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Efficient Commerce is NOT Omni Channel Customer Engagement

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Omni Channel customer engagement has been a hot topic for the past several years. But despite all the buzz the real status of Omni Channel has been lagging at best. The question to ask is: Are organizations themselves integrated enough to be capable of initiating and delivering Omni Channel customer engagement initiatives?

Instead of looking at third party reports and statistics, we only need to look back at our own experience. As a customer, ask yourself these questions:

  • How many times has a retailer, bank or insurer followed up with me with the full context of my relationship with them?
  • How many times do I receive advice on what not to buy, and how to achieve what I’m trying to using their product?
  • Once I buy, how often do they positively reinforce my choice?
  • Are the thick paper catalogs I receive at home aligned with my what I’ve done or want to do, or are they just better designed coupons? Do I receive relevant coupons or offers by email?
  • Why doesn’t the contact center rep or the store associate know what I’ve browsed online?
  • How is it that everyone seems to be blind to my other identities as a person – athlete, social worker, dad, mom, business person, organic food buff, fashion pro, etc.?

Why have not even the basics of Omni Channel customer engagement been met?  Lets look at some reasons first and then examine a simple approach to achieving this important objective.

Mistaking Omni Channel engagement for analytics and promotions

A lot of what we read about digital technology – mobile, IOT, social, etc. – is centered around trying to reach customers at the right moment. Whether its location based alerts or smart signage, these are single channel promotional innovations disguised as digital engagement tools. Using a digital medium such as smart signage in the store doesn’t make it Omni Channel. Moreover, these initiatives don’t create long term customer engagement. All they try to do is target and sell.

In addition, privacy concerns arise from his approach. This was amply demonstrated by Target’s gaffe, the recent Facebook fiasco, the general mistrust of Google, nervousness about Amazon’s Alexa – in general spooking customers out by trying to know too much about them without engaging them in that conversation.

These are NOT examples of an Omni Channel strategy gone bad. Instead what these stories demonstrate is that Omni Channel engagement is lacking. These issues arise from trying to improve the uplift rates of campaigns through analytics and business logic gone awry.

Focusing on commerce, not engagement

Commerce is different from engagement. Features such as order online and pick up from store, mobile payment, retargeting, shopping cart campaigns etc. are all about commerce and conversion, not Omni Channel customer engagement. Taking a user transaction and providing better options to complete it are commerce enablers, not an Omni Channel customer engagement strategy. To move beyond the faceless commodity war that we’ve got used to fighting, it is important to differentiate between commerce enablers and customer engagement. What we need in addition to commerce competitiveness is to engage the customer so we create a relationship beyond the transaction. Commerce is often the last step.

We seem to be missing the entire run up to the commerce transaction, and also the run up to the next one. Think about it.

Focusing on digital features instead of supporting the journey

Digital transformation is closely linked with digital innovation. Survey after survey is reporting how organizations are faring in leveraging digital features. Charts are laid out with adoption and maturity statistics of an entire slew of innovative features. However, there are very few reports that map out a customer journey alongside how the features are integrated to support that journey. Moreover, doing even that would be supporting a commerce journey, and not really engaging the customers to bring them into the realm of commerce. We still rely on advertisements, coupons and promotions to bring customers in, and then try to provide a great commerce experience.

Fine…but how to focus on Omni-Channel Customer Engagement?

So commerce and customer engagement are 2 different sides of the coin. But how should we get started then on creating long term customer engagement and converting customers to be brand advocates? Here’s the approach:

