Channel Integration Strategies: Building the Ideal Customer Experience
Channel integration is a bit like customer relationship management—for every 10 people who discuss the idea, there are 15 definitions of what it is.
And while integrating your channels generally sounds like a good idea, you may be struggling to define exactly why and how it can work for you.
Channel Integration From Your Customer's Point of View
It's easy to think integrating channels is about connecting all the places you sell your product or service—a Web site, catalog, land-based retail, resellers, etc. But let's look at channel integration from your customer's point of view.
Whether business or consumer, customers are driven by a need to learn about your company, try it out, purchase a product or service, get help or share an idea. And they want to do these things wherever and whenever it's convenient for them. They jump across sales channels on a regular basis. This regular "channel skating" is common—especially for customers who purchased from catalogs before the Internet.
Your business can fall short of meeting your customers' needs if you look only at the integrating offer and sales activity. You also can miss the mark if you assign value to your channels based only on the revenue and profit that's directly tied to each one.
Customers expect you to integrate channels of interaction. They look for a logical experience as they learn, try, buy, get help or share ideas.
The integration of all business processes and the smoothing of pricing or other typical channel "borders" probably feels like a tall order. It is. Even if we share a common definition of channel integration, there still are many ways for a business to approach the challenge.
That's What. Now, How?
Many organizations use one of the following starting points:
1. Integrate Marketing Communications. Businesses that start here focus on ensuring customers experience the same marketing offers and brand message across all channels. Integration activity is focused on spreading the company's brand, key marketing messages and promotions.
- In most cases, the customer list is managed centrally, so customers see the same offers and messages no matter where they go.
- Database marketing analysis focuses on which offers work and which don't.
- The business opens the door for customers to interact wherever they wish, and doesn't actively steer customers toward any particular channel.
While these are the most common first steps, this approach is successful for companies with only direct relationships (communications can be directly controlled). Marketers using this approach must be sure to spread marketing communications equally—acknowledging channel differences. It can be a pitfall when the after-the-offer customer interactions vary across channels, disappointing customers in search of consistency and convenience.
2. Integrate the Organization. Business channels such as catalog, Web and retail are integrated by leveraging organizational expertise and resources. This is a common first step for businesses whose channels are organized in separate business units.
- Common product merchandising, transaction processing, service or other staff supports customers for more than one channel.
- Information about purchase behavior is shared, so marketing dollars are spent in each channel based on its ROI.
- Technology and operations infrastructure is shared.
Here, the company's driving priority is leverage of company resources. This type of channel integration affects customers positively when activities such as customer service or returns are shared and hurdles for customers to interact in any channel stay low. It's least successful when front-end customer activities such as marketing offers and pricing equity are ignored.
The Path Least Traveled ... So Far
A third way to integrate channels is not widely used, but could prove to be the most-effective approach:
3. Integrate the Customer Experience. Start from the customer activities discussed earlier: Learn, try, buy, get help and share ideas. This will provide you with a great definition of a "customer experience." Then acknowledge the following:
- Customers will continue to zigzag across channels based on their personal definitions of convenience and control.
- Different channels have different strengths. We know the Web does a fabulous job presenting detailed, feature-rich product information for customers doing research. But we also know nothing can close a sale like a person.
So how can you use each channel to its fullest capability, while providing customers with an ideal experience as they move from learning to sharing ideas?
If your customer's ideal experience is to do research and get consultative help and a custom price, build your Web channel primarily for research and "configuration." Help your phone sales group create custom answers on the spot. Make all essential activities—such as merchandise returns—barrier-free and available everywhere.
Maximizing revenue and profit are cross- or multi-channel goals. Integration is driven by the idea that if you provide an ideal customer experience, two things will happen: Response will be maximized by covering key customer interaction points across channels—enabling "channel skating." And profit will increase for the business overall by not spending more than is necessary in an effort to do the same thing in every channel.
This approach requires attention to your whole business simultaneously, so it's a different, broader challenge than the organization and marketing approaches used today. Yet it can be done incrementally. Use customer-experience objectives across channels of interaction to unlock the best results.
Five Steps to Get Started
1. Check your business strategy. Who are your target customers? What problems do you solve for them? What makes you truly different to them?
2. Define an ideal customer experience—the way customers should learn about your company, try your products or services, purchase, get help and share ideas. Think about it as a conversation: What triggers customers to find you? What's the first thing you'd say to them? What are the key interactions in these conversations?
3. Unify channels by focusing on the customer experience. Just as good leaders treat everyone fairly but not equally, use each channel for only what it does best. This prevents unnecessary activity (and cost), and maximizes response.
4. Examine business processes, technology and information infrastructure alongside the defined customer experience. If you're investing in anything that doesn't improve the multi-access, multi-interaction experience you've defined, you're wasting money.
5. Purge cultural and reward systems that reinforce silo activity. Remember customers will move across channels to interact with you. Don't let channel accountability get in the way.