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So-called omnichannel buyers want to research, purchase or return in ways that work best for them. And the habit isn’t limited to consumers buying from retailers. A recent Forrester report boldly claims that “single channel B2B buying is dead,” and that “B2B buyers are becoming fickle and demanding a full spectrum of self-service, full-service, and hybrid purchase options.”
Wisely, sellers are responding. In Hudson’s Bay Company’s Saks Fifth Avenue stores, sales associates carry wifi-enabled tablets to find the right size or color at a sister store, if needed. The B2B Maintenance and Repair giant, Grainger, offers a multichannel experience that rivals or exceeds many retailers. Facebook has become a de facto customer service representative for companies of all kinds.
There is little question that buying habits have changed in fundamental ways. How well companies rise to meet those expectations will certainly affect their trajectory. Here are three overlooked best practices your company should adopt to keep omnichannel customers in your orbit:
1. Meet Demand for Convenience, Consistency
At a 2015 annual gathering of Walmart associates, CEO Doug McMillon spoke to the most basic principle of omnichannel, saying, “I want us to stop talking about digital and physical retail as if they’re two separate things. The customer doesn’t think of it that way, and we can’t either.”
Such a shift in mindset is noteworthy. Bringing the sentiment to life is no easy task, however. Creating an omnichannel experience requires a new level of integration among a company’s systems, processes and suppliers. Anything less, and customers will notice. For example, if a company offers real-time availability on its website, but not on a mobile application, that company’s appeal will fade as fast as mobile purchases climb.
“Delivering a consistently good cross-channel experience requires that every step in a seller’s supply chain operate as a single brand and channel,” says Louis De Jianne, marketing director for the UPS retail customer segment. “That’s a tall order, especially for sectors that had never thought of their B2B customers as omnichannel shoppers. But, in fact, they are.”
UPS’s De Jianne adds that it’s not just buyers who benefit from omnichannel strategies. If the experience is executed well, the seller’s brand benefits. “If 40 percent of your business is fulfilled by drop-shipping, customers should be able to track those shipments as easily as orders coming from your warehouse. They should arrive branded with your logo, and the charge should have your company’s name, not the vendor.”
De Jianne adds, “Being first to deliver is often important. But over time, the company making the sale should get credit for a great buying experience.”
2. Anticipate and Create Needs
Ease and convenience are table stakes to today’s buyers. Loyalty, elusive as it has become, is given to companies who understand and deliver on buyer needs — ideally, before being asked.
Take the example of smart phones. Ten years ago, they were a novelty to most. Today, they’re indispensable tools for tens of millions around the world. Whether smart phone creators knew they were changing the world isn’t clear. Yet they did so by creating and fulfilling an unmet need.
A somewhat related example is the mobile application created by retail pharmacy chain CVS. Through the app, customers can refill or renew prescriptions and receive a text when they’re ready — all without talking to a doctor or a pharmacist. Some locations offer curbside or drive-through pickup and payment, further blurring the lines between bricks-and-mortar and digital shopping. Still others offer onsite medical services via the Minute Clinic brand.
“What we’re trying to do is provide real utility and solve real problems for customers,” CVS Chief Digital Officer Brian Tilzer explained to TechCrunch. “The innovation reduces the number of steps necessary to complete sales manually at the checkout counter, saving labor costs at the same time that it improves customer experience.”
3. Take a Phased Approach to Change
Jack Welch, celebrated former CEO of GE, once said, “Change before you have to.” While good advice, the change needed to meet omnichannel expectations takes time.
“We recommend that our customers take a phased approach to building a better cross-channel experience for their customers,” says Michael Cannizzo, Vice President, UPS Retail Customer Solutions. “We often help them take a holistic view of their supply chain, and map out the steps needed.” Cannizzo adds that third-party providers can help to jump-start omnichannel strategies. “There are solutions for integrating legacy and other tech platforms, in order to present a more consistent experience across channels.” He adds, “A third-party provider can help companies get traction by building out and managing a multichannel operation, from customer service through ordering and delivery.”
Cannizzo cautions that there is little time to wait. “Business models were developed around old buying habits. Our customers are realizing that they need to start molding themselves around the needs of the new, omnichannel buyer.”
Master the omnichannel experience. Download the UPS White Paper, "Evolving the Omnichannel Experience in a Transformed World" here.
1 Perez, Sara. “CVS Pharmacy launches its own mobile payments and loyalty solution, CVS Pay.” TechCrunch, 11 April 2016.
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