  1. First, given the explosion of content, and the fact that the power of information asymmetry has weakened considerably, we need to think of customer journeys from the perspective of customer partnership. This means that customers journeys cannot just be thought of in terms of the traditional awareness-research-decision-purchase-support cycle. At all stages customers are looking for reinforcement and education, not just a one way sales dialog. As early as possible we need to anchor ourselves in the minds of our customers as someone who understands why customers are looking to transact, and then can help customers make the right decision. More than 50% of the customers would be glad if someone helped with the available options and would prefer to buy from the person / website who creates this relationship with them (other factors like price etc. being suitable of course).  This is also crucial because it helps on three critical fronts. First, it helps customers go through a phase of self selection improving retention and customer service costs. Second, it results in creating a platform that yields distinct customer segments allowing competition not on price and promotions, but on value (both physical or emotional). And finally, it results in a conscious evolution of products and offerings aligned with this positioning. This is a strategic decision because it defines all the marketing, operations and technology decisions. The self-service calculators, product how-to’s, customer reviews and other mechanisms on  many consumer websites are meant to solve this very problem by engaging the customer and creating stronger affinity to buy. These efforts would have greater success if they continued to keep the focus on the customer instead of jumping straight to sales. The content marketing revolution is enhancing this model tremendously.
  2. Often, the sum of parts is greater than the individual parts. A bank is more profitable when customers subscribe to multiple products. Similarly a retailer makes more profit when the shopping cart is more distributed. The customer engagement strategy must bring together products in a complimentary fashion, instead of clamoring for attention in isolation. Summer attires, back to school supplies, recipes and financial planning are some common ways for retailers and financial services to achieve this herculean task. Such an approach keeps the focus on the customer, instead of having to rely heavily on product wise outbound promotions with a focus on product features.
  3. Customers have requirements that are beyond what we are selling. These needs are often met by many different companies. Connecting these brands is a great way to embed ourselves in the underlying purpose of the customer, and create multiple entry points. the partnership of Horizon Blue Shield Blue Cross with LifeTime Fitness is a great example of rewarding exercise with reduced insurance premiums. A customer in a grocery supermarket may have been referred by a fitness center to buy organic food. Similarly a banking or mortgage transaction will lead to insurance needs…creating such digital ecosystems allows each business to create entries into other businesses, and vice versa.
  4. The right technology integration is important to enable this customer engagement platform. An enterprise is like a car. Many different parts come together in an interconnected way for the car to be able to run. Similarly, a technology architecture aligned with the customer engagement approach is very intuitively created once the focus is on educating and keeping the customer engagement during the run up to the transaction, the transaction itself and then the run up to the next transaction. The example of Retail Clienteling software solutions being sold by many technology vendors comes to mind. Such a concept allows us to have our channels be aware of each other, score the customer’s need based on constantly evolving qualification criteria, and empower the touch-points with the right analytics. We never have to worry about sending an embarrassing message because instead of a blind approach, we are now working with the customers to send them what they have consciously requested.

In summary, customer engagement must be thought of as a strong driver of, but distinct from commerce and brand awareness. In today’s environment, partnering with customers, educating them, presenting the full combined power of our products, and working with complimentary businesses to create mutual benefits, will go a long way. Finally, other than the right org design, technology is critical to support and drive these initiatives. Marketing technology and core technology choices must never be thought of in terms of products or a single do-it-all platforms. Instead its better to think of the approach in terms of simplifying and bringing together the different parts of the enterprise machinery, and aligning them to the customer engagement charter.

Let me know what you think. And do connect with me on Twitter @manishgrover. Image Credit : Pixabay

More Resources on This Topic

  1. Download the abridged e-version of my book Connected! here to learn more about building ecosystems and customer loyalty.
  2. Read the 5 Principles here – eliminate the need for external reinforcement to create strong customer engagement

 

The Future of Payments – Setting The Right Frame

ecommerce-2140603_640There’s a lot of ongoing debate regarding future of payments which includes a discussion on credit cards, wallets, loyalty, banking, among other related topics.

Meanwhile, we need to ask if the current financial services players have really made progress preparing themselves for the future of payments (or banking for that matter). I believe we still need to work on “setting the right frame” for the changes in the industry. The context is similar to the red herring I pointed to in the case of Amazon and physical retail. The real battle there is not between physical stores and online. It’s about engaging customers by being able to provide a broader set of services that helps create an ecosystem.

