Mastering the Art of Omnichannel Experiences
Thanks to technology, customers and brands can interact in more ways than ever. To keep customers coming back, organizations must provide great experiences at every touchpoint. Delivering ease and consistency across in-store, social media, email, phone, app and web experiences — not to mention interactions with your actual products — may seem like a tall order. Getting omnichannel experiences right, however, is well worth the effort, paying off in customer retention and loyalty.
In this post, we’ll explore the definition of omnichannel, the differences between omnichannel and multichannel, the benefits of having a strong omnichannel strategy, how to create a better omnichannel customer experience, ways to test your omnichannel customer journeys, examples of effective omnichannel experiences from a variety of industries, and what’s next in omnichannel.
What is omnichannel?
Think of omnichannel as a holistic portfolio of all the different ways your brand goes to market and interacts with customers. Your omnichannel strategy extends across all platforms, devices and channels, with the goal of creating a consistent, cohesive brand experience. Say a customer has a question about their account. Whether the customer contacts you via phone, your app, the chatbot on your website, Twitter, or a customer service desk in-store, they should get the same answer — and same level of service.
Focusing on the omnichannel experience ensures that your customers can use their preferred methods to interact with your brand, without sacrificing quality. You meet them where they are, fitting seamlessly into their lives and increasing your brand’s stickiness.
While omnichannel was once a retail concern, today savvy brands across multiple industries embrace strong omnichannel execution as a competitive differentiator.
How omnichannel differs from multichannel
While a multichannel approach or marketing campaign typically includes messages and outreach across several channels, omnichannel includes all of an organization’s channels. To further explain the differences between omnichannel and multichannel, let’s compare two campaigns designs to get customers to join a loyalty program:
The multichannel campaign could include:
a series of emails inviting customers to join
banners on the company website, apps, and social media accounts promoting the loyalty program
An omnichannel campaign would include all of the above, but would extend to every channel and touchpoint, promoting the loyalty program:
in retargeting ads served up to customers who had visited the company website
as a recorded message for customers reaching out to the company’s call center
with an automated message on the company’s online chat
with an invitation to join during online, in-app or in-store checkout
in order confirmation emails and on account statement
on printed store receipts.
The multichannel campaign has the potential to reach many people interacting with your brand. The omnichannel approach is designed to reach everyone who interacts with your brand during the course of the campaign. With the multichannel approach, there’s the possibility that some customers may still not learn about the loyalty program. With the omnichannel approach, that likelihood significantly decreases. Consistency, repetition and reinforcement drive greater returns.
With an omnichannel customer journey, organizations must ensure that every touchpoint offers the same quality experience to customers, as they use different channels to complete a task. Ideally, omnichannel experiences flow like a relay race, where one runner passes a baton to the next without dropping it. The consumer moves from one platform to another in a seamless and consistent way that includes parity and continuity. A customer should be able to accomplish the same task on your company’s website, app, over the phone and in person. Consistency and parity are the foundation of a great omnichannel experience.
If a passenger checks in for a flight via the web, they should be able to see their boarding pass on the app. If that passenger changes their seat at a kiosk, they expect to see that update in the app or on the web. It’s all about successfully traversing across channels with minimal friction to complete a task, whether that’s making a purchase, ordering food, checking into a flight, transferring money to a friend, or setting up an IoT device.
Benefits of a strong omnichannel strategy
One recent study found that companies that use an omnichannel marketing strategy increase ROI by 32% over those that don’t. Leading retailers see a strong omnichannel experience pay off in increased customer acquisition, higher sales (which also contribute to greater lifetime customer value), and improved operational efficiencies.
Omnichannel drives operational efficiencies on many fronts through shared data — customer information may be captured once, rather than at every touchpoint. Linking in-store purchases to an online customer profile creates the potential for more focused targeting and greater personalization, such as sending a coupon or reminder for items that need replacing, increasing the chance the customer will buy again. Customers shopping online may be able to see in-store inventory, allowing them to order an item online for in-store pickup, or check nearby stores in case of a timely need.
