product builders and developers. They iteratively built an iPad app to help customers pick the best sunglasses and tested it with real customers in real time, spending time refining features that mattered to the customer and quickly discarding those that did not.

With a team like this and a bias toward your user, be it the consumer or in-store employee, your potential for success will go up dramatically.

Clear the path for technology.

The technology team's charter commonly given by the business teams

“Make it happen however you can, on time and under budget”

simply will not work for this environment. In order to deliver integrated omni-channel, the technology team will need to break through barriers they've avoided both consciously and subconsciously in the past. As a leader in this work, there will be many times you must encourage the technology team in pushing the boundaries, from the complexity of privacy or security, to pure, “We don't normally do it that way", thinking. The way the networks work, which devices are chosen, what you can and can't access on those devices, which databases are the data being pulled from, if the service is real-time or has a lag, are all so critical to the end product. The answers don't vary much when you are only working on the digital or physical sides of the world, but do vary dramatically when you are blending these worlds. Be sure to ask even the simplest of questions like,

“Where does this data come from?”, and,

“Is this the same information we show on the website?”.

The answer you’ll get will likely not be so simple. Complexity being put on your customer will spring up where you least expect it and you need to be there to question it at every turn.

Warby Parker, the innovative start-up eyeglasses maker, just recently ventured into these waters aiming to move into physical retail but do it their way. They emphasized paying only when the product was shipped and keeping a single always-on history of all interactions and custom preferences for each customer at their employee’s fingertips or on any digital touch point. Today’s in-the-box retail point of sale software just doesn’t cut it here; it is rooted in a single channel, mass commerce world. Warby Parker took the plunge to create custom software to get out of single channel thinking and emphasized creating the customer experience that is right for their brand. The team realized that the point of sale software is the experience not just a tool to purchase from the lowest bidder. They are making a bet that in the end the costs of delivering this heightened experience will define the company for its consumer making it well worth the price of admission.

Be ready to support your technology team to do the complex work needed by escalating to their leadership, re-defining a security policy for a new age, changing the way the networks works in the store, challenge the status quo and so much more. To make it work for the customer, much will be needed and those decisions will come to define the experience you deliver.

Eat your own dog food.

You may have heard this before, and maybe it's cliché, but I've never worked in a space where this is more critical. Keep a working version of your omni-channel product in your hands at all times, no matter if the current version is just a bunch of stories, a paper prototype, or real code. Walk around with it and ask yourself,

"Does this help me get necessary things done?",

"How would I have found out this feature even exists?", and,

"Do people really do this in the real world?”.

Too often when you work on hot trendy things like omni-channel that are on a hype cycle, just the fact you are doing something new will keep you moving forward and excited. However, your customers couldn’t care less what you call it or how cool it makes you; they just want something that is helpful, simple, and really works. Being the leader in your team who looks at where you are, stands back, and asks the hard questions will help the team win, regardless of how it feels in the moment. Swim against the current, and say what needs to be said when it needs to be said, even if it’s,

"Team, this just doesn't work."

In closing...

Up until now, you've aligned the stars: the disparate teams and leaders have the same direction and goals, you’ve got the technologists and designers on board working across previous borders, and you've tested an idea with your customer and they like it. There is one piece that I've seen often taken for granted, however, and it is the largest definer of successfulness versus mediocrity.

Focus on integration or witness the disintegration.

Be ready to spend inordinate amounts of time pouring over the critical points where your new omni-channel digital experiences transition between people and the physical and digital realm, otherwise known as the on and off ramps of your connected experience.

Every successful cross-channel experience I have seen was suggested at just the right moment by an in-store associate, linked by a related digital experience or integrated noticeably and on purpose into the physical environment. How your work shows up here in the last mile between you and your customer, is the key to success or failure.

Plopping a new tool at the end of an aisle without coordinating what it is for, why you’re doing this, and how it works is effectively inviting your tool to be thrown into the dustbin. The prevailing conversation stemming from that will be,

“Someone from HQ just put that there randomly”, and, “No, no one is using it",

both of which will be true. Training your in-store associates is one essential approach to be sure, but empowered associates that understand how a tool can be helpful will be the first to show it to a customer.

Apple has delivered the last-mile integration well with EasyPay in their Apple Store app. In every instance I have witnessed the Apple associate is the first to mention to the consumer they can pay with their phone right where they stand, seamlessly integrated into the conversation. There is no surprise payment device attached to the conventional cash register that you can “use if you want to”, no forced “would you like to pay with your phone today” that comes off as inauthentic. Just a simple in-context mention of a feature that equally benefits the customer and associate by saving them time. Do this right and your employees will own the experience, they will be your live demo and on ramp to usage, especially if the tool helps the associate get their job done fast. You’ll be a hero, and they will be selling your work to customers and their leadership.

In short, a coordinated, well-thought-out plan for the steps leading to the use of your new experience and the steps that follow will pay dividends for the future. Let it be the difference between technology that really connects with your customers in this new omni-channel future, and technology that gets dusted more times than used.

Thanks for reading.
 -Ben

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