Similarly, there are several similar issues with setting the right frame for various issues in payments. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

1. Will Credit & Debit Cards Fade Away?

There is a fierce debate underway about the death of credit cards when we discuss the future of payments. However, to make any headway on this debate we need to change the frame of evaluation from “credit card as plastic” to “credit card as a spending pattern”.

The solution to this innovation problem is to think of how most people with access to banks use credit cards – to earn loyalty points (or airline miles and cash back), get purchase insurance (among many other types of coverage), receive exclusive concierge services, and for the ability to maintain a balance month to month in times of crunch. In fact, almost 44% of US households carry credit card balances, a trend that is catching on in emerging economies such as India & China too.

In addition, the solution to prepaid plastic cards has nothing to do with the plastic itself, but with the fact that it is an instrument (digital or physical) to make cash accessible to scenarios (and customers) that don’t fit a credit card.

However, none of the current innovations even come close to addressing these popular reasons for using credit or prepaid cards. Even if customers had a bank payment or digital wallet facility ubiquitous around the world, most will still use “cards” to make payments – whether they are hidden behind PayPal or Apple Pay.

When friction in customer experience is low, customers will maximize the value they can receive. So innovation in payments need to more actively start addressing these real world use cases to fully realize the future of payments. Most of these problems are not hard to solve with digital alternatives. We just need to set the right frame for the problem so we can look for the right solutions. Consumer behavior and habits will not be easy to change (or predict) – a risk for those with inertia, and an opportunity for innovators.

2. Applying Digital Innovation To Connect Experiences

A similar issue with defining the right problem is with the advances in digital. Banks are busy making changes to their digital properties such as websites and mobile apps. They have been experimenting with chatbots and AI. These provide great value, but we still can’t get a personalized experience either online or in the mail.  Even amazon has been reportedly trying to upsell burial urns to customers for months because of its “You bought that so you’d like this” algorithm. While there are many nice changes and technology innovations (e.g. asking Alexa to make a payment for me), they fall far behind when it comes to emerging customer use cases.

The solution to this innovation issue is to understand the change that digital is bringing. The customers of tomorrow don’t want to look at their banks as just their “financial money holder and transaction facilitator” – or at least the banks shouldn’t consider themselves to be just that. Because that game is over. Instead customers want to be able to service multiple needs with one account including retail shopping, travel, services etc. Banks have all the right capabilities – bill pay, card-linked offers, co-branded cards, PFM, branches, retirement services, and so on. But if they can’t bring them together, then Amazon Cash might gladly pick up the slack, especially when it’s linked to the Amazon Prime Store Card, and is now going to offer white labeled checking accounts too.

How to Set The Right Frame

The future of payments will not be determined by the mode of payment alone or where it is held. It will be driven by the broader ecosystem enabling the connected customer experience. We just need to think in terms of how connected customers will behave in a connected world. And we need to start building those supporting ecosystems.

In short, instead of building a “digital strategy”, we should build a “strategy for a digital world”. Download the principles in Connected! to see how to think in terms of cross-industry customer journeys and loyalty models.

 

Moving Your Artificial Intelligence Strategy Forward

The artificial intelligence strategy buzz is everywhere. But now we need to move beyond rule based personalization and predictive analytics based recommendations. That kind of AI has been going on for 20 years if not more. Calling every analytics based project AI using a lot of jargon is definitely fashionable. But it also adversely affects the maturity of your artificial intelligence strategy.

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Our Artificial intelligence strategy should be about traditional statistical approaches plus much more. That “much more” comes from creating conditions that allow your system to learn from data on its own. This learning includes making decisions based on information about both good and bad outcomes. For example, your system monitors commerce data and notes that a purchase is a good thing to have – “a win”. It also figures out that this “win” is positively influenced by offering promotions. And it then figures out when to offer someone a promotion that results in a purchase – a win. And it keeps updating its strategy based on “wins” and “losses”.

In short the ability of your system – not you manually – to figure this out, and learn by itself is already the current frontier in artificial intelligence strategy.  We can sometimes help move this process quicker through “supervised learning”. And our goal should be to constantly expand the boundaries of what’s possible.