Effective post-purchase communication can reduce the need for customer support and help users get up to speed quickly. Say an appliance gets delivered and the buyer immediately gets an email with a quick video walking them through set-up, or a wearable device comes with a QR code users can scan to download the companion app and create an account.
With 67% of consumers using multiple channels to complete a single transaction and 40% saying they won’t do a business with a company if they can’t use their preferred channels, companies must focus on omnichannel strategy to remain competitive.
While omnichannel shopping became more popular during the pandemic, there are no signs consumers plan to return to pre-covid behavior. A recent Applause survey found that 58% of respondents plan to use more services like curbside pickup, BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store) and BORIS (buy online, return in-store), and 66% say they are more likely to shop with a brand if they offer omnichannel options.
Brands still have work to do to achieve seamless omnichannel experiences, however: 24% of Applause’s survey respondents who had used curbside pickup reported issues finding where to park in order to receive their item and/or had trouble identifying the option for curbside pickup on their digital device.
Ways to build a better omnichannel experience
Start by identifying different tasks customers may want to accomplish, then make sure users have the option to use their preferred channels for each task. The process and experience should be optimized to draw on each channel’s unique strengths. Consider what information customers need to move through the process easily at each stage and how to provide that information clearly and concisely.
For example, say you’re a restaurant chain offering customers the option to order online and pick up in-store. Do all of your online ordering systems allow customers to quickly choose a location, select a pick-up time from the available options at that location, and build an order? Can the customer enter special requests for each menu item, like omitting onions or adding cheese? What about overall instructions for the order, like a request for extra napkins or cutlery?
Moving on to payment, does the customer need to create an account (which may be a barrier) or can they check out as a guest? What payment options are available — and are the same options offered across all devices and channels? If a customer has loyalty points and can only redeem them through the app, they may be frustrated if that option isn’t available when checking out on your website. Once the order has been placed, does the customer get a confirmation with instructions on when and where to pick up the order? Does the physical location have clear signage so customers know where to go once they arrive?
Operational readiness is another crucial component in your omnichannel strategy. Your infrastructure, technology, processes and people all factor into your ability to deliver great omnichannel experiences. Comprehensive (and ongoing) employee training helps your brand deliver consistency and ensure that whether a customer is ordering a cup of coffee at 5 a.m. or 5 p.m., in Barcelona, Beijing, Boston or Buenos Aires, you meet their expectations.
Can your servers and hosts handle spikes in traffic due to sales and special events? Are your physical and digital spaces designed for ease of use? There’s a reason shopping carts are typically located near store entrances (in the digital realm, you’ll generally find them near website and app menus) — it’s what people find most efficient. When designing and evaluating your omnichannel experiences, focus on ease of use and meeting — or exceeding — customer expectations.
When you identify how to deliver consistent, streamlined customer journeys that draw on the strengths of each channel your customers use, you’re on your way to creating seamless omnichannel experiences.
Improving your omnichannel customer journeys
Most organizations have valuable data that can help them improve the omnichannel experience: customer and employee feedback, sales data, web and app analytics all serve as useful starting points. However, they don’t always tell the full story.
To thoroughly understand the customer experience, you need to evaluate how easy or difficult it is to complete a task via a particular channel in real-world conditions with real people who are your customers or reflect your customer demographic. In many cases, simply using the same devices, networks and operating systems as your customers isn’t enough. You need to test in the same situations as your customers to identify where friction or failure occurs.
For example, say you’re a retailer and a customer is trying to place an order... using voice commands while driving on a cross-country trip with the kids in the back seat. You better believe that customer wants to use the default payment method on file. It’s not enough to know that from a technical perspective, the app allows the customer to buy the items they want. You need to evaluate the purchasing experience using a specific device and network in conditions your QA team is unlikely to create in a lab.
Because omnichannel experiences can blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds, testing the customer journey across all channels — and assessing the transitions from one channel to another — is essential. Though designing consistent experiences that are uniquely optimized for each channel may seem repetitive or redundant, most customers will not see the brand’s efforts in that light. As each customer typically performs a task through their preferred channel, they only encounter what’s relevant to them, and they may be reluctant to switch to a different channel if they can’t easily accomplish their goals. For example, a customer that prefers to order via your app may not be willing to switch to the mobile website if the app isn’t working — they may choose to shop with a competitor instead.
