Article

What is omnichannel? Definition, strategy, and examples

Omnichannel and multichannel experiences are not the same. Here’s why your business needs omnichannel—and how to get there.

By Peter Alig, Contributing Writer

Published June 9, 2022
Last updated June 14, 2022

You’re heading to the beach in a week, and your friend sends you an Instagram photo of the perfect $50 sundress from a local boutique. You decide it’s best to try it on first, so you head to the store. But when you get there, it doesn’t have all the sizes advertised online. Apologizing, the sales associate gives you a promo code to use for free overnight shipping.

Once you get home and return to the shop’s website, you find that you need to spend $200 for the promo code to work. Frustrated, you tag the brand in a tweet and hear nothing. You call the boutique only to find out that the associate who gave you the code is on vacation, so you need to explain the entire situation again. You give up and decide to buy a dress elsewhere.

This business should have invested in an omnichannel customer experience, which would have united online and offline channels—and likely resulted in a sale. But according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022, only a third of companies are omnichannel. That means there are still opportunities to offer the channels and experiences that drive greater customer loyalty and lifetime value.

Only a third of companies are omnichannel.

An investment in omnichannel is an investment in connecting with customers on their terms and winning their repeat business.

What is omnichannel?

Omnichannel (or omni-channel) is an approach that enables companies to communicate with customers in a consistent way across channels. Essentially, it’s an integrated, cohesive multichannel experience for customers.

Omnichannel vs. multichannel

omnichannel vs. multichannel

Say you operate both online and brick-and-mortar stores and use phone, chat, SMS, email, Twitter, and Instagram to interact with customers.

Your business has a multichannel strategy because you communicate with customers on various channels. While your customers may be able to contact you via phone, chat, SMS, email, and social media, those conversations stay siloed. They can’t continue from one channel to the next.

Your business becomes omnichannel when your interactions are connected and consistent across all channels, devices, and platforms. A support agent can see that a caller has been a customer for 10 years and previously texted a question, so they can acknowledge their loyalty and refer to their past inquiry.

In sum: Multichannel is about providing multiple communication channels, while omnichannel is about connecting all those channels so interactions can seamlessly move from one channel to another.

Benefits of an omnichannel experience

Omnichannel experiences are investments in customer-centricity. Customers have little reason to stick around if you don’t provide a smooth experience across locations, channels, and devices. An omnichannel approach helps you keep customers happy by delivering better, more personalized support.

It’s more convenient for customers

To offer an omnichannel experience, support teams must be able to access information about customers across channels. Agents will have more context, and customers won’t have to repeat themselves. Our Customer Experience Trends Report found that 71 percent of consumers expect a company to share information internally so they don’t have to repeat themselves.

Say you discover that your customers prefer to contact the support team via live chat. Rolling out a chat option across desktop and mobile devices sounds convenient, but it’s still multichannel. If one of those customers decides to call your support team after a lengthy chat exchange on desktop—only to learn the agent has no record of it—that sense of convenience evaporates quickly. An omnichannel approach unifies conversations, magnifying the convenience that multichannel offers.

71% of consumers expect a company to share information internally so they don’t have to repeat themselves.

An omnichannel mindset matters, especially considering that brands with disjointed multichannel experiences risk churn. According to our CX Trends Report, 61 percent of shoppers would switch to a company’s competitor after just one bad customer service experience.

It creates upsell and cross-sell opportunities

Omnichannel experiences can also increase profitability. Our report revealed that when you offer consumers their preferred option to contact customer support, 93 percent of them will spend more.

But there’s more to the story.

With omnichannel customer support, agents can fully see customer interactions across channels, so they’re set to provide intelligent product recommendations—creating room for upselling and cross-selling.

Say a jewelry company launches a new line of bracelets, and a customer asks a sizing question via live chat. The agent pulls up the customer’s purchase history and notices the customer routinely buys jewelry from email blasts and recently bought a necklace. The interaction goes well, and at the end, the agent emails the customer a link to a bracelet that would pair well with the necklace they purchased.

It helps you uncover customer insights

When you offer an omnichannel experience, you’re giving customers the chance to connect with your brand across a wide range of platforms. And because your communication is consistent, customers are likely to use these channels to reach out to you.

With so many opportunities to connect with customers, omnichannel companies receive a lot of data about their audience. And when businesses have a wealth of customer information at their fingertips, they can learn more about their audience and how to improve their experience. They also gain insights that enable them to personalize customer interactions. When companies successfully meet buyers’ needs with personalized support, they’re more likely to retain them in the long run.

How to create an omnichannel strategy

A successful omnichannel strategy isn’t just a plan to use the same channels as your competition. It requires a thorough understanding of your customer base, a willingness to A/B test, and a way to organize and make sense of customer data.

  • Centralize your customer data in a CRM

    A customer relationship management (CRM) system is the hub of omnichannel experiences. It serves as the main warehouse for customer data.

    With sophisticated integrations, a CRM can also track customer interactions across channels, including email, social media, and chat. When all the information is in one place and every department has access to this data, you get a 360 customer view.

    For support agents, this 360-degree view gives them the context they need to deliver speedy resolutions and personalized experiences.

    omnichannel

    Image source

    In the live chat above, a CRM integrated with contact center as a service (CCaaS) software allows the agent to see that the customer is a VIP. As a result, the agent prioritizes the customer and provides the expected VIP amenity (upgraded shipping). If the support agent also sees a sales opportunity, they can send the exchange to sales.

    Omnichannel enables sales reps to view support conversations for context, research the customer’s preferences, and hone their sales pitches accordingly.