So here are 3 tips that I hope will help you advance your artificial intelligence strategy:

1. Always be feeding

Not all good outcomes are actually good – especially outcomes that are limited by channel or product. For example, in the previous paragraph I noted that a purchase on the website or through a chatbot is a “win”. What if I told you that this specific type of customer has an overall negative lifetime value unless other conditions are also satisfied? In addition, what if the product that the customer is browsing is not a good fit for them? In that case even if a sale is good for us in the short term, should we continue to push that product to the customer?

Thinking about the big picture helps you improve your artificial intelligence strategy by constantly feeding updated definitions of what good outcomes are. It can also help integrate the pockets of AI that mushroom everywhere. As this field evolves, narrow applications are natural to implement – such as an NLP based chatbot for customer service. However, the incentives in the artificial intelligence strategy roadmap should be aligned to the goals of constant “expansion of context”. It’s like feeding insights into a central superpower, however menacing that may sound.

2. Always be rewarding

Your artificial intelligence strategy will depend on how well you provide the notion of rewards to your algorithms. After all, to decide what to do, the algorithm must know what happened the last time it did something. And that means that the rewards and penalties should be easy to come by.

Contrast this with how we implemented analytics in the past – we ran regressions, figured out what would influence an outcome, and baked those into rules for our processes to follow. And then we repeated the process often. But now you must build your data and technology strategy around the artificial intelligence strategy. How would you transmit those rewards and penalties to your algorithms?  For example, automatically re-balancing a wealth portfolio based on market triggers is good, but we must also let the AI algorithm know whether this was a “win” or “loss”. That way it can learn and improve. Otherwise it’s just old wine in a new bottle.

3. Always be connecting

As I have outlined in my book “Connected! How #platforms of today will become apps of tomorrow“, the customer experience spectrum is way bigger than our own products and channels. Every company today must be connected to others that serve the same customers. For example, we should think of feeding our algorithms with data – with customer consent of course – about the customer’s overall identity, intent and interactions. This data can come from interaction in retail, fitness, travel etc. And we should be building two way connections between companies to help customers make better decisions.

If we don’t think of connecting with partners to enable cross-industry customer journeys, our artificial intelligence strategy will only partially succeed. We cannot be building jazzy gizmos and expect to survive when competitors (especially the new entrants) are creating customer ecosystems and expanding their product offerings. In fact most innovations today bring together customer interactions across industries. Customers receive tremendous value from these cross-industry customer journeys. We should become better partners to customers too.

In summary

AI is an evolving field but the business landscape is changing at an even faster pace. Your artificial intelligence strategy should look to get beyond its own buzz and complexity. I hope these 3 simple tips provided some perspective so you can give your artificial intelligence strategy a boost. The first step is to not lose sight of defining the right customer experiences and journeys in an increasingly connected world. This definition of purpose and outcomes will automatically help you get ahead of the quest for data as well.

PS:

  1. Image by Geralt. Also I apologize in advance to AI experts for my simplistic treatment of this topic but some good old grounding was due.
  2. Please download the principles of how to define cross-industry customer experiences and personas here, or just get them for free in your inbox.

 

To save the retail store, think about real customer engagement

It’s human nature. We try to protect what we have even though we know that change is coming. In this post I’ll bring out some real drivers of customer engagement, and provide some tactics to get ahead.

There has been lots of buzz that the store can never die (Amazon is also getting into physical now), and how customer experience must be enhanced instead to make the store a place of enjoyment and social interaction. That’s all very true. However the fact is that if we think of retail as a store, we’ll be in deep trouble. We need to think of deep customer engagement instead, and that starts with knowing who our customers are.

All the analytics so far hasn’t gotten us any closer and I’ll explain why here. You’ll see that the analytics needs to be directed differently.

Plain vanilla eCommerce won’t help either. Because eCommerce itself is changing as the world is connected. The game is not about channels, its about the customers and creating context aware visibility. “20% other customers also bought a tent” was a great model when it came out, but is not the way of the future.

