The 2014 holiday shopping season most likely is but a dim memory, but worth recalling is the Washington Post report noting something different about the retailer experience this time around: “The customers visiting their stores often started browsing long before they showed up, and for many, their actual purchase will happen long after.”

The customer journey, in other words, is starting earlier in the buying process. As the Corporate Executive Board found in its research, 57% of the buying process takes place prior to the first interaction with sales.

Throughout the stages of the customer journey, from the time customers become aware of a need and begin their research to the time they make a decision and take action, they interact across a wide breadth of touchpoints. Post purchase, customers continue to interact when they need service and when friends and associates seek their input as they embark on their own customer journeys. Turning customers into advocates who generate positive word of mouth, often via social media, is invaluable.

The goal of an omnichannel experience is to give consumers a single view of your brand across physical and online channels. Omnichannel is more than e-commerce. As Ariel Luedi, CEO of Hybris Software (now an SAP company), told InformationWeek, we shouldthink of customer transactions simply as commerce and not by technology silo -- i.e., digital transactions here and conventional transactions there. Customers should be able to start a transaction online, then place a call to the contact center without having to start from scratch. That promotional price quoted in an email offer should not be news to the store clerk or contact center service rep. And if a customer buys something online he should be able to return it at the store without a problem, Luedi told InformationWeek.

The importance of understanding the omnichannel experience began in retail because of the quantifiable and dramatic impact it can have getting online shoppers to click "buy." This is a huge issue, with the estimated shopping cart abandonment rate for 2014 at 68.07%, according to Baymard Institute. With stakes so large, retailers are developing strategies to address these demands and provide the customer with a seamless shopping experience whether shopping online from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone, or in a brick-and-mortar store.

E-commerce retailers also have found that by offering phone and Web chat they can boost customer confidence and provide assurance during the buying process. Adding these two channels of communications has directly resulted in reducing shopping cart abandonment. As organizations blend their contact center and e-commerce environments, they will need to develop full multichannel communications.

Even though omnichannel initiatives started with shopper targets, it's important to note that customer engagement affects all companies, not just retailers.

The key to delivering an optimal customer experience is having a highly integrated infrastructure platform like SAP’s Hybris. At the nucleus is a common database (master data) of customer and business data (ERP and CRM) that supports e-commerce and website interactions along with multichannel communications. The result?  Omnichannel communications.

The Holy Grail is when companies combine the output of these data streams in integrated reports that document the customer journey and give organizations proactive and actionable data to maximize the customer experience.

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