Key Principles for Optimizing the Omni-Channel Experience

User Experience / Customer Experience

For the past few years, companies have paid a tremendous amount of attention to touch devices, especially mobile phones. And over the years, companies have been investing heavily on interacting with their customers through a myriad of new digital and offline channels.

Kenneth Lee
April 14th 2017

For the past few years, companies have paid a tremendous amount of attention to touch devices, especially mobile phones. And over the years, companies have been investing heavily on interacting with their customers through a myriad of new digital and offline channels.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear that companies are hiring for large delivery teams for various digital channels such as mobile apps, social media, SEO and other various web projects. Businesses realize that the means in which customers interact with their brand is proliferating greatly.

For example, here’s a list of channels that have become major touchpoints where the customer interacts with a brand:

  1. Social media
  2. Search engines
  3. Websites
  4. Microsites
  5. Mobile apps
  6. Mobile alerts
  7. Television
  8. Call centers
  9. Live chat
  10. Kiosks
  11. Physical locations
  12. Physical mail
  13. Email
  14. Text messages
  15. Voice (such as Alexa)
  16. Wearables
  17. The internet of things

A growing problem for many organizations is that these emerging channels have been built in silos, and as a result, often feel disconnected. Many customers are often frustrated that business policies are less favorable on certain channels. Also, branding, messaging, and UI patterns are inconsistent across the various channels and are therefore difficult for customers to engage with. Even customers of large and well-respected retailers can begin their journey on one channel (for example, adding items to a shopping cart) but cannot continue their journey on another channel.

In this article, I want to provide a few principles that can help us build a cohesive omni-channel (a.k.a. multi-channel) experience. Here are four principles for optimizing the omni-channel experience:

  1. Think holistically
  2. Get serious about empathy
  3. Focus on all touchpoints
  4. Leverage each channel’s strength

1. Think Holistically

Be Seamless Across All Channels

A few months ago, I did a small experiment on a major retailer’s omni-channel experience. I opened my laptop and started shopping for a shirt and sweater using the retailer’s website. I then added three items to my shopping cart. At this point, I created an account and then tried to complete my purchase on their mobile website using my phone. What I discovered is that the items I’d put in my shopping cart when using my laptop were not on my mobile cart—even though I was logged in on both devices.

Curious, I tried to do the opposite. I added items to my cart on the mobile website and then checked my shopping cart on the desktop site. Keep in mind I was logged in to both of the websites with the same login credentials. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find the items I’d just added to my shopping cart using the mobile website.

I then repeated this test with the mobile app. Sure enough, none of the items I’d added to my shopping cart using either the desktop or mobile website were there.

I reluctantly decided to purchase my items as an “in-store pick-up” on my laptop. I was reluctant because there was no indication when the items would be ready. After receiving the post-purchase email, I was disappointed to discover that there were no timelines or even estimates of when I could pick up the items. Four days later, I finally received an email that my items were ready for pickup. When I went to the store, I diligently looked for signage for in-store pickups but couldn’t find it posted anywhere. I then turned to my phone to check my emails and saw that I needed to go to the Customer Service area in the back of the store. When I got there, I still had to wait another five minutes to get my shirt and sweater.

Before you say this is a horrible company, I want to point out that each individual channel was good. The website was usable, the mobile app was intuitive, and the store was nice too. So, what happened? It was a terrible holistic experience across the channels. How is it that a multi-billion-dollar retailer does not deliver a seamless digital shopping experience? It’s likely because each channel was built and is maintained by different delivery teams and is sponsored by different stakeholders.

To deliver a seamless experience across many channels, a few things are needed:

  1. Make sure your design considerations go beyond the channel. They need to include the observed behaviors of people on multiple devices, in various places, with changing mindsets, activities, etc. They also need to consider how each channel supports the other channels.
  2. Break down silos. Silos exist in our way of thinking—between business units and even between project delivery teams—and they manifest themselves in fractured customer experiences. Communication silos need to be broken down, and customer goals need to be united. This topic is big enough to warrant a blog post (or even a book) of its own, so I can’t go into detail about how break down silos. I’ll simply note that some businesses have successfully shifted their organization to align with customer experience by staffing team members according to logical clusters of customer experiences across all channels. Other organizations employ overseers in various disciplines to ensure consistency across various projects and channels. Many organizations are also engaging in Customer Journey workshops to help employees see customer experiences outside the silos of each channel. These are all excellent signs that the silos are coming down.
  3. Focus on touchpoints across all channels. This is something I’ll elaborate on below, so please keep reading.
  4. Get serious about empathy

This is a really big deal. What is empathy? I like Mirriam-Webster’s online second definition, which reads “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Businesses are taking this matter of empathy very seriously because they realize that new disruptive business models are better at identifying with their customer’s feelings, thoughts and experiences. I doubt anyone would argue that positive experiences do not lead to repeat behavior.