What you need is tcustomer engagement anywhere retail o think beyond the store, about how the store stocks items, how we run promotions, what amazing digital technology we have,  and how the supply chain feeds into the store.

Instead let’s turn the entire paradigm on its head.

Ignore the store, and just think of who our customers are, what they want, and why they want it?

Because thinking of the  store and our catalog is like looking inward. Instead, let’s look from the outside at what our business looks like – from the customer’s eyes.

When we start thinking like that we’ll notice that we don’t really know that much about the customers. What we really need is to think like a “marketplace” from the vantage point of our customers so that we can embark on a customer engagement strategy.

Here’s a supermarket example which will carry well to other scenarios as well:

1. What are customers thinking? Why do they pick up a Lean Cuisine meal?  Why are they buying 3 packs of Tofu when they normally buy one? Why did they pick up both soy and dairy yogurt?

2. Then let’s go back to the drawing board for our business. How can we meet their needs better? We’ll find that they are buying for a party they’re hosting, they are on a diet trying to prepare for that upcoming full marathon, and they have a kid at home with food allergies.

3a. Then let’s bring together all the actors who will make our retail business aka “marketplace” thrive? Perhaps the local fitness center, the local nutritionist,  a local restaurant, and the list will go on depending on what you want your business to be. You must engage customers in context, and tie in the places they go to.

3b. Then we establish a relationship with customers by finding a way to get in touch, and begin to address the core issue of customer engagement. It’s amazing how many retailers have no way to contact their customers?

3c. Finally let’s think of context every time we get in touch. Context means that we toss the catalog aside and begin the communication template with the customer – who are they? What did they buy before? Is there a pattern or anomaly in the latest behavior or transactions? Is there an intelligent guess we can make? Can we know something more about them by asking them? These questions lead to real customer engagement.

Because, capital, size, infrastructure, technology, and presence are not the real constraints. Those who have those things are not engaging customers any better either. But once you begin to think of your business as a customer engagement powerhouse, not a physical store or website, the momentum you generate will provide the solution to the constraints you face for customer engagement, and hence growth & commerce.

Photo credit: oliva732000 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Based on the principals from my book Connected! How Platforms of Today Will Become Apps of Tomorrow. Get the models in your inbox for FREE by signing up.

The Big Red Herring of Amazon & Physical Retail

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For many years now we’ve been witnessing the phenomenal rise of Amazon.com. Retailers and manufacturers of all kinds have been scurrying to get their digital act together. The media has been rife with questions about traditional business models of stores and distributor channels.

And now finally, Amazon has opened physical stores in key categories – grocery and books to name a few. The Whole Foods acquisition has come as a recent big announcement.

What’s going on with Amazon & physical retail and how to make sense of the game plan that Amazon has?

red-46564_640First, here’s the red herring – the battle is not about digital or physical, or any combination of the two. It’s not even about innovation and leadership. Its a given that people are going to go digital given enough time and experience. Every channel needs time to develop and be a comfortable experience for customers. And slowly but surely, goods of various categories are falling into that bucket. We thought it will never be clothes, except that we find now that clothes are actually pretty commoditized if we know what we want, and if we’ve bought them before. Same for grocery and food which are after all the same shopping list being created and executed week after week. Its been that way for a long time with electronics and spare parts as well.

The biggest hurdle to digital commerce was the risk factor – what if the purchase is not what we think it will be? And Amazon, like many retailers, has solved for that already through an easy and simple returns process. Its no wonder then that people who shop heavily are folks who get free shipping and an easy returns process. in fact, Amazon Prime members in many categories have much higher return rates than customers shopping at stores. That’s simply because we buy more than we need (extra sizes, different colors, different styles etc. ) and then we return  what we don’t need. It’s pretty darn convenient.

So Amazon entering physical retail cannot be a threat on its own. Sure, they may have better online presence, and fast shipping and distribution mechanisms, but they also have lower margins.

