A truly omnichannel

sector after sector, companies are asking how they can adapt to the digital world—how they can build more digital capabilities, create more digital offerings, and even become “digital first” organizations.

But for institutions that have served customers for decades in person and over the phone, digital too often falls short. After the debut of a new app, for example, a jump in sales may not be as big as expected, while hoped-for operational efficiencies—such as a reduction in expensive call-center and in-store customer-support requests—hardly materialize.

Executives naturally wonder why: aren’t customers demanding digital? Without question, they are. But not to the exclusion of other channels, which remain critically important.

For example, as much attention (and fear) as Amazon may generate among traditional retailers, as of early 2016 about 92 percent of retail sales in the United States—the company’s home and largest market—were still taking place in person. Furthermore, our analysis of market research confirms that many customers (including large majorities in some markets and industries) want to move freely from channel to channel in an omnichannel experience. Accordingly, the digital end-to-end offerings and internal capabilities that companies are building are important not only in themselves but also in the way they support the other channels (see Driek Desmet, Ewan Duncan, Jay Scanlan, and Marc Singer, “Six building blocks for creating a high-performing digital enterprise,” September 2015).

Retailers have increasingly recognized this reality, with some folding one-time web-only subsidiaries back into their larger businesses. But in other consumer-facing industries, such as financial services or telecommunications, digital efforts often end up becoming just another channel—in effect, a whole set of subchannels including mobile, social, and chat. Given that channel conflicts have bedeviled large companies for decades, with competition among channels sometimes more intense than with the outside world, adding even more to the list is not ideal. The result? More complexity (and cost) for the company and a less-than-optimal experience for customers.

By contrast, integrating digital into an omnichannel experience breaks down barriers for customers—and for performance, allowing companies to hone their digital skills in a way that takes advantage of their strength in traditional channels. But first, companies must break down their own internal barriers, initially by developing a more sophisticated understanding of how their customers think about all of the channel options. Mapping out the journeys customers follow among the channels reveals the most important opportunities for channels to cooperate, forming a list of changes for the company to roll out. Finally, to ensure the changes last, each major journey will need its own leader and cross-unit team—supported by revamped incentive structures to facilitate cooperation, new performance dashboards, a road map for transformation, and clear communications and governance from top executives.

Getting these steps right provides new opportunities to make customers happy—for instance, by letting them start a loan application on their phone before bed and finish it at a branch the next day after asking a few questions via the call center. Capturing moments such as these turns omnichannel into a major growth platform.

After it tightened the links between its digital and traditional channels, a large regional bank increased sales of current-account and personal-loan products by more than 25 percent across all channels (Exhibit 1). And a European telecommunications company saw a 40 percent increase in usage of its online service channel, reducing its costs by more than 20 percent while increasing customer satisfaction by more than five percentage points.

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