The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Omni-Channel Equals Customer Centricity

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A couple of random events collided for me in the last couple of weeks, and it jolted me enough that I think it is a good reminder for anyone interested in the future of omni-channel.

Omni-channel is not, as you might believe, all about merging channels into one cohesive brand experience from the customer’s perspective. If you are pursuing omni-channel strategies with that thought in mind, I’m here to tell you that you’re going about it the wrong way.

Omni-channel is about customer centricity. Putting the customer at the center of the business, and redesigning your business from that center outward to enable a consistent experience through whichever touchpoints that customer chooses to use to engage with you.

Remember customer centricity? It was a popular term a little over ten years ago, when Best Buy drew a line in the sand and said they were going to redesign their company around the customer experience. This was years before omni-channel entered the retail vocabulary, and even before “multi-channel” was really a thing. At the time, the company (along with a lot of other electronics big box retailers) was getting its lunch eaten by Walmart.

Best Buy realized that it was not going to win on lowest price – even at its scale, it had nothing on Walmart. And also realized that the low cost model prevented Walmart from investing in certain aspects of the customer experience that would be important to a lot of electronics purchasers. For example, help in choosing the right TV. Home delivery and/or installation. Back in 2003, Best Buy placed a big bet that some shoppers – not all, but certainly the ones they wanted – would be willing to pay a little bit more for good service and reliable help. They redesigned stores, they made big internal investments, and they did it all recognizing, yes even as far back as 2003, that technology was going to change how consumers shopped and this big redesign of the company was going to position Best Buy to compete in that changed world.

Now, I won’t comment on Best Buy’s rocky road. I would definitely argue that the company has not stuck very hard to its prescient vision of the future. And that their success or failure is not the result of a customer centric strategy, now or even in the near past.

But every time I get asked the question: What does the future hold for omni-channel? Where is all this headed? I think of Best Buy’s vision of the future.

Omni-channel is turning a corner. In 2013, it shifted from a lot of talk and theorizing about what needed to be done to down and dirty work by retailers to make strategy into reality. In 2014, we saw another distinct shift, from a focus on customer to a focus on supply chain. I sense a certain amount of frustration out there, that change is not happening fast enough, that a lot of change seems only to be keeping the business afloat instead of carving out new differentiation and growth opportunities. That each new touchpoint added only spreads around the same consumer demand, just now across a larger, more complex set of touchpoints.

It’s easy to get lost in the mire. It’s way too easy, especially as retailers move from customer to supply chain, to forget that there is a customer at the end of that supply chain, and she is eagerly awaiting her order – and may judge whether to continue her loyalty to you based on how well this order is handled.

So here’s my challenge to you, whether vendor, retailer, or consultant. If you hear questions like “Who owns the customer experience?” or “Who gets the sales credit for a cross-channel order?” or some other variation on internal wrangling over ownership of customer-oriented processes, I want you to stop the conversation and take a deep breath. Because you’re asking the wrong questions. You should instead be asking “What customer problem are we solving here?” and “How does the process help us demonstrate that we care about and value our customers?”

As retailers navigate the maze of changing customer expectations and capabilities, the one reliable map will be the one that stays focused on adding value to your customers’ lives. When you maintain that focus, then knowing where to invest and how to prioritize it becomes ridiculously easy. Does it help our customers? Does it add value to their lives?

If you can answer those questions honestly, then you are well on your way to delivering an omni-channel strategy. Because the road to omni-channel is through customer centricity. Without that focus on the customer, it will be only too easy to lose your way.

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Articles & Opinions November 4, 2014
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