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Omnichannel customer experience doomed without clear goals

Companies miss the boat in building an omnichannel customer experience if they focus first on technology. They need to start with business objectives.

Today, companies have to be everywhere at once. Customers have more avenues to connect with them, and their preferences have moved to the forefront of business strategy.

Customers are now accustomed to using multiple devices and online sources to buy products and interact with companies. They may use a company's website, but may also use social media platforms, mobile devices or mobile apps. These communication channels are proliferating and, for companies, they're becoming central to serving customers where they are. However, as a result, companies' missions have gotten only more complex.

Part of the challenge is to tailor service and interactions to each channel. For example, an irate customer who takes to social media platforms to express dissatisfaction may require attention from a customer service agent first on that platform, then in an email or by phone to prevent the grievance from spiraling out of control. Or maybe customers want to text certain replies from a smartphone -- and not have to repeat this information should they call a contact center later on.

Companies need to craft a business strategy and marry that with technology to accommodate these kinds of scenarios and then analyze information. Indeed, identifying the right information and acting on it in real time has become an increasingly important -- and challenging -- task for many companies with legacy systems. Legacy challenges include siloed customer data and poor integration of communication channels. These new digital channels in turn have introduced their own challenges. How do companies incorporate customers' commentary on social channels, for example? And how can they piece together fragmented and uncoordinated social and mobile strategies among departments? Then there's the overhauling of corporate websites so they work responsively on mobile devicesand the need to rapidly address customer inquiries and issues reported on social media.

Simultaneously, companies are exploring mobile wallet systems, iBeacon technology and a broad array of mobile apps to create a more personalized mobile customer experience.

In the past, companies that turned to technology to improve customer service focused on important but hardly integrated initiatives that delivered seamless experiences for customers: implementing call routing in contact centers, making corporate websites more compelling or choosing a CRM platform. Today, technology questions have become more complex. Companies now need to focus on a diverse set of issues:

  • Identifying a mobile strategy that gives customers multiple capabilities, from browsing and buying products to interacting with customer service.
  • Connecting siloed data into a 360-degree view of the customer -- that is, a complete view of the customer based on all his interactions.
  • Creating a social strategy that suits a company's mission and gives customers a voice and proper access to the company and sometimes other customers.
  • Exploiting geolocation technology to personalize and deliver geo-aware customer interactions that serve up targeted offerings.
  • Developing mobile wallet, mobile payment and cashless transaction systems that can remove transactional friction from the customer experience (see sidebar one).
  • Doing more than glom on to big data and analytics technologies and instead think about the kinds of customer insights that can boost business.
  • Selecting emerging CRM technologies from a far more complex domain of technologies to manage relationships with customers and answer questions such as: do we need a cloud-based CRM? Do we need marketing automation? Do we need lead generation systems? Do we need sentiment analysis? Do we need a social CRM platform? And how will these capabilities integrate to provide a better customer experience?

CMOs, chief sales officers, chief customer care officers -- and numerous other executives across the globe -- are struggling with these challenges as the reality deepens: Insight about customers has become the currency with which companies must achieve a competitive advantage.

At the same time, companies can easily focus too much on technology rather than on existing gaps in serving customer needs. When companies rush headlong into buying technology, they fail to address the key organizational questions and issues that are often the foundation of poor customer service and customer experience.

Companies need to consider their goals, internal structure and customer constituencies:

  1. Determine our desired business outcomes. Companies need to clearly articulate why they want to buy technology to solve the problem. Just because a consultant or blog recommends investing in the latest shiny object isn't a compelling reason.

Companies need to explore whether a technology investment has ROI -- and specifically ROI for customers -- such as whether it will increase revenue or your margins because they can offer services more efficiently or can expand market reach. They also need to establish a business case that quantifiably and qualitatively forecasts these outcomes. The effort will help in serving customer priorities and will be a North Star as a company has to make tough decisions, such as where to invest scarce resources. Without a clear vision of what a company expects to gain from investments, many will end up in a junkyard of failed investments.

Starbucks has created operational efficiencies, improved cash flow and cost reductions through its mobile strategy. Prepaid transactions reduce the time in store for the customer and increase cash flow. Mobile payment technologies bring operational efficiencies and reduced transactional charges.

  1. Determine appropriate levels of service to achieve both customers' and your company's objectives. Here is one truism of customer experience. All customers are great but they are not all equal. If you refer back to your desired business outcomes and business cases, you'll notice that not all your customers contribute to your intended outcomes in the same way, and no two customers have the same needs, desires and motivations for engaging with you. Similarly, no two customers use a technology consistently -- in the same way or for the same reasons.

It's common for companies to view customers in segments; but another, more recent truism of customer experience is that cataloging them in faceless demographics or their relationships with the brand as either business-to-business or business-to-consumer is practically meaningless. Even business customers are represented by decision makers and influencers who are people, and each is different in motives, expectations and actions. These days, whether a company acknowledges it or not, the business-to-person model most accurately captures relationships with customers. This is why some companies are starting to explore customers as "segments of one" instead of customer segments, and are developing their customer experience strategy -- digital or physical -- for individuals.

Customer personas create profile composites and aggregate social and demographic characteristics as well as contexts that reflect customer motivations, needs and habits. As customer experience strategies are defined and technology investments are identified, companies must reference these customer motivations, needs and desires. They also need to think about these needs collectively,  as customer preference may be dictated by such complex criteria as ease of use, access, omnichannel personalization, utility, portability, speed and novelty. Even more challenging is the fact that these criteria can shift in importance for customers according to context or even a given product or service. Brands that succeed in digital experience tap into individual customer needs and motivations.

