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Multi-channel: multi-purpose?

Posted on: Wednesday 22nd of February 2012

First came ‘pure play’ internet companies like Amazon and eBuy, then ‘bricks and clicks’ came along. Today, in retailing especially, online is about the only bright spot and for most customer facing companies ‘multi-channel’, face to face, phone, online, mobile, is now a must.

The challenges of multi-channel are well known. Customers increasingly expect to be able to jump seamlessly from one channel to another, but actually providing this seamless experience is a massive operational and data headache. Given the penalties for failing to achieve this (basically, loss of customers) and the contrasting upsides – a reputation for service plus the ability to cut costs by switching customers to digital channels – ‘going multi-channel’ has now a priority for many companies.

But, returning to the theme of ‘five ways to misdirect resources in 2012’ there are two ways in which ‘multi-channel’ can miss the point.

First, metrics. Companies naturally focus on their own ROI, what returns they get for the investments they make. But markets are shaped by ‘personal ROI’ – the returns individuals feel they get from the investments of personal assets like time, attention and energy that they make into their dealings with organisations. ‘Multi-channel’ is just one manifestation of the underlying market-shaping ‘gravitational’ force of the customer’s metrics.

Forward-looking companies are now realising that when it comes to metrics, they need to do a bit of re-framing. The definition of customer value is changing. Value is not just about features, functionality, quality and price. It’s also about improving the customer’s metrics from the start to the finish of their process. Multi-channel is just one part of this. The question for organisations then, is not ‘how can we maximise our ROI?’ in isolation. It’s ‘how can we improve our customers’ metrics and, in doing so, also improve our own?’. The two sets of metrics need to be connected, with the customers’ metrics placed first and the organisation’s metrics aligned accordingly.

Second, ‘multi-channel’ is not just about which touchpoints consumers use. It’s about the nature of value itself: in particular, individuals’ desire to make better decisions. Right now, a new market is emerging for decision-support services – tools, services and businesses that help individuals make, and implement, better decisions. Customers are flitting from one channel to another as they search for sources of information and tools that help them in their quest to make better decisions. Channel switching behaviour is driven to a large extent by this quest. Again, ‘multi-channel’ is just a manifestation of a deeper, more important development.

‘Multi-channel’ is, therefore, a manifestation of two deeper shifts: around customer metrics and decision-support. Focusing on ‘multi-channel’ in isolation risks missing this crucial shifts – multi-channel needs to become a way of addressing them.

Alan Mitchell