  • Map the customer journey across channels and devices

    An omnichannel strategy depends on anticipating customers’ needs on every channel. If you know what your audience typically wants on each channel, you and your agents will be better prepared to deliver the helpful support experience buyers expect from your brand.

    A customer journey map helps you visualize the interactions you and your customers may have across channels. Use your CRM to create the map and see how different channels can work together.

    You might learn from your customer data, for instance, that people often exit a chat with your bot if it can’t answer their question in an average of three attempts. To improve customer engagement, you can set up a journey where your chatbot connects customers to an agent after three failed responses. If the customer leaves the chat, a support agent follows up with an email.

  • Monitor your omnichannel experiences

    Once you’re communicating with customers across channels, track key performance indicators (KPIs) to make sure you’re keeping your audience happy—no matter what platform you’re using.

    As a starting point, pay attention to these metrics on all your channels:

    Average ticket resolution time (ART): This is the total time it takes to resolve tickets within a specific time frame divided by the number of tickets solved within that same period. While this metric will vary somewhat across channels—phone queries will probably be more complex than chat queries—ART should be relatively similar between different platforms.

    Customer satisfaction survey (CSAT) responses: If your omnichannel approach is working, customers should be happy with your support, no matter what channel they’re using. After support interactions, send CSAT surveys that ask, “How would you rate your satisfaction with our customer service?” Customers respond on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5, with higher scores signaling higher satisfaction.

    These KPIs only tell part of the story. Use other customer service metrics to gauge how consistent and helpful your support is across channels.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

Trends in omnichannel

As customer habits and technology evolve, omnichannel experiences need to keep up. The more you can stay ahead of omnichannel trends, the better you can outperform the competition.

Social selling

Omnichannel is all about offering a seamless customer experience across channels—including social media. In previous years, businesses would primarily use a social media account to drive customers to their online stores using a mix of photos and videos. Today, company social media accounts can serve as an additional storefront.

Instagram shopping launched in 2019, allowing users to purchase items tagged in feeds, Stories, Reels, and live videos. Statista reports that in 2021, 47 percent of consumers purchased items on Instagram—surpassing YouTube and TikTok.

Say a shopper buys a pair of leggings advertised on Instagram. If the business maintains its Instagram product information in Shopify, it can integrate Shopify with its CRM and CCaaS software. Shopify records the sale as originating from Instagram, and that information flows into the CRM. Some CCaaS integrations give support agents the ability to see this sales data and even respond to customers within Instagram.

Consumers can also receive support through Instagram—without sacrificing consistency if they switch channels later. Imagine a consumer buys those leggings via Instagram, but they don’t arrive when they’re supposed to. The consumer sends the company an Instagram direct message complaining that the leggings haven’t arrived. An agent sees when the Instagram order was placed in Shopify and uses that information to inform their response. If the shopper later uses live chat to ask a question, the agent can reference the prior Instagram conversation.

BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store)

Seamless omnichannel experiences can bridge digital channels and brick-and-mortar stores. One example is BOPIS, a business model that shows no sign of slowing down: Insider Intelligence predicted that 150 million people in the U.S. would make a purchase via BOPIS at least once in 2021, up 15 percent from 2020.

Consistent communication between channels is important because it can increase order values through upselling or cross-selling. Say a customer buys a pair of leggings online and wants to pick them up at the store. Shortly after the customer places their order, the company can send them an SMS message or email with a discount on a related item found only in the store.

With a Shopify and CCaaS integration, a support agent can also see whether a caller is a consistent BOPIS shopper. The agent can then ask about the in-store experience and pass that information on to the operations team.

Omnichannel experience examples

Many companies are leveraging omnichannel commerce in various ways to foster long-term customer relationships.

IKEA: Integration of ecommerce and brick-and-mortar stores

IKEA has adapted to the latest shopping trends and created a consistent experience between its physical and online stores. Using augmented reality, IKEA allows customers to visualize pieces of furniture in their homes. Shoppers “visit” a variety of rooms and arrange items based on color and dimension. They can even remove items that don’t fit.

IKEA

Image source

By injecting the showroom experience into the virtual space, IKEA brings comfort (something the brand is known for in-store) to online buying.

And if you want to purchase an item on the website and pick it up at a physical location? You can do that, too.

Chipotle: Omnichannel loyalty program

Chipotle allows customers to accrue and use loyalty points whether they order in-store, online, or via the mobile app.

The company also embedded an AI-powered chatbot into its app, complementing the desktop and tablet experiences. The chatbot’s voice even reflects Chipotle’s brand persona.

Chipotle

Chipotle’s omnichannel loyalty strategy appears to be working. At the end of Q3 2021, the Chipotle Rewards program grew to 24 million members.

Bouchaine Vineyards: Virtual tastings

Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa Valley was forced to pivot to virtual wine tastings during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they proved so popular that Bouchaine continued to do them even after the tasting room reopened.

Bouchaine Vineyards

Image source

Virtual tastings provide Bouchaine with another channel to acquire customers and help encourage guests to visit the physical tasting room. Bouchaine can also gather customer data through virtual tastings, such as wine preferences, which can help the sales team personalize their email offers.

An omnichannel approach takes time to perfect

Creating and implementing an omnichannel experience isn’t quick and easy. Not only do you need all stakeholders—including product, customer service, and operations teams—on the same page, but you also need to roll out the experience slowly to ensure it resonates with your customers.

Wherever you are in your omnichannel strategy development, it’s critical to build a coherent, aligned experience across channels. Using software like Zendesk can help you connect directly with your buyers and deliver the support they deserve and expect—no matter where they are, what they’re doing, or what device they’re using.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

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