For example, Sephora, the makeup retailer, has a "Beauty Insider" program enabling customers to create profiles on mobile devices, desktops or in-store iPads, which are then used to match product colors in stores with a customer's skin tone. This capability ensures a more relevant offering for the customer and more sales for the salesperson.

  1. Develop your knowledge of customer journeys. What is customer experience? There are many definitions, but I would like to offer the following: customer experience involves delivering value where, when and how the customer needs it. Sometimes the where, when and hows happen in the virtual world: a company website, an app or social media channels. Sometimes they occur in the physical world through a company's physicalstores or contact centers. They also touch upon various departments within the company -- from marketing to sales to support -- and not necessarily in a linear manner. As your company builds a customer technology roadmap and digital strategy, understand your customer's journeys across these domains. One thing is for certain: customer behaviors across interaction channels are constantly evolving, and so your digital strategy has to be guided by customer behavior. Do you know why customers often start their interactions with you in one channel, end up in another and then return to where they started? Do you know what they experienced and how it compared with what they expected?

Companies such as KLM fully understand customer expectations. The Dutch airline recognizes its traveling customers are sensitive to time, so it aims to respond rapidly to feedback on social media support channels. The company's Twitter page has a timer that tells customers approximately how long they'll wait before getting a response. Additionally, its Twitter channel, operating 24/7, provides support in 10 languages.

A 2014 Salesforce/Exact Target study found that people spend an average of 3.3 hours a day on their smartphones. Eighty-five percent say that their smartphones are central to their everyday lives. Of the 10 most visited brands and organizations on mobile devices, five are social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube. What might serve a company better, however, is knowing who these people are; what triggers the selection and use of each channel; what customers are doing on each channel and the reasons why, as well as understanding their sentiments along the way. These "moments of truth" -- points of interaction at which customers do business with a company -- can either seal or sever a relationship. A customer journey map helps get to these answers.

  1. Explore the capabilities needed to ensure customer's expectations are met and business objectives can be fulfilled. Finally, after settling on the desired business outcomes; identifying customer personas a company should target, as well as understanding targeted customers' current journeys and helping to shape their desired journeys, a company arrives at a place where it can identify the enablers, including products, channels, employee competencies and customer insights and technologies that can help attain these goals. Investment opportunities will resemble a laundry list, but companies need to identify which of these opportunities to throw scarce resources at. Companies investing wisely reference their intended business outcomes, customer journey maps and moments of truth to identify the appropriate technology fit. They also prioritize their investments in social technologies, mobility, location services, payment and e-commerce platforms and CRM at the intersection of these elements of customer experience architecture.

Year after year, USAA tops Forrester Research's Customer Experience Index for Financial Services. The financial services institution tirelessly focuses on the needs and expectations of its members throughout their lives, from teenage years to retirement and beyond. With more than 90% of member interactions taking place on digital channels, technology is a significant enabler for its customer experience strategy. Mobile is the channel of choice for most of its customers, so it maintains one of the most robust mobile experiences of any sector. The company is religiously data-driven. With data mining, analytics and CRM capabilities USAA ensures that customers are immediately recognized and their needs identified and routed to proper channels.

As with USAA, companies that have identified their core principles and key customer insights can explore the technologies that make sense for their existing architecture and strategies. They can then answer questions like, does a cloud-based CRM make sense? Do I want a built-in or additional marketing automation platform? Is lead generation technology important to identifying new prospects? However, these kinds of questions only make sense in the context of having established a solid customer experience strategy.

A final issue is that forward-thinking companies are constantly inventing new customer experiences that quickly become mainstream expectations. Organizations should pay attention to these developments and explore integration opportunities. Companies such as Uber and TaskRabbit -- digital-first companies -- have made not-so-new concepts mainstream: cashless transactions, bidirectional reviews of service providers and customers and real-time status checks of a service or product. These concepts bring forth many best practices that can be adopted by any company, regardless of the sector.

In this age of the customer, companies face an increasingly challenging mandate to serve customers where they are. That mandate requires vigilance and a customer-centric approach. Rushing to buy a technology cannot possibly solve all the data integration and data insight problems that most companies will face along the way. Companies need to start by mapping out core principles such as mission, constituency and customer personas, and must identify how their customers interact through a variety of channels to achieve their objectives. Then, and only then, can these companies start to make the kind of informed technology purchases that adequately complement their business strategies.

Next Steps

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Mobile and customer experience

This was last published in May 2015

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What are your company's main objectives when molding an omnichannel customer experience?
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Expand. Improve. While a broader channel will be a huge benefit across the board, it offers little advantage to us if we don't set our goals first and tend to our existing customers right after.

To stay strong, it's vital that we never dilute our impact. We maintain our position with strong salary incentives (company growth is a call for better earnings throughout the enterprise, not just for investors) and increased consumer awareness.
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Companies broaden their sales channels so customer can access them more easily and frequently, ultimately leading to more sales. However, the key objectives of molding such customers should be  to give consistent experience to the customer , irrespective of the device and channel they come through. So what really improves is the reach and availability of the product. However, the customer should not feel lost while switching between the various channels - hence consistency.
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The comparison of yesterday’s call-routing or CRM upgrades to today’s hands-on customer experience upgrades like mobile apps and social media presence is apt. The distinction between then and now is that customer experience is complicated and out in the open. Business objectives are easier to define and measure in a controlled environment and changes are less risky when they take place in legacy customer experience channels, out of the public eye. Identifying business objectives is the only way managers can weigh if the risk of bad publicity from an unsuccessful change is worthwhile. 
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