Catching Up with Omnichannel

The time has come to recenter our attention and our intention when it comes to omnichannel. We’ve been chasing omnichannel for what feels like decades, repeating an exercise in pushing everywhere yet engaging nowhere. After such a long journey, the idea of even catching up with the expectations of the omnichannel customer can feel overwhelming.

To break this down into a more actionable conversation, I propose starting by admitting what omnichannel is not: Omnichannel is not a destination. It is less about the technical specifications of the various channels of engagement and more about the customers’ decisions about where to engage in their micromoments of need.

Conversely, what is omnichannel? Omnichannel is a promise and expectation. Omnichannel is bidirectional exchange of value. Omnichannel is an agreement between the buyers of services and the providers of those services on what, when, and how value will be exchanged—and that agreement is redefined and reimagined with every engagement.

It is also time to reset and even reimagine what omnichannel can be—and in some cases, already is. Let’s consider an example: the new face of commerce. The COVID-19 pandemic’s brute-force acceleration of digital commerce innovation catapulted consumers from pushing a shopping cart down the aisles of a grocery store to curb-side pickup and home delivery.

The lines that traditionally segmented B2B and B2C buying experiences into neat categories were upended, blurred, and in some cases completely redrawn, thanks to increased direct-to-consumer (D2C) interactions. Everyone started to rethink and reimagine how life around us actually operated, and then expected technology to bridge the gaps between need and possibility. Entire segments of retail, food service, and even grocery launched mobile and digital experiences enabling online shopping with a choice of curbside pickup, in-store pickup, or delivery.

The Ebb and Flow of the ‘New Normal’

We are also facing the reality that every day seems to breed a new business model or a new challenge to “normal” operations. Take the challenge facing airlines: Under normal circumstances, pricing models were based on historical data, leveraging years of “normal” to best predict and set pricing to achieve optimal revenue. But what happens when historical norms get thrown out the window? There was no historical data that could fit the new normal of pandemic travel. Pricing and the process for predicting pricing models needed to shift, and airlines leveraging platforms that could aggregate known behavioral and event data to predict and optimize price and promotions on the fly (no pun intended) won the trust of the business for optimizing revenue and the trust of the customer for optimizing value.

In B2B, the very concept of what an “experience” should be was quickly being replaced with expectations molded thanks to distinctly B2C experiences. It wasn’t just that the channels of how transactions unfolded were reimagined—entire business models were transformed, demanding new, flexible options for configuring, transacting, and deploying them.

If groceries could be ordered online and delivered, why couldn’t business materials and needs? If toilet paper could be purchased via subscription, why couldn’t training, service, or insurance? If the price of a first vacation could be optimized for both traveler and airlines, why couldn’t the price of software platform configurations similarly evolve?

Remembering the Lessons Learned

The pandemic forever changed the expectations for how service and value could be delivered. It forever changed the speed at which business models could transform and shift. And once the pandemic fades into history, the expectations for value, service, and flexibility will remain. Thanks to the past year, key lessons were learned (often by “failing forward”) that should be carried into this new age of reimagined omnichannel commerce.

  1. Omnichannel is about being omnipresent, not about replicating actions in every channel. Relationship advice usually includes these words of wisdom: Show up, be present, and listen more than you talk. This is as true for relationships with commerce as it is for relationships of the heart. Today’s commerce expectation is not to shout loudest (or have the wildest booth on the tradeshow floor) to lure customers into the channel of an organization’s choosing. Omnipresent commerce is about showing up and being present in the moment the customer is defining. This raises a demand for signal intelligence to understand needs and behaviors—something that will get exponentially more challenging and complex as new channels of engagement enter the journey.
  2. Channel boundaries don’t hold back commerce anymore. Operational boundaries still do. As routes to market shifted, the boundaries between operational systems and functions became glaringly obvious. As digital commerce experiences allowed customers to leverage tools such as configure, price, quote (CPQ), the operational barriers that blocked accurate and timely inventory or distribution intelligence became operational obstacles to delivering new and valuable digital experiences. Channel prioritization based on team or personnel preference—as opposed to channel prioritization based on a customer’s personal preference—can be addressed when artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools work to identify the right channel for the right selling experience. Early thinking regarding omnichannel commerce assumed that all channels were created equal—and valued in equal measure by the customer. Nothing could be further from the truth. If operational boundaries and roadblocks are left in place (or even worse, fortified by inaction), seeing and managing what doeshappen within a channel will be impossible.
  3. Crisis bred innovation—and now it needs to give way to purpose. In a time of extreme commerce emergency, the innovations in how to approach channels of engagement and the changing mechanics of how work gets done—to push the boundaries of where and how actions, content, engagement, and transactions could happen—were met with little resistance. We needed to do or try something. But in a post-pandemic environment, we will need to stop asking what the “new-normal” could be and just accept that new is normal. To meet the needs of customers on their own journeys, selling organizations need more than the permission to sell differently: They need tools to meet the customer where the customer chooses, with exactly what the customer wants and needs. This is where AI can take the lead in a meaningful way. By looking beyond simply automating sales tasks, an AI-powered selling motion can more effectively deliver consistent and personalized experiences, delivered via valued channels and contextualized for the individual buyer.
  4. Centralization is key. The reality is that for most organizations, we have the channels our customers value and utilize most frequently already in place. The hurdle that must be addressed is how and where operational centralization needs to happen to make the biggest shifts in how quickly and easily our selling experiences can align to the new self-reliant digital buyer. Centralization doesn’t apply just to the data that powers experiences. It also applies to the platforms. It is easy to simplify the silos that stymie selling as being cultural or functional disconnects. It is time to admit that interconnected platforms have a direct impact on the capacity to connect and align operational processes. If the goal is to optimize revenue by tapping into the power of omnichannel engagement and selling, an interconnected platform can help B2B organizations to purposefully shift from siloed and disconnected selling processes.
  5. This isn’t just about the buyer: Modern omnichannel commerce impacts our selling teams, too. Expectations for how fast things come together have changed—partially because of the expediency of the very digital channels and experiences we put into play out of pandemic necessity. Whereas customer relationships between sellers and buyers will always be impacted by those handshakes and face-to-face meetings, the expectation for detail and data at the snap of a finger is here to stay. Sellers don’t have the luxury of having a week to pull pricing and quotes together: They will have moments to meet the needs of the customer. The biggest question of all for organizations wanting to fully lean in to the momentum that transformation has unleashed on commerce is, Are we ready to empower our employees as much as we are willing to empower our customers? This is a new era of selling in which success (and growth) will hinge on eliminating the barriers and roadblocks between sales, commerce, and customer. It’s time to give our teams of sellers access to the easy button so they remain a valued channel of engagement by the customers who still rely on that relationship to see them through their journeys.

The time for questioning whether omnichannel is the right path has passed. The reality is that the customer is already well down that road, setting expectations and resetting buying norms. Once we rethink omnichannel, we can actually prepare for what comes next: the onset of the “metaverse”—that not-so-distant future of shared, connected, virtual spaces and persistent experiences across a self-defined and self-perceived virtual universe. And in the metaverse, customers won’t need to wait for organizations to get up to speed with their expectations. They will have already moved on to engage with an organization ready to meet their needs.

About the Author

Liz Miller

Liz Miller is VP & Principal Analyst with Constellation Research, a Silicon Valley-based technology research and advisory firm. She investigates the range of solutions most often associated with delivering on an enterprise’s customer experience (CX) strategy, spanning the marketing, sales and service functions. She can be found on Twitter at @lizkmiller

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