In the old days (AKA before the 2000s), shopping was a pretty linear experience. You went to a store, you bought what you wanted, and you went home with your purchases. Your first touchpoint walking into the store was the same person who offered the final interaction as you paid and left. 

The online experience complicated this, while adding extra convenience. Your customer’s first touchpoint might be a blog, a digital ad, a social media post. Their second might be your website. Their third, a discussion with your chatbot. Their fourth, an online review. 

By the time they make a purchase, they might have touched upon a dozen different channels – not all of them YOUR channels – all offering very different experiences. And it’s very possible none of these touchpoints would be with a real person.

Retail is just one example of the modern customer experience; the same can be said for banking services, navigating healthcare systems, eating out and many other day-to-day experiences. Businesses have a lot of touch points, but so many aren’t linking them up to provide a unified, consistent and memorable experience for customers.

It’s important to remember that only 6% of brands say prioritizing the omnichannel experience isn’t a priority. Omnichannel experiences are a known quantity, and more sophisticated than they were a few years ago. But for all the BOPIS and BORIS strategies you may encounter, many brands are still failing in one fundamental way – offering human experiences.

Understanding the omnichannel customer experience

An omnichannel strategy is when a brand or organisation is able to seamlessly connect its various customer experience touchpoints across multiple channels. This means consumers can pick up where they left off on one channel and still enjoy a cohesive, unified experience when they resume on a different one. 

How does that work in practice? Let’s imagine you want to buy a new laptop. What would you do? Here is a retail example of what a customer journey might look like: 

  • A quick search online for ‘best laptops 2020’. Compare the relevant features of different models, read some reviews and shortlist possibilities. 
  • Check individual websites to find out more about your shortlisted laptops and see whether they’re suitable for you. 
  • Visit a brick-and-mortar store to talk through your options with a representative. Test out a few of your choices and see how they feel.  
  • Go home, make your decision and decide to buy your favourite online. 
  • Contact the retailer via email or social media to confirm delivery date and ask follow-up questions about the warranty. 

This is a pretty typical experience. If a company can provide this type of end-to-end service seamlessly, across all the touchpoints mentioned, it gets a thumbs up for its omnichannel customer experience.

And it’s not just retail. Every business has many marketing and sales irons in many fires, leading to a countless array of touchpoints. This serves to fragment the customer experience – or at least it could without a good omnichannel business strategy.

Omnichannel vs multichannel: what’s the difference?

So omnichannel is multichannel? Well, not quite. Whereas an omnichannel strategy joins up all the different channels, a multichannel experience is far more siloed. 

In other words, a company might still run TV ads, have a website, social media accounts and physical stores – multiple channels – but they are more likely to operate independently, with very little interaction or integration across them. 

It’s not hard to see how this could provide a frustrating experience for customers. Let’s revisit the laptop purchase from above. 

What if a retailer’s website has models advertised online, but they’re not available in-store, or vice versa? Maybe the site said a certain laptop discount is available nationwide, but your local shop doesn’t offer it? Or perhaps a customer services rep has no record of your order when you get in touch (even though you’ve got an email confirmation).

It could turn into a pretty painful experience all round. And stepping out of retail, it gets no less fragmented and disengaging.

Say you’re searching for insurance. You’ve seen an ad that speaks your language, made with a million-dollar budget that says “we’re here for you”. And then you go to the website and are confronted with FAQs, application forms and, at best, a chatbot to call upon for help. That’s multichannel, sure, but there’s little joined-up strategy focused on making the user feel the same emotions and brand connection as they progress through the buyers’ journey. 

And that matters because 73% of consumers say a great customer experience is important to them when purchasing. In fact, more than half of Americans have scrapped a planned purchase because of poor service. 

A third of them even say they’ll consider switching brands after just a single instance of poor service – which is a call for better omnichannel customer experience strategies if there ever was one.

Omnichannel customer experience in 2021 and beyond

The dreaded C word, COVID-19, has brought a new sense of urgency to many businesses when it comes to their omnichannel strategies, in ways that will stretch beyond 2021.

Admittedly, the eCommerce share of total global retail sales was already rising before the pandemic; but afterwards, things were certainly sent into overdrive. 

For example, OECD figures show eCommerce in the US went from 9.6% of the market to 11.8% between the first quarters of 2018 and 2020. A slow but steady rise. However, by the end of the second quarter of 2020 (when the pandemic took hold), it had jumped significantly to 16.1%. 

In many parts of the world, lockdowns have dampened the typical hustle and bustle of the high street. Many consumers are using entirely new channels for the first time, and research suggests they intend to continue using them in the future. 

In April 2020, buy online, pay in-store (BOPIS) purchases had grown 34% over a six-week period, according to McKinsey, with 59% of consumers claiming they would carry on using this service over the long term. Nearly three-quarters said they wanted safe and contactless checkouts to stay, while meal-kit deliveries saw a 38% jump in popularity. 

McKinsey stated that leading retailers have five priorities when approaching this ‘next normal’ phase in customer experience: 

  1. Double down on digital
  2. Inject innovation into omnichannel strategies
  3. Transform store operations and provide safer experiences
  4. Reimagine the physical network
  5. Embrace agile operating models

But let’s remember, while 2020 was a novel year to say the least, the lack of in-person customer service wasn’t a new thing. Through digitization, automation and cost reduction, the human touch has been slowly eroded for more than a decade now.

But with the human side of omnichannel customer experience pushed to the bench, all this begs the question: what’s unfortunately being lost in the customer experience as business becomes more digital? And how do we protect those experiences that customers love?

Omnichannel strategies with the human touch

The great migration online may bring consumers greater convenience and choice, but many people still prefer to speak to a human. In fact, PwC found that 82% of Americans want to interact with people more, not less, as automated technology grows in stature.

Talking to a customer services rep, is more than just asking them questions; it’s the act of being seen, heard and looked after, so it’s a big part of what makes an experience enjoyable. 

Replicating the human touch online is tough – humans aren’t scalable in the way your chatbot is, after all. But it has to be considered and agonized over if the holy grail of creating omnichannel customer experiences in 2021 is to be met.

So what’s a solution? Your customer services reps can’t be everywhere at once, while chatbots and virtual assistants will always struggle to establish the same level of rapport with customers. 

Digital humans can help bridge this gap. Not only are they available across multiple channels (online, mobile and in-store via kiosks), but they can also provide an integrated experience across different touchpoints; they are omnichannel, rather than multichannel.

For example, your digital human persona can represent your brand in ads and outbound marketing. When people are drawn to your website, they can speak to your digital human there, live, whenever they want or need to. And if and when they visit a store or branch, they can get “in person” help from the same embodiment of your brand that they did at the very start of their journey as a customer. It means the first touchpoint can be as engaging as the last, regardless of the channel, with consistency, emotional impact and that all-important human touch.

And while digital humans can never replace your best staff, they are available 24/7 to do some of the heavy lifting and provide a more seamless, personable customer service experience.

Our solutions have allowed brands to give customers a friendly face to talk to – one powered by conversational AI and machine learning. It replicates the tangible parts of human-to-human customer service interactions – being welcomed, having a friendly open-ended conversation, and being seen and heard.

If you’d like to know more about how digital humans can support your omnichannel strategy, a great place to start is our free eBook below. Do you have an omnichannel challenge for us? We’d love to hear more.