Consider the different methods people can use to contact customer support. You may offer support via phone, email, and chat, and provide FAQs and troubleshooting guides on your website or app. To provide a great omnichannel experience, you need to ensure that each channel offers consistent answers, presented in ways that enable people to quickly find what they need. Your website and app may allow users to filter responses by product type or model number. Your chat and call center may use automation to capture data that helps route inquiries to the right service representative and provide details on the customer’s concern to help resolve matters quickly.
Based on the types of questions your support team encounters most frequently, you may change your workflows, products, processes and digital experiences to remove friction. Maybe you’re getting a spike in inquiries from customers who can’t find their loyalty points after your most recent app update. You could respond by sending an email letting customers know where to find their points, add a banner with that info to the app’s home screen, move the points to different section of the app, or do something else entirely — but to ensure a smooth omnichannel experience, you need to address the matter creating friction for your customers.
How to test your omnichannel experiences
Testing your omnichannel experiences lets you capture explicit data about what works well and where you have opportunities to improve. While you’ll want to start by testing functional elements of your website and apps to ensure that buttons work or that customers can adjust item quantities and payment methods, you’ll also need to conduct UX research. Unlike pass-fail type tests, assessing the UX for your omnichannel journeys calls for you to delve into more subjective territory, capturing data about user sentiment, expectations and preferences. UX research can uncover deep insight into what users think and feel about your products, services, and customer journeys.
The goal is to collect unbiased feedback with clear recommendations on how to make customer-first decisions and build experiences your target audiences love. Doing so, however, can be a challenge. Ultimately, you need to:
Understand how different customers experience the same journey.
Identify friction that leads to customer abandonment.
Test in the real world across all touchpoints and locations.
Gather feedback about multiple aspects of the omnichannel experience in a centralized way.
Let’s walk through how to accomplish each of these goals.
Understanding how different customers experience the same journey
Customer journeys can vary greatly based on each user’s location, demographics, environmental factors, technology, and more. Testing with users that match your customer profiles, you need to answer questions like:
How does the customer journey vary across different locations or channels?
Are there issues with certain devices, browsers, OSes or networks that cause problems for customers?
Do different customer types use touchpoints differently along their journeys?
Identifying friction points that lead customers to abandon purchases
Every customer journey is unique, resulting in lots of different journey combinations. Each journey includes many different friction points that can cause customers to drop off. Identifying these friction points can be challenging, but testing your omnichannel journeys in real-world scenarios can uncover the places where customers struggle most. Some questions to consider:
How and when do customers move between channels, and what problems occur when they switch?
Why did customers bail along the journey, and what were the friction points that led them to abandon? Did they encounter any technical issues/blockers, such as any issues around payments/checkout? Was there something confusing about the application layout/workflow?
Which experiences delighted customers and made them more loyal to your brand?
Testing in the real world across all touchpoints and locations
All kinds of environmental factors can impact a successful customer experience — and many of these can’t easily be replicated in a lab. Testing in the real world is the best way to reveal unexpected situations that create problems for customers. You may uncover issues that impact a particular segment of your customer base such as people with disabilities (PwD) or those using your app on a certain device or OS. Ask yourself:
Is the customer experience consistent across all channels: home, store, street, car and more? Does it vary across locations; for example, do some stores deliver a better experience than others? What can you learn from them?
Does personalization carry through multiple channels and environments?
Do internal silos across the business create a disconnected experience?
Centralizing feedback about multiple aspects of the experience
As you’re scaling testing and capturing results and feedback across multiple dimensions throughout the journey, it’s important to collect all that information in one place. This includes user experience feedback, functional bugs, operational readiness feedback and payment testing results. Bringing all the data together can help you recognize patterns, as well as prioritize issues that create the most substantial impact on your business and the customers’ omnichannel experience. Make sure you’re capturing answers to these questions:
Is the design intuitive and easy to use?
