Omnichannel: Bad word, critical concept

When planning customer-facing strategies, businesses must develop customer experiences that are seamlessly connected, informed by previous interactions, and characterized by consistent information across all channels. Marriott's Rich Toohey explains how it's done.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

You probably noticed that I'm heads down into the Watchlist reviews right now. I've written several and have a little more than half to go. Before you get overwhelmed by companies that won the Watchlist, I want to give you a bit of a break - but an important one. I'm having a guest tell you about omnichannel in what might be the most cogent explanation to date of that horribly named but necessary concept.

The guest post is penned by a repeat visitor - Rich Toohey, vice president of Marriott Rewards at, good guess, Marriott International. You may remember him from his post of a few weeks ago where he made a really well-received case on the value of seeing both the digital and the physical when it came to engagement.

The following piece is every bit as cogent and vibrant. Omnichannel is the order of the day when it comes to interaction/communication strategy for customer engagement. We've progressed well beyond the days when a company had to figure out which single channel the customer preferred to communicate on. Now, as Rich points out, it's all of them.

So take it away, Monsieur Toohey.

A key customer engagement tenet making the rounds these days is that organizations must implement an omnichannel solution. Understandably, this has created a tremendous amount of organizational interest and focus - as well as confusion - about what an omnichannel solution really means. If an enterprise allows customers to interact across a variety of channels, isn't that good enough? Not necessarily.

Let's start with the definitional basics. According to Dictionary.com, 'omni' means "a combining form meaning 'all' used in the formation of compound words". It follows then that omnichannel means 'all channels'. Rest assured that most organizations have all their channel-bases covered: Whether a customer prefers transacting on the web, via mobile, or by contacting a call center, customers can typically expect to interact with a company via their preferred channel. So far, so good.

However, allowing a customer to interact across all channels may be a multi-channel vs. omnichannel solution. What's the difference? An omnichannel solution means that customer interactions are seamless and connected; they're informed by prior dealings with the customer; and that the customer receives consistent information across all channels. This is a high bar that trips many organizations; in fact, it's more typical for organizations to provide a multi-channel solution.

Why is it so important to extend the added effort and implement an omni- vs. multi- channel solution? The answer begins and ends with customers. Customers today are increasingly 'mobile', quite demanding, educated about purchase choices, and interact when it's convenient using their preferred channels; in a nutshell, consumers are in control.

And fair or not, it's no longer enough to just benchmark relative to your industry or category. Consumer expectations are now shaped by their experiences with the very best providers regardless of category including how these organizations deliver true omnichannel experiences.

There's an adage that customers don't care what department someone works in within an organization, they just want that individual to solve their problem. Considering that idea through an omnichannel lens, regardless of what channel a customer chooses, they want an outcome that meets their need.

A recent weekend task illustrates the importance of creating omnichannel solutions. The set-top cable box for our basement TV needed to be replaced. Using my laptop, I signed into our account on the cable company website to read about replacement options. While there was a choice of initiating the box exchange at a nearby package shipment store, my preference was to complete the switch that same day so I decided to drive a bit further and return the old unit to the cable service center.

The service center representative quickly accessed my account information, processed the new box transaction, and provided me with self-activation instructions. Upon returning home, I connected the box and called their IVR to complete the activation. After a self-service replacement experience traversing three different channel options and about an hour of my time, I was again ready to enjoy some college basketball.

How do you get to omnichannel? A great place to start is to thoroughly understand what customers experience across a range of needs and situations; this is essentially a 'journey mapping' exercise. This effort will allow you to determine what it's really like for a customer to interact with your organization whether on the website, using your mobile app, or contacting your call center team. Can I quickly locate desired information? What happens if I need help? Is the experience effortless or will the customer experience friction points throughout the process? Only by viewing your process through the eyes and perspective of a customer can you understand and design a true omnichannel solution.

Starbucks serves a great example of an omnichannel experience. If a customer wants to check the balance or reload their Starbucks card, they can do so when visiting one of the ubiquitous coffee shops, by phone on Starbucks website or can be managed using the Starbucks app. Furthermore, any purchases, rewards earned, or balance changes are updated immediately allowing the customer to transact or be recognized across Starbucks channels.

How Marriott Rewards enables members to track their Elite status progress provides another straightforward omnichannel example. Like many other loyalty programs, Marriott Rewards members meet qualification thresholds to earn or renew different status levels: Silver (10 nights annually), Gold (50 nights annually) or Platinum (75 nights annually) Elite status. Members may choose to check their Elite status progress through the Marriott mobile app, using My Account on Marriott.com, by contacting our Guest Services team or by scanning the account box embedded within email communications. Regardless of 'how', the experience must seamlessly provide consistent information.

Many organizations are talking quite a bit about employing omnichannel solutions as part of their drive to increase customer engagement. However, for those that desire to move beyond the 'talk' to the 'walk', they must develop customer experiences that are seamlessly connected, informed by previous interactions, and characterized by consistent information across all channels ... in essence, these organizations must implement true omnichannel solutions.

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