We are living in a time of rapid and disruptive technological breakthroughs. Recent technologies and approaches including Blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), Smart Devices and Cloud Computing are fundamentally changing the way we carry out our business and the way systems and people communication with one another. The ubiquity of social networks, easy and constant access to the Internet, maturity of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, together with availability of mobile devices and sensor-equipped vehicles, all enable us to communicate seamlessly, perform computations and offer services that seemed unlikely or unpractical a few decades ago.
Today, companies and governments face a great deal of opportunities in software, hardware, and network infrastructures to offer services via new communication channels and improve their customer journeys and user experiences. By wisely employing novel and applicable technologies for their customer service, large corporations can improve internal processes, reporting mechanisms and quality of service at surprisingly little cost. Such a transformation not only increases customer satisfaction and reduces costs, but also creates new venues to offer previously impossible services to customers, employees, or citizens.
To establish a mutual understanding of what omni-channel may be, let us consider a hypothetical case to differentiate between multi-channel companies and omni-channel ones.
Imagine a customer would like to obtain a certain document from her insurance company, and a digital (pdf) version would suffice.
Scenario 1 (questionable as-is)
She looks up the website, however, there is no self-service available to request the desired document online. She sends an email, however, receives a typical response that this very service should be requested by mail or phone call. She calls customer service from her cellphone, waits for 30 minutes listening to annoying monotonous music, and after finally reaching an agent, the call is disconnected a few minutes into the conversation. She calls again, waits another considerable amount of time, and is connected to a new agent, who has no idea whatsoever what her problem is and whom she previously talked to. He has no access to the email she previously sent, since they land in another department and are stored in a different system. Ultimately, the agent understands the problem, initiates the process so that she can receive the requested document a few weeks later by regular mail. She then has to scan it herself to get a PDF file. No wonder that in this scenario, having had enough, she cancels her contract and seeks services from a more technologically competent company.
Scenario 2 (desired to-be)
Our same customer looks up the website and does not find a form to request the document in the first few seconds. She clicks on the “Chat” button and an agent informs her that her case is too specific and needs to be requested by email or phone call. But he can also do this for her. There is a button “call me” on the website and within the chat window. She clicks on it, chooses the option “asap” (she can also choose a certain time of day), and within a few minutes an agent calls her on her cellphone, already knowing her problem because of the chat history. After 10 minutes she receives an email with a link to the desired document in her postbox on the company’s customer portal (because such sensitive documents cannot be attached to emails due to privacy concerns). She logs into the portal, downloads the document. Consequently she receives an automatic feedback questionnaire so that she can express herself and provide constructive feedback if necessary. The lady feels extremely happy about how smooth it all went.
Obviously, she talks about this experience with her friends, resulting in some of them quitting their “Scenario-1” company and joining this innovative insurance. To their delight, they discover that not only this new company offers better, faster and more respectful customer service, but its products are also cheaper. Jackpot!
So, what makes all the difference? How can a company provide faster and smarter services with higher quality, AND be more cost-effective at the same time? What about the classic Triple Constraint of “time, budget and scope” that we all learned and naively believed at school? The answer is that the proposed constraint model either forgets about processes and technologies or assumes these two dimensions to be fixed variables. Smart companies, who tweak and optimize their processes and employ suitable technologies to support them (and vice versa), end up breaking that doomed triangle (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Insufficiency of the Triangle Constraint
To humanity’s dismay, there is still a significant number of Scenario-1 companies, particularly in slower and tightly regulated industries including, but not limited to, the financial sector. Large corporations often have difficulties embracing and adopting new technologies. This can have a variety of reasons ranging from legal complexities, transformation angst, risk avoidance and the mentality of “don’t touch a running system”, working unions stopping any innovation that may risk jobs, etc. However, no matter what the underlying reasons may be for treating their customers with outdated practices and technologies, fundamental transformation is long overdue. And companies that refuse to go down the right path may be in danger of losing the competition to agile and progressive “exponential organizations” sooner or later.
A 21st century customer, being used to instant gratifications of modern companies, wants to be able to use any communication device at her disposal to contact her company or search for products and receive proper services (see Figure 1). She expects customer service to know all her past communications and requests and spare her the agony of repeating herself. And she wants to get the desired service fast, if not automatically and instantly.
An overview of possible communication tools and channels as of 2020 is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 – Omni-channel communication: channels and tools
Companies should already start envisioning an infrastructure that would support communication with smart assistance devices (e.g. Siri, Alexa, etc.). For example, a modern communication platform provides necessary infrastructure for a customer to ask Alexa or Bixby to schedule an appointment regarding a certain topic with a service provider. Handling this request that comes from a smart device instead of a person, categorizing and routing it to the right group and automatically finding an appointment with the right person and updating his/her calendar and capacity planner accordingly can be done automatically. This is the future every first-class company should be prepared and planned for. And obviously not the scenario with their customers grudgingly holding the phone for an unknown amount of time to be able to ask a simple question for the third time.
The bad news for Scenario-1 companies is that broken, insufficient and silo communication channels are a symptom of technological immaturity. This can be easily felt, observed, and measured by customers. The maturity of communication channels can be estimated by how fast and consistently a company reacts to customers’ requests; and how satisfied customers are in their journey(s). Silo mentality, local procedures, absence of cross-departmental IT vision and conservative behavior towards new technologies are symptoms of Scenario-1 corporations. And they need to move fast towards a holistic and omni-channel and end-2-end communication platform.
In recent years, instant but asynchronous communication has been facilitated and enriched by apps such as WhatsApp or WeChat and social networks including Facebook and Instagram. Absence of well-established channels (e.g. video-chat), inability to use self-service mechanisms for simple requests and patiently listening to monotonous music before reaching customer service are simply unacceptable in 2020 and a particularly good reason for customers to move on. Scenario 1 companies are therefore advised to get on board before the ship is sailed, and dodge the same bullet that hit Kodak, Atari, Blackberry, Nokia, AirBerlin and Yahoo. Technology matters.
But what does transformation from Scenario-1 to Scenario-2 look like? And why does a sustainable transformation go beyond simply installing and integrating a new solution?
In the next two parts, common challenges and complications in omni-channel adoption will be explored and a few actionable guidelines will be provided to increase your chances of a successful transition to an omni-channel ecosystem.
 See Frost & Sullivan’s 2014 book with the same title (Exponential Organizations) on “Why new organizations are 10x better, faster and cheaper”.
 “Devising a Competitive Omni-Channel Adoption Strategy”, Dr. Pujan Ziaie, 2018