What is Omnichannel?

First coined in 2010 to refer to marketing strategies and shopping experiences, the term omnichannel has evolved to also encompass customer service experiences. Businesses who provide omnichannel support treat their customers to seamless interactions throughout their resolution journeys, regardless of how many communication channels they use.

Many organizations strive to provide omnichannel customer support but fall short of their goals. For example, NICE research revealed that over two-thirds of consumers say companies are doing a poor job allowing customers to switch seamlessly between methods of communication.

Providing an omnichannel experience is a complex undertaking that often requires changes to people, processes, and technology not just in the contact center, but throughout the organization. In today's experience economy, achieving success through a disciplined omnichannel approach has become a business imperative, regardless of the complexity. Customers value low effort transactions, which is what omnichannel customer service is all about.

Understanding omnichannel

Omnichannel is the provision of frictionless customer support across multiple customer service channels, enabled by integrated systems and customer context that's available on demand in every channel.

Consumers often use multiple channels (phone, email, chat, mobile apps, self-service, etc.) when they try to get an issue resolved or find an answer to a question. An omnichannel contact center supports this movement from channel to channel by making the customer's interaction history seamlessly available in every communication method. For example, if a customer initially interacts with a chatbot and then decides voice support is a better option, the phone agent would be able to see the transcript from the chatbot conversation. With omnichannel support, customers don't have to repeat the nature of their issues when they switch channels.

What is the difference between multichannel and omnichannel?

Although often used interchangeably, the terms "multichannel" and "omnichannel" refer to different concepts and capabilities.

Most sizeable businesses offer multichannel customer support. For example, a customer may be able to search an online knowledge-base, chat with an agent, or use Facebook Messenger to find resolutions. However, if the organization they're contacting only has multichannel capabilities, any customer who switches channels within the same transaction will have to "start from scratch" in the new channel. Requiring people to repeat themselves multiple times creates a poor customer experience.

Organizations that provide omnichannel customer service also offer multiple channels to their customers; however, because of their omnichannel approach to support, the data and context follow their customers throughout their resolution journeys. The elimination of the need to repeat details is a much smoother and lower effort customer experience.

Key features of omnichannel

Smooth transitions across multiple channels are a hallmark of omnichannel support, and they are made possible by several core features.

  • Integrated technology: Customer data needs to flow seamlessly across channels so it's available when it's needed. This requires eliminating technology silos and integrating systems so that data is easily shared.
  • Full context available to agents: Integrated systems make it possible to provide complete customer context to contact center agents. With data such as purchase and interaction history at their fingertips, agents are more prepared to personalize conversations and quickly deliver resolutions.
  • Consistent experiences across channels: For an omnichannel experience to be truly seamless, all the touchpoints encountered during the customer journey need to be coherent. This means, for example, that a customer should receive consistent information in both self-service and agent-assisted channels. If a chatbot tells a customer something different than an agent does, that isn't a true omnichannel experience. More importantly, that scenario will frustrate customers.

Examples of omnichannel

Scenario 1: John just bought an assemble-it-yourself desk online from his favorite office supplies brand, but he's a little confused by the assembly instructions. He's having trouble attaching a drawer. He visits the company's website and searches for "how to attach a drawer." The FAQ doesn't answer his question, but it does provide the option to video chat with an agent. The customer service agent initiates the conversation with, "Hello John! I see you need more information about attaching the drawer to the desk you purchased from us last week. I can help you with that." Because the agent has access to John's search history, she can begin the interaction with confidence and get right down to business with solving the customer's problem.

Scenario 2: Jane had an equally pleasant omnichannel experience during her customer journey. When she ran into an issue with an insurance claim she submitted, she opened a chat session with an agent, who was able to co-browse her claim.  Because she didn't have everything she needed to complete and submit the claim at the time, she revisited it the next day. This time when she had questions, she decided to call the company, and was pleased when her call was routed to the same omnichannel agent she was interacting with via chat the previous day.

Because these customers were interacting with an omnichannel contact center, their transitions across channels were smooth and they had a consistent customer experience. They didn't have to repeat their issues and the agents they interacted with were prepped and ready to provide solutions.

The importance of omnichannel

As the examples in the previous section illustrate, a frictionless transaction creates a much better customer experience.

Consumers expect and value omnichannel customer service. Based on our research, 96% of consumers expect businesses to make it easy to switch channels and not be required to repeat information. Additionally, 94% of consumers expect seamless access to a customer service agent even if they begin their resolution journey in a self-service channel.

However, customers are not receiving omnichannel services as often as they would like. Consumers report that they need to repeat information a majority of the time when switching channels.

Aside from meeting customer expectations and providing better CX, there are some very practical operational reasons for going omnichannel. For one thing, omnichannel support improves first contact resolution rates, and thereby reduces volume and costs. And, since an omnichannel approach requires businesses to offer multiple channels, it can lower cost to serve. As an example, self-service is many times cheaper than phone support, so diverting a portion of phone volume to effective self-service solutions can result in substantial cost savings.

Implementing omnichannel

Getting omnichannel right is often a significant transformation effort that can involve changes to current systems and ways of doing things. Additionally, it may require the organization's culture to become more customer-centric.

Key steps for omnichannel implementation

The following activities should be part of every omnichannel transformation.

