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Retail and the omni-channel prophecy

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The benefit of retrospect is of some value in business: being able to analyse what went wrong, what was done well, and how what lessons can be learned to fine-tune business strategies going forward.
Using retrospect, as a tool, can lead to more effective, agile and proactive actions.
A prime example is the rapid rise of omni-channel, writes Wynand Smit, CEO of contact centre business services provider Inovo.
It’s commonly accepted that an omni-channel approach to business originated in the retail sector. With the advent of e-commerce, customer expectations developed at a rapid pace: after all, if they could go into a bricks-and-mortar store, pick up a product and make an immediate purchase, what would the value be to them in ordering online something they hadn’t seen, and then waiting for payments to get processed and delivery?

Ticking the boxes in online purchasing and customer service
The customer journey in e-commerce included checking out product catalogues online, selecting an item for the checkout, processing payment and then waiting for delivery. In addition, it also involved email confirmation of payment, possible follow-up calls/contact for complaints or customer service and, from the company’s point of view, the possibility of marketing to that customer to showcase future products or sales campaigns.
The challenge that needed to be addressed was the segmented nature of business: different departments held responsibility for different stages of the customer journey, and the information obtained wasn’t centralised. So, the customer may have had to make repeated contacts to different agents across numerous channels, having to repeat identity verification and/or the reason for the contact, causing much frustration.
After all, ordering online was supposed to make things easier. In addition, online retail stores needed to streamline operations and face the challenges of maintaining stock supplies and coordinating deliveries, all these processes needing to flow through the contact centre environment.
The need arose for a seamless communication journey that allowed all the channels – voice, email, online, chat, text and social media – to be centralised, so that the customer’s information could be updated in more-or-less real time, and that the interactions could be routed efficiently to achieve a speedy resolution.

Following the customer trail, leading in business
At the heart of all of this were the millions of breadcrumbs left behind on the customer journey: data. Data, on its own, is an abstract concept, but, when data analysis is applied, and insights derived from that, it’s possible to track those “breadcrumbs” in ways that lead to a holistic picture of the customer – what they want, how they want it and when. That’s the kind of detail that helps agents to deliver personalised service.
Centralising the breadcrumbs of information that come from various sources so that the information could be seamlessly available is what led to the creation of an omni-channel environment that literally channels information from everywhere. While many companies are still working towards this, the more the breadcrumbs are stored and used in and from one source, the closer omni-channel becomes.
That’s essential when there are multiple activities going on, as with a retail environment.
The customer can browse, enquire about product information, book, order, pay and, subsequently receive, what they want, sometimes within less than a day. The range of products available has grown immensely, meaning that customers can access more online than in physical stores. They have more choices and more payment options. The wide variety of transactions, by necessity, requires that they be centralised to bring all of the touch points together.
Retail, then, saw the need for omni-channel before it existed. Consumer demands and the solutions developed to meet those expectations contributed to the rise of omni-channel. What began in retail has since become the desired communication model of business – seamless, inter-departmental communication across multiple channels according to different needs.
We’re now able to communicate more efficiently throughout our own businesses and with other companies, promoting increased productivity.
What is more commonly seen as the norm nowadays is the result of rapid evolution in business processes; it’s certain that in twenty years’ time, we’ll look back at what is cutting edge now and see it as the forerunner of what will become the future of e-commerce and business in general.