I found it intriguing that Harvard Business Review has been ranking how empathetic companies are. Here’s a few companies that were in the top 10 in the past couple years*:

  1. Facebook
  2. Tesla Motors
  3. Google
  4. Netflix
  5. Apple
  6. Amazon

What do all these companies have in common? They are disrupters in the marketplace. They are shaking up even the way we live our lives through creating great experiences on many different online and offline channels. This ranking sheds some light: companies that really empathize with customers and employees are disrupting the way we live and make purchases.

Take Amazon, one of the most disruptive companies on the earth. In another Harvard Business Review study, they ranked 61st place in a list of the most empathetic companies.** I can think of some reasons why they ranked so low, but I’d also argue that they are still very good at empathizing with what the customer needs and wants. What makes Amazon so successful is that they really deliver the right experience at the right time with the right channel. Among other things, they optimize your homepage with things you are interested in, their emails give validation and accurately set expectations, their text messages are informative and timely. They may not be the nicest employer on the planet, but it’s hard to deny that they create and foster excellent customer touchpoints.

This would have been impossible if they hadn’t employed the principle of empathy towards their customers.

3. Focus on All Touchpoints

I’ve been in countless meetings that start off reviewing the home page of a website and walk through page flows of a “perfectly-designed” world. The problem often is that the customers we design for don’t live in our world. They live in their world.

Thinking multi-channel means we empathize and “put ourselves into our customer’s shoes.” This means we should imagine and research all the ways our customers will interact with a brand, including the times they do so even before they arrive at our web property or physical store. This includes going to a search engine first, reading a rave on Facebook, seeing an ad, or driving past a storefront.

When people visit a shop, they are often still on their phones. When someone receives an email, they may first glance at it as a notification on their phone and later read the details on their laptop. The scenarios are endless. All of them demonstrate that a customer’s touchpoints don’t look like the beautifully designed guided tours we talk about when we design them. They look like incredibly complex and interrelated spider webs.

Focusing on all touchpoints requires principle number two—Empathy. We need to learn to consider customers and users from their point of view, not ours. Making money is still our goal, but we must realize that disruptive money-making companies have nearly without exception internalized and put into practice the principle of empathy. They are meeting real customer’s needs at real touchpoints.

4. Leverage Each Channel’s Strength

Customers expect different things from different channels. They expect that the notifications we get on our phone won’t be demanding. They expect websites to be somewhat comprehensive. They expect mobile apps to give them a critical feature they can’t get on the website.

Below are some strengths of a few of the channels I mentioned above:

  1. Social media: ubiquitous and centered around sharing
  2. Search engines: how customers typically find stuff
  3. Websites: great places to complete complex tasks
  4. Mobile apps: portable tools that harness the power of NFC, Bluetooth, camera, microphone, geolocation, accelerometers. As such, apps are one of the most important uniting factor between so many channels. Here’s a few examples:
    • At a store: Customers can pay or scan products for more information
    • At home: Customers can remotely control lights, the garage door, thermostat, etc.
    • On your body: Your watch still relies on it.
    • At the workplace: An HVAC technician can bar code scan a unit to quickly find replacement parts for his admin to follow up on at the office.
    • At the mobile office: Deskless workers with no computer can clock-in and stay connected to electronic communications
  5. Mobile alerts: help you reach your audience super fast
  6. Televisions: information radiators for people walking by or lounging
  7. Call centers: personal but expensive
  8. Physical locations: still preferred by lots of customers, and can be enhanced with other channels, especially mobile
  9. Physical mail or print: gives your customer a sense of value and can be saved
  10. Email: a wonderful way to provide validation, updates, and opportunities
  11. Text messages: ideal for informing or notifying customers quickly
  12. The internet of things: can be extremely powerful because they can incorporate new sensors for humidity, temperature, vibrations, sounds, ambient light etc. and provide the means for predictive data.

Wrap Up

Further developing the myriad of digital and offline channels capabilities has been quite an adventure. Now more than ever, learning to optimize how all these channels form one seamless customer experience is becoming increasingly important. Each company’s path will vary greatly, but I hope the principles I’ve given here can be applied to transforming your digital landscape.

  1. The Most (and Least) Empathetic Companies”. Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/11/2015-empathy-index, Accessed 22 Mar. 2017
  2. The Most Empathetic Companies, 2016”. Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/12/the-most-and-least-empathetic-companies-2016 , Accessed 22 Mar. 2017