Instead, almost everyone is missing the real point that this is a battle for building a connected ecosystem. It was never about individual product lines being sold digitally which we should take for granted as a universal certainty. In fact, the biggest competitor for established businesses (and their Achilles heel) is the combination of Amazon Marketplace, their diversity of product businesses, and their Prime membership model. Think of what we get with this combination – movies, books, free and fast shipping, TV – and not to mention almost everything under the sun on Amazon.com from marketplace sellers.

Not surprisingly, in 2016, Amazon.com had already beaten Google as the top search engine for product search (55%) when customers reasonably know what they want. More than 70% of customers do so because of the wide variety of product availability on Amazon. These 2 capabilities together are a lynchpin of modern commerce. These two capabilities help get customers in, and then all these customers have frictionless (and free) access to commerce transactions. Everything else is easily competed against – better online presence, personalized recommendations, easy purchase process, good shipping, good returns, etc. These are all table stakes. In fact Amazon is not really that great at many of these things and like everyone else is constantly improving.

So Amazon.com buying  Whole Foods is not at all threatening if you apply the traditional lens and consider only the grocery business. There are plenty of players who will beat Amazon hands down in that business. Instead, what is missing in the media headlines right now is that this play is not just about grocery or retail. It’s actually about building a connected ecosystem that brings everything a customer needs under one nice umbrella called Amazon Prime, and a marketplace that has unlimited choice.

Hence, the issue of Amazon & physical retail is a red herring. But the situation is not hopeless. Here’s what everyone else can do to counter this juggernaut:

  1. Redefine your identity and start connecting: In today’s connected age, we cannot operate in a small silo and expect not to be disrupted. So long as grocers think of themselves as grocers, banks as banks, and pharmacies as pharmacies they will continue to see invasion of broader players into their space. Digital has made that a near certainty. Instead, we must expand our identity and build a connected, digital business. Becoming connected doesn’t mean becoming a conglomerate like Amazon.com. That’s neither easy nor possible for many. Instead its time to start being a trader / seller of different kinds of services that consumers need, and not just the products we’ve sold for decades. Take for example a grocery chain creating a local network of fitness centers, health food brands and dieticians. Its a win-win for everyone involved. All parties see increased retention and higher wallet share from the customer. That’s a partnerships model and much more doable. Especially because its also local. The possibilities for this network are endless and can include banks, local sports clubs, farmers markets, restaurants, and many others. That’s the only way to win in today’s customer centric economy. We cannot be selling in silos and expect to win. Some examples do exist today (like health insurers working with fitness centers) but those at-an-arm’s-length partnerships are not enough. These relationships must become more intense, more deliberate, and much more obsessed about customer experience.
  2. Build a connected loyalty model: Those of you who’ve read my 3-Tier loyalty model will know that a connected business can build what others (or even Amazon) can’t today. Loyalty today is all about instant discounts and rebates. But loyalty must move towards experiential and aspirational rewards. A connected ecosystem can accomplish that so easily and keep the costs down as well. Can a loyal member of the network in the example above win a wonderful candlelight dinner on Valentine’s day at a restaurant, or can customers build their rewards towards great seats at the Super Bowl next year? The possibilities are limited only by our imagination. That’s the loyalty model a connected business can build with its partners. And it could easily be in addition to the 20c off the salad dressing, or 20% off the first 2 months of the gym membership.
  3. Orient the org to look beyond legacy and focus on CX: How can multiple companies from different sectors come together and make this happen. The short answer is that they can’t unless they reorient to focus on CX, not product lines. Fortunately the solution is simple for those willing to dare. They must create a CX layer on top of their products and services business. The CX layer will be made up of folks from all partners across industries and their only job is to manage just one product – the connected CX. This layer of product managers will create exciting and innovative journeys, and then make them happen through existing products. Read more about this model here.

To be clear, online and digital is the way forward. So there is no reason to think Amazon.com entering physical retail is any vindication of physical stores being a must for business. Quite the contrary – physical stores are a complement to digital but they will most definitely become a specialized channel for retail (or banking or automobiles for that matter).

The real challenge is to build a connected business. The part about Amazon entering through buying up the physical stores is just a big fat red herring.