What's "Omnichannel" Customer Service?

As a writer, certain topics related to words and language tend to catch my eye. As a marketer, it typically behooves me to stay abreast of changing trends. This morning, these worlds collided when I spied the following headline from mycustomer.com: Buzzword bingo: Four phrases you’ll be sick of by 2014. Of course, I hungrily clicked my way through.

Omnichannel was the entry that captured my fancy (The internet of things, survey-tainment, and smart data are the other entries). According to Richard McCrossan, strategic business director at Genesys, as quoted in the article, “Omnichannel is fast replacing multichannel as a requirement for customer service.”

A requirement? Well, in that case, I’d better investigate a little further, right? While my investigation did shed some light onto the concept of omnichannel, I still came away with a few competing definitions or ideas ideas. Either way, omnichannel is seemingly an evolution of the multichannel experience.

In the same article mentioned above, McCrossan describes omnichannel as “…companies tracking customers across all channels and retaining the customer interaction history…[to] provide superior, customer-centric service, regardless of the channel used.”

Once upon a time, customers once complained of having to repeat themselves to multiple support agents, or having to re-tell their story with each new contact. Eventually, CRM systems adapted to customer demands by doing a much better job of storing customer information and case histories to provide context to multiple customer contacts as a whole.

Of course, today many more channels are available, and customers interact with them in a variety of different ways. In fact, consumers can now do much of their actual shopping from a mobile device. Whereas multichannel was once the extension of the customer service experience, is omnichannel then an extension of the entire customer lifecycle?

In the article Omni-Channel Marketing: Your Next Challenge at CMO.com, Andrew Solmssen states, “With awareness of what a consumer is doing, marketers can start to tell a continuous story that plays out whenever and wherever the consumer interacts with the brand. The premise here is that customers and targets are going to move from platform to platform on a regular basis, often to perform the same task, and that they have expectations that their behavior in one place will influence the experience in another.”

Again, it seems that omnichannel strategies call for a consistent customer experience for each customer in every interaction they have with your company. Regardless of contact channel or interaction channel or overall marketing mix, this has been true for some time. So, what then about omnichannel is truly different from what we’ve been doing?

Over at Forrester.com, Martin Gill makes the argument for agile commerce rather than the omnichannel experience: “Agile Commerce recommends you optimize the journey, not the touchpoint. By concentrating on common customer journeys then designing touchpoints within the context of those journeys, brands can create successful cross-touchpoint experiences for the vast majority of their valuable customers.”

It would seem Gill gets to the heart of the matter, understanding the customer’s journey as he or she interacts with your brand and optimizing those journeys rather than making yourself accessible through every channel at any time. Gill goes on to discuss the need to look at the customer experience as a whole rather than through the silos of a “channel” perspective.

“If multichannel is the Web and Stores…then Omnichannel includes social, mobile and other “new” stuff… So if we have a web team, a stores team, a social team and a mobile team, then we are Omnichannel! Well…By contrast, Agile Commerce aims to break down organizational barriers and recommends a cross-functional approach, bringing new organizational constructs to bear such as organizing around the customer lifecycle.”

The point that seems to get lost in the buzzwordy discourse on omnichannel is how we can now use technology to harness the information available about our customers and their habits. In his piece, Solmssen states, “The last key piece is reporting and data, and it's the most significant infrastructure issue around this whole idea. Awareness and seamlessness are only made possible by building a sophisticated consumer profile and being rigorous about adding to it at every turn.”

We have a ton of ways to interact with our customers, and some are new and evolving, but simply using every channel at our disposal doesn’t necessarily make us any more accessible. At the end of the day, the only meaningful question is how we use these tools to make our brands more available to the customer and to improve their overall experience.