It’s not a buzzword, and it can’t always be clearly defined, but it’s vital
Mobile. Cloud. Big Data. The Internet of Things.
Some technology buzzwords become so embedded in the lexicon they reach cliché status at warp speed. It’s not that the concepts themselves aren’t valid—in fact, they’re absolutely vital. However, they’re also so broad they mean everything and nothing at the same time. That’s perfect for industry observers and bloggers looking to pontificate, but totally boring for those of us actually in the trenches.
And so it is with omni-channel. Sure, in an environment where the branch and the ATM have to co-exist with custom mobile apps, omni-channel isn’t just important, it’s inevitable. Every customer now comes at us through multiple channels and expects the same level of personalized service in each one. But what exactly does that mean?
First, let’s acknowledge that even more than our other competitive pressure points, omni-channel is a moving target. More to the point, it’s moving fast, and moving constantly. It’s similar to an extremely complex NASCAR race—fixing the car in a garage is one thing, but imagine having to continuously upgrade and improve the machine while it’s in racing mode.
The challenges get even thornier in the field of financial services. As financial services providers and financial institutions, we’re not really in the business of technology—it enables what we do, but it’s not what we do.
Let’s say that our core mission is to drive a portfolio of deposits and loans to drive excellent net interest margins, followed by fee structures that are outweighed by fantastic products and services that allow consumers to achieve their financial objectives. Again, technology might be the foundation for a significant part of this experience, but it’s a means, not an end.
In omni-channel, however, technology demands far greater mindshare, not to mention time, skills and financial resources. Offering a seamless customer experience through the dizzying variety of channels—and every new app, exciting as it is for the customer, can seem like yet another channel all by itself—requires common platforms, enhanced integration, greater security and of course excellent navigation and other forms of user experience.
It’s a boon for the user and a nightmare for the in-house IT folks. After all, the customer isn’t thinking of it in terms of branch vs. ATM vs. mobile app; to them, it’s just the bank and the customer, and everything else is communication and transaction. However, when it’s done right, investing in one channel can lead to greater equity in other channels, allowing for a seamless multi-channel experience.
It’s also advisable to remember that many other industries are in the same boat, and some have picked up lessons that we can learn. Earlier in my own career, I spent two years in specialty retail developing mobile associate tools that integrated channels in a single view. My perspective coming into specialty retail was one of financial services; I had just transitioned from a large financial institution located in the southeast U.S. I had already learned the criticality of customer centricity and applied this into a mobile omni-channel solution for retail sales associates.
Every customer engagement starts with a customer’s profile, purchase history, online wish lists, and recommendations. When combined with a simple conversation, the associate has a customer needs assessment. Easy enough, but the magic bullet and where winning retailers are pulling from the pack is by virtualizing all of their merchandise across all channels. To say it another way, these retailers are bridging their physical brick-and-mortar merchandise with stuff they sell online. This means customers of omni-channel retailers are getting what they want, whether the item is on hand physically or not.
For the record, I’ll acknowledge that specialty retail is quite a bit ahead of the curve with respect to omni-channel consumer experiences, and here’s why. The industry fully understands that if I, as a customer, walk into a store and can’t find the dinner set I want in the color of my choice then I’ll head for another store in the same mall. But if the sales associate can use easily accessible technologies to show me options that aren’t in the store but are in the centralized warehouse (or sister stores for that matter), and promise to have exactly what I want shipped to my home the next day, that’s a whole different story. If it happens seamlessly, the store will have my business, and my brand loyalty.
We’re not selling dinner sets or other consumer goods, of course, but the principle is the same. In fact, for community banks with a relatively small geographic target market, this is a perfect example of how omni-channel can be incredibly effective. Every interaction—branch, ATM, online, mobile app, others yet to come—is a test of the institution’s knowledge and appreciation of customer loyalty.
So let’s put the clichés aside, and let’s also stop thinking of omni-channel as a trend, nascent or established. Those waiting for a sharper definition are wasting their time; by the time they get there, it’ll be something else. It’s here, it’s already very different from all that came before, and it will keep changing right along with the technologies that enable it. In most quarters it’s still an outlier, but pretty soon it’ll be table stakes. And those that jump aboard now, put technology upfront and accept change as a constant will win big.
Ryan Loesch is the Director Product Strategy, Omnichannel Solutions at Digital Insight, an NCR company. Ryan joined NCR Financial Services from NCR’s Retail Division, where Ryan led the design and development of omni-channel tablet and mobile applications for high-touch retail environments. Ryan’s focus with NCR Financial Services is to seek out both short and long-term integration opportunities across physical and digital channels while developing and implementing relevant solutions. Prior to NCR, Ryan was first vice president of strategic program management with SunTrust Bank in Atlanta, Ga. Ryan has been developing mobile applications since the app craze began six years ago.