  • Understand what your customers want. "Omni" means "all," but that doesn't mean that an organization should implement all of the possible support channels. That would be a management nightmare and create a confusing customer experience. Base your channel options on customer personas and direct and indirect customer input. For example, insights provided by interaction analytics software may reveal a new support channel customers are clamoring for.
  • Create customer journey maps. Mapping the customer journey is a perfect exercise to do at the beginning of an omnichannel initiative. Customer journey maps contain information about all the touchpoints and handoffs a customer encounters while trying to accomplish a goal with an organization. The best journey maps highlight areas of friction that need to be addressed to create an exceptional omnichannel experience.
  • Objectively evaluate current technology. Because so much of omnichannel success is dependent on technology, organizations need to conduct an honest assessment of their current systems. Contact centers are often hampered by outdated software that can't support newer digital channels, let alone provide omnichannel customer service. For call centers to become omnichannel contact centers, they may need to implement omnichannel solutions, such as:
    • Omnichannel routing
    • Unified agent desktop
    • Digital self-service
    • Analytics software powered by artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Design the omnichannel agent experience. One of the significant operational benefits of going omnichannel is the potential bump in agent productivity. When agents can handle multiple channels in back-to-back (or even simultaneous) interactions, this can increase occupancy, allowing organizations to do more with less. This change needs to be thoughtfully designed. At the very least, agents will likely need new tools and thorough training to be successful.
  • Measure and closely manage. One of the first tasks to be completed at the beginning of an omnichannel initiative is to establish program goals, and then determine how and when to measure performance against those goals. Additionally, because new employees, processes and systems can disrupt performance, the ability to provide omnichannel experiences should be closely managed on an ongoing basis.

Developing an omnichannel vision and a detailed road map for how to get there is a key to implementation success.

Common challenges in omnichannel implementation

In The Inner Circle Guide to Omnichannel, ContactBabel identified several challenges businesses can encounter on the path to becoming omnichannel, including the following:

  • Technology does not provide a single view of the customer. Omnichannel customer service requires the business to recognize customers in every channel they use. Without a platform that provides a single view, omnichannel becomes even more difficult, if not impossible.
  • Insufficient funding. Implementing omnichannel isn't a quick, cheap project. Changes can reach across the organization and often include investment in new technology and skills. An inadequate budget can result in inadequate CX.
  • Siloed, dispersed business processes. Silos are the enemy of omnichannel. To provide seamless customer experiences across multiple channels, businesses need to eliminate barriers that prevent optimized processes and teams from working well together.
  • Lack of strategy and vision about what omnichannel can deliver. Businesses shouldn't implement omnichannel just because they think they should. Omnichannel is a means to an end - whether the "end” is better customer retention, higher revenue, or some other business goal. Accordingly, organizations need to adopt an omnichannel approach, vision, and strategy that is compatible with and supports their business strategy.

Best practices for successful omnichannel implementation

The following omnichannel best practices will help organizations avoid many of the major pitfalls that can be encountered while going omnichannel:

  • Listen to your customers. While creating and analyzing customer journey maps, businesses may develop a big laundry list of issues that need to be addressed to create seamless experiences for their customers. To prioritize these issues and their solutions, organizations should collect and analyze customer input. What may be identified by the business as a high priority issue may not matter much to customers, and vice versa. Developing an omnichannel approach based on customer preferences is a top best practice.
  • Gain organizational buy-in. Because silos are the enemy of an omnichannel strategy, the organization needs to be aligned on the strategy, especially those groups that may have to change their processes or technology in support of the effort. The initiative should also have a strong executive sponsor who can champion the cause throughout the organization and moderate any disagreements among internal groups.
  • Test and refine. Reaching a state of fully optimized omnichannel is typically an iterative process. Organizations should take an approach of testing and refining solutions to learn what works and minimize any potentially negative impacts to the customer experience.
  • Use the right technology. An omnichannel platform can solve many of the pain points and sources of friction customers encounter while attempting to find answers and resolutions. Such a platform can reduce the time it takes to reach goals and ensures organizations are using technology designed for omnichannel best practices.
  • Achieve some quick wins. An omnichannel platform can also help contact centers achieve some quick wins, which can be important for maintaining program momentum. When prioritizing issues to resolve, include a couple of potential quick wins on your high priority list.

The future of omnichannel in business

The future of omnichannel is really about the future of support channels. Consumers will continue to expect seamless transitions between channels, but the nature and popularity of those channels will evolve. While voice and other agent-assisted communication methods are still the most used options, AI-powered self-service and other emerging alternatives are gaining ground. Many people value the ability to handle their own matters, and as self-service solutions become smarter and capable of handling more complex issues, adoption should continue to increase. Agent assistance may ultimately become the exception rather than the norm. And, of course, customers will continue to expect the transition from self-service to agent to be smooth and painless.

In the nearer term, businesses continue to pursue and invest in omnichannel capabilities. For example, in one study NICE found that 35% of businesses planned to invest in omnichannel, a ten-point increase from the prior year.

How NICE is Redefining Customer Experience

NICE CXone is the industry’s only interaction-centric platform where channels, data, applications, and knowledge converge to improve customer experience at scale.

It is the leading, most complete and unified CX Platform on the market, used by thousands of organizations of all sizes around the world to help them consistently deliver exceptional customer experiences. CXone is a cloud native, unified suite of applications designed to help you holistically run your call (or contact) center operations.

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