Do users experience functional bugs throughout the journey?
Is there continuity across channels?
Are payments being processed successfully?
Regardless of whether your customers interact with your brand solely via digital or both digitally and in the field, you need to thoroughly test omnichannel experiences. The best omnichannel testing plans look for functional bugs or payment issues within a combined digital and physical experience, examine UX through qualitative user feedback on ease-of-use, likes and dislikes, and opportunities for improvement. Ideally, UX and usability experts will analyze the results and provide recommendations on how to improve your omnichannel journeys.
Examples of effective omnichannel across industries
Customer support touches every industry, and it’s a crucial component of the omnichannel experience. Organizations must effectively engage with those seeking assistance to retain customers — especially those experiencing problems. Chat, IVR and voice have taken on greater importance as companies work to streamline service functions without sacrificing the quality of support they provide.
Consumers increasingly expect businesses to have automated chatbots and automated voice systems. In one recent Applause community survey with 6,689 responses, 31% of respondents said they always expect companies to have chatbots and another 61% said it depended on the industry. Only 6.7% stated they never expect chat functionality on a company’s website or app, while 11% don’t expect call centers to have IVR systems that greet them. Still, customers expect IVR more often than not: 46% always expect call centers to have IVR systems that greet them while another 40% said their expectations varied by industry.
Users expect mobile apps to include voice functionality as well: the same survey revealed that 44% of respondents always expect mobile apps to have voice assistants or voice search features while 41% said it depends on the app category. It’s not enough to simply have the options customers expect — they must work intuitively, providing the choices customers want and responding to their requests appropriately. Organizations must thoroughly vet their customer support chatbots, voice assistants, and IVR systems to ensure they contribute to a great omnichannel experience.
While certain types of interactions are common across most businesses, every industry has its own set of challenges and concerns about the omnichannel experience. Let’s explore some crucial focal points for retail, banking, media and entertainment, and travel and hospitality.
Omnichannel retail experiences
Retailers today must cater to the ways shoppers move across channels. Someone may research an item on a tablet through your mobile website on public wi-fi, check local availability and order for in-store pickup on a desktop or laptop on secure wi-fi, then check order status and pick up the order using your mobile app on a carrier’s network. At every touchpoint, online or in-store, the experience must flow smoothly.
Retailers are making significant investments to meet current and future e-commerce needs. Rather than neglecting more traditional retail experiences, savvy brands are working to ensure greater consistency and continuity of experience across brick-and-mortar shops, online and omnichannel experiences. E-commerce functionality like wish lists, product recommendations, order tracking and online account management with the ability to store multiple payment methods and shipping addresses must complement great in-store experiences.
Buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup saw tremendous growth over the last few years. One study found that among Top 500 retailers with stores, curbside pickup grew more than 500% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020. Buy online, return in store (BORIS) has become more popular as well. But for these offerings to add value for retailers, they must flow smoothly for customers.
To test your BOPIS and curbside pickup experiences, make sure that customers can easily choose their preferred option, whether shopping on your website or via app. Some of the same considerations apply for ship to store. Can customers select the most convenient store for pickup? Can they easily find where to go once they arrive at the store? Is there clear guidance on how to quickly retrieve the order? Do both online and offline parts of the process unfold without any obstacles?
Endless aisle technology can help save the sale when an item is out of stock, but again, it must be thoroughly tested to make sure that inventory updates properly and workflows between stores function correctly. Without validation that a store can successfully fulfill orders from other locations, endless aisle can introduce friction and the potential for dissatisfied shoppers rather than easing customer pain points.
With virtual digital assistants and voice commerce gaining traction — especially among Gen Z shoppers — retailers who offer a great voice experience are positioned to capture a significant market advantage. Carefully test the way your app integrates with popular voice assistants to ensure customers can easily shop and order via voice.
