Humanizing Omnichannel

Posted by Taylor Haney on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

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We have a special blog for you today from one of our eCommerce Summit Advisory Board Members! Leading up to the summit we're giving you a taste of some of the insightful content that will be presented at the summit. This post, written by Rob Schmults, VP, eCommerce at Talbots, dives into the store associate side of omnichannel strategy. 

Rob SchmultsRob Schmults is Vice President, eCommerce at Talbots where he oversees online marketing and mobile in addition to eCommerce. Previously, Rob held a number of roles as a retailer and as a solution provider to retailers. Most recently he was SVP at Intent Media, a company that uses predictive analytics to enable retailers to generate advertising revenue to augment their online product sales. Before that he was Chief Marketing Officer for Smart Destinations, a retailer and platform provider for activity, tour, and sight ticketing. At GSI Commerce, Rob oversaw the teams responsible for 30 partners, including adidas, Bath & Body Works, Dick's Sporting Goods, iRobot, and Major League Baseball. 

Omnichannel is doing a wonderful job at making retailers take a fresh run at organizing around their customers. As retailers continue down the path of taking a single view of their customers no matter where they are and what channel they are using, formerly siloed data – and thinking – gets broken down. Even more importantly, as retailers give customers a single view back into the enterprise it forces formerly inwardly focused systems like inventory management to turn outward.

But viewing omnichannel predominately as a reorientation of data and systems misses the most important component: people. In particular, the store associate given how much of omnichannel’s promise is tied to the offline store experience.

Because so many omnichannel efforts start off as technical projects like enabling buy online, pick-up in store, the focus is on the code and data flows. And while the industry as a whole has come a long way around customer facing usability, there is still an apparent tendency to think about store associates as if they are “biological systems” – just one more process or piece of code that needs to be configured correctly.

As anyone trying omnichannel can attest, the customer experience is often far from ideal. Even if the technology generally works, the customer may still find herself explaining what’s supposed to happen to a confused store associate. Or having to wait while three associates try and figure out a complicated set of tasks on their point of sale system. Or finding that the promised utility of the new system gets buried by a long queue of people who responded to that same promise. These failings were apparent in the earliest pick-up in store programs and remain evident with the newest omnichannel payment systems.

talbots blogWho’s to blame? The customer’s instinct is that the source of the problem is standing right in front of her: “How can this associate not know how their own systems work?” Indeed! But unfortunately for the associate and the customer, the problem lies upstream. The retailer may have failed on several fronts including associate training or artificially inflating customer expectations. But almost without fail, the retailer probably neglected to adequately design in the associate facing part of the experience.

Like the customer, associates are human. And therefore the notion of usability, of making things easy and intuitive to complete a task is just as imperative as in customer facing interfaces. This is in some way harder than getting the technical underpinnings right. It involves art as well as science and it requires establishing the proper feedback loops which on the surface can seem to add time and overhead to what is already a complex initiative.

But the payoff – in improved customer experience, in avoided rework, and in reduced training overhead can be substantial.

Some good rules of thumb:

  • Make all associate steps intuitive and obvious. This goes without saying, but often get far less attention than it deserves.

  • Do as little as possible in front of the customer. If it can be done before the customer arrives, do it then. If it can be done after the customer leaves, do it then.

  • Involve the associates. Retailers show prototypes and test ideas with customers all the time. Apply the same approaches and principles to associate facing systems.

  • Build course corrections into your pilot program. Make sure you capture and use the associate feedback from any pilot programs. Sounds obvious, but often the instinct is to rush to roll-out vs. taking the time to incorporate valuable changes.

Just as we’ve all seen omnichannel initiatives that fail to deliver on their promise in store, we’ve also seen instances where everything works great. In those later cases, more often than not the associates have been properly accounted for and included in the design and deployment of the solution.

Retailers still need to get the systems right, but by treating the associate as a human and as a customer for the processes they need to execute the ultimate goal of the omnichannel program has a much higher likelihood of reaching its potential and delivering the right experience for the end consumer.


The 2015 MITX eCommerce Summit:
“The Future of Shopping” is March 3rd, 2015