The 360-degree customer
Engaging with customers on their terms - the omni-channel approach.
If a monument was constructed to celebrate the early 21st century, it should depict the assertive consumer. Today's consumers have gone from passive to empowered. Whereas companies used to control brands, today that power increasingly lies with the public. Although a social media campaign has yet to destroy a major brand, controlling that brand perception is much harder. In the past, a major soft drinks company may gain ground with a nice ad that tells us, 'We are the world'. Today, it does so by offering near-personalised cans with names on them and encouraging us all to #ShareaCoke, a campaign that grew its sales by two percent.
Meanwhile, traditional advertising suffers under the yoke of excessive costs and a fracturing audience. TV, radio and print are seeing their fortunes eroded by streaming video, podcasts and aggregated digital content. Yet at the same time, new marketing platforms don't quite bring the same punch to the table. A well-timed Nando's ad still strikes the hot iron when it goes out on broadcast channels to satirise a recent headline. Digital media then steps in to give it legs.
As much as the death of old marketing has been heralded, it's simply not true. Instead, the real change is the enormous power consumers are beginning to wield. As marketing guru Clark Kokich told Forbes, customers now want an experience with their favoured brand.
Touching all bases
Thus the concept of the omni-channel is born. Although rooted in marketing, it encompasses an entire business, proclaiming that a brand's success is tied to engaging customers at all levels and throughout the process. Omni-channel is the very antithesis of 'build it and they will come'.
"Customers have a lot of choice, so it's quite tough to keep in touch," says Yaron Assabi, founder of DSG. "Unless you can get a single customer view, you may miss out on opportunities or converting a marketing message into a transaction. Omni-channel is about communicating with customers where they are."
The principle of omni-channel is that a brand strategy should cover the channels that its consumers use. This doesn't mean having a presence everywhere, but rather finding the places where specifi c consumers are, then targeting them across those channels in a consistent and appropriate manner.
Returning to semi-personalised Coke cans, the soft drink giant did not discard advertising on TV, radio and print. But it also used social media platforms to solidify its message. There is no doubt Coke carefully scrutinised the data on which named cans sold well where, then adjusted its logistics to reinforce those sales. Given the success of its campaign, it's fair to speculate that Coke trained call centre staff and used targeted market research to help gather preferred names. It even released apps to help spread the word.
The holistic approach
Unfortunately, omni-channel is not something that can simply be added to a business. In the past, there was a level of separation between a company's operations and the branding it put forward. But modern consumers expect brand engagement on every level, pushing companies to take a broader approach on how it reciprocates.
The modern customer is quite vocal - if you start digging, you start seeing what the customer is thinking.Andre Steenkamp, 25AM
So everything - from ad campaign to call centre to back-room parts supplier - is expected to represent.
Omni-channel is growing more vital for brands, but is it easy to initiate? Do you rely on broadcast media's vast reputation? Do you jump onto the Facebook bandwagon? Do you order an app?
The first step is to find out where your audience hangs around. 25AM's CEO Andre Steenkamp recommends using social media tools to gain a snapshot: "Put out keywords or brand searches to get an idea of what the consumer is saying about your company. The modern customer is quite vocal - if you start digging in those conversations, you start seeing what the customer is thinking. Within that, you can discover the value of radio, TV, online ads and other channels."
Unfortunately, social media has also made some marketing lazy. Facebook and its peers were seen as easy ways to interact with audiences and up a brand's value. The focus stayed on how many followers could be gained. But this is not the same as a conversation with customers.
"Some brands were getting it right, but many thought they should build 'likes' and have a big fan page," says Gil Sperling, CTO at Popimedia. "So if you had a certain amount of likes, you tick the box and think you've beaten your competitor."
Modern consumers expect far more than that wherever interaction is required: a dormant social media page or a contact centre that doesn't have the answers only damages a brand. Hence the need for omni-channel to be a thorough engagement from the initial message through to after-sales support. This also places a lot of emphasis on staff being trained and ready for such consumer expectations.
"What's important is for you to expose your customer-facing staff to various media, and for that, you need a broader skills base," says Dr Madelise Grobler, MD of Bytes People Solutions. "There used to be very distinct skillsets that are now merging in call centres. Nobody wants to call two or three different places. The person expects the agent to give them all the answers. It requires a broader skillset and different individuals. So you need to constantly upskill and develop your agents."
A customer's journey may have started at a TV ad, found momentum while doing research on Facebook, made initial contact through e-mail and then approached the company through a phone call. In that scenario, no single channel trumps another, so it's vital to engage the right platforms. Technology makes this possible, but cannot lead the charge.
What's important is for you to expose your customer-facing staff to various media and for that you need a broader skills base.Madelise Grobler, Bytes People Solutions
"It's more about the technology working for your business," says Ivano Stipcevich, head of Digital Signage Networks at Global Access. "You shouldn't change your business to suit the technology. But at the same time, your business must be flexible to embrace the technology that suits your requirements."
Growing reach organically
Yet omni-channel is not something that is simply bolted on. It envelopes the entire company, creating a foundation for how a business interacts with and is represented to its consumers. A true omni-channel experience gives a 360-degree view of the customer, blending branding with leads, support and new offers.
It can be a game-changer, but implementing omni-channel wholesale would be very disruptive. Approach it instead as a marketing initiative. But it cannot remain that way - engagement has to be on all levels. Says Sperling: "Marketing is your initial touchpoint. The feedback and continuous loop happens as customer support kicks in. They are separate, but both need to be done. Your customer is there, always."
Omni-channel is not a marketing strategy, but a business transformer. It requires buy-in from the top down and the cooperation of multiple departments. For example, if marketing and sales teams aren't on the same page, it's the consumer who will notice. As such, companies must be prepared to see the strategy through, not implement and forget. This is particularly important when it comes to the oft-overlooked area of staff training and soft skills, says Grobler:
"It's one thing to train, but follow-through is key: how do you enforce what you want and make it sustainable learning over time? You want to create brand ambassadors and that needs to be tied into the larger employee value proposition."
Omni-channel starts as a way for a brand to meet the expectations of its followers. A consumer may see a billboard, become reinforced while watching TV, research on a website and then visit that branch for the actual transaction. Along the way, they may ask questions on social media or through a contact centre. During all of this, there is an expectation of consistency. In return, companies move from throwing messages at their clients to having an ongoing relationship. It creates a type of agility never seen before.
Today, you can buy a can of Coke with your name on it. It wasn't custom-made just for you, yet it feels personal and relevant. That is the magic of omni-channel.
This article was first published in the [February 2016] edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.