Omnichannel banking experiences
Checking balances, viewing statements, paying bills and transferring funds have become standard for online banking. Customers expect to be able to do more without visiting a branch or speaking to an employee — they want to set travel alerts, and apply for credit cards, loans and mortgages online. When they do contact a financial institution, either via phone or chat, they expect automated prompts to help them quickly resolve issues or connect with an employee who can rectify the problem.
Mobile check deposits skyrocketed during the pandemic and show no signs of slowing down. Customers have little patience for technical challenges during mobile deposits; most people expect to be able to snap a few photos of a check and get confirmation that their deposit has been accepted. If something doesn't work, cryptic error messages won’t do much to improve the situation — customers want to understand exactly what went wrong and how to fix the issue.
Account management portals must be intuitive, along with credit card and loan application processes. Customers need to understand — and be able to submit — supporting documentation, and know where to locate communication about the status of their applications. Credit and debit card activations should be simple and frictionless as well. The option to approve or decline potentially fraudulent transactions using SMS or phone, either via voice commands or keypad, is another opportunity for banks to deliver effective omnichannel experiences.
Cardless ATMs are on the rise, allowing consumers to withdraw funds using a one-time code through an app or near-field communication with a mobile wallet. Short response times matter here; customers don’t want to wait for their cash. The technology must also accommodate a variety of devices, including mobile phones and smartwatches.
Around the world, mobile payments are becoming more popular. Financial institutions must make sure their accounts, credit and debit cards work with various mobile wallets and peer-to-peer payment apps.
Omnichannel media and entertainment experiences
Media has become overwhelmingly digital. Books, newspapers and magazines no longer rely solely on print formats; people stream music, TV shows and movies on-demand while on the go, and the vast majority of ticket sales for events occur online. Delivering a great omnichannel experience in media has become more challenging than ever. As direct to consumer (DTC) content becomes increasingly important to media and entertainment companies, they must learn to effectively manage parts of the customer journey previously handled by distribution networks.
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Media and entertainment providers must ensure they can seamlessly deliver multiplatform experiences, including in-car entertainment. Users expect to be able to consume content across various devices with the number of smart TVs, OTT set-top boxes, bluetooth/wireless speakers and connected devices exploding, media providers have an uphill climb to make sure they deliver seamless experiences at every possible touchpoint.
Mobile tickets for events have become the new norm, allowing ticket issuers to eliminate printing and mailing costs. Buyers expect to be able to easily access — and in some cases, print — their tickets from a range of devices. Problems with mobile tickets can create logistical nightmares for both venues and ticket-holders. Through testing is key to ensure a smooth experience.
Media and entertainment providers offer voice applications to improve the customer experience, making it easy to find programming or control the entertainment experience. Whether a user is searching for a podcast episode in the car, pausing a streaming video while cooking, or accessing a saved program, voice integrations must work as expected to keep subscribers from getting frustrated.
Omnichannel travel and hospitality experiences
The travel and hospitality industry has to deliver top-notch, intuitive digital experiences for customers on the go. In a recent survey, 63% of respondents said the apps they use have been helpful in managing recent travel challenges such as cancellations, delays, or closures. Travelers rely on apps to keep all their information in one place, integrate with payment methods, and communicate about reservations, conformations, changes and delays. The ability to seamlessly manage reservations and transportation on the go is paramount.
Mobile tickets and boarding passes must work properly — even in situations with limited connectivity — to keep customers satisfied. Ensuring travelers can access their tickets and boarding passes across a wide array of devices is critical for transportation providers. Mobile check-in is another component of the omnichannel travel and hospitality journey that must work smoothly to encourage customer loyalty.
Mobile keys provide guests a convenient and secure way to access their rooms and other amenities. Hotel operators must be confident they offer access to the appropriate areas for registered guests and that access ends at checkout.
What’s next in omnichannel
Organizations looking to deliver seamless omnichannel experiences need to relentlessly seek out and eliminate points of friction along the customer journey, even as new channels and methods to connect with customers emerge. Digital-first strategies that put the customer front and center will become more critical than ever as the metaverse gains popularity. Rigorous customer journey and user experience testing is essential to optimize the omnichannel experience at every touchpoint.
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