In the digital world the customer’s attention span is extremely short. The customer switches to a competitor faster because it’s easy and it costs nothing. The competition is fierce and so the customer can afford to be demanding. The customer gathers information online and has largely made his choice already before entering the store. He talks about his experiences with the brand – both on- and offline – unrestrainedly on social media. “It’s important to maintain contact with the customer throughout the process,” says Jan Paesen, B2B Marketing Director at Proximus. “Authenticity, closeness and differentiation are the keywords in this.” These are the aspects that determine the customer experience. “Although a great deal is possible online, you can’t replace the hands-on experience in the store,” says Herman Van Beveren, CEO of Decathlon Belgium. “Customers come to our store because they want to know how that new bicycle they saw online feels.” Decathlon very deliberately promotes that experience. “Our stores are known for their wide aisles,” explains Herman Van Beveren, “where children can ride scooters to their heart’s content.”
But what if you have no network of stores? Or your service is one for which the customer doesn’t go to a store, like gas and electricity? How then do you, as a supplier, seek closeness with the customer? “We stay close to our customers via our shared values and ideas,” says Grégoire van Cutsem, Commercial Director at energy supplier Lampiris. “At the same time we’re easily accessible, online and by phone. With us you don’t have to go through an endless menu of choices first. After a maximum of two steps you get someone on the line who’s happy to answer your question.” Lampiris chooses local employees who speak the customer’s language for this. The company also ensures consistency throughout all communication, via chat and social media among other things. “We keep our finger on the pulse of things by continuously measuring customer satisfaction,” says Jan Huysmans, Director for Belgium at bol.com. “When we see changes in the customer’s expectations, we respond to them quickly and directly.”
An online shop with a customer base like that of bol.com has large quantities of data on the search and buying behavior of customers over time. That allows the company to communicate in a very relevant way with those customers. “We have 9 million products in the selection,” according to Jan Huysmans, “with, in addition, millions more reviews that customers have written about those products.” By sharing that knowledge, the company gets closer to its customers. “The next step is to offer that sort of information in the store too,” says Herman Van Beveren, “and so extend the online experience into the analog world.” At Smartphoto, the customer experience takes place mainly online. The company makes personalized photo products. “Our customers put those products together themselves,” says Stef De corte, CEO of Smartphoto Group. “We work only to order. That already makes our business very personal by definition.” To make the bond with the customer still stronger, Smartphoto attaches extra importance to communication with the customer. Stef De corte: “A confirmation e-mail – after an order has been placed – doesn’t have to be boring or impersonal. It can also be human and good-natured, with a focus on inspiration and creative ideas.”
The omnichannel story includes more than the division between the traditional, brick-and-mortar store and the web shop. The mobile aspect can be important, with the possibility of sale via a mobile website or via apps. “In the omnichannel model you must be present at the time the demand arises,” says Jan Huysmans. “Sometimes you need a web shop for this, sometimes an app too, for example to bring in an instant buy. At the same time you must also dare to look outside the traditional company boundaries. We believe strongly in the open data concept. A developer who is building an application for a gift register, for example, can get access to our data to incorporate into their app.” For Lampiris such an app is not a must right now, because the choice of an energy supplier is not usually an impulsive decision. “To our mind, a reliable, responsive site that is easily accessible with a mobile device is sufficient,” says Grégoire van Cutsem. “In the context of our activities an app doesn’t have immediate added value at this time.” Decathlon has an app that mainly serves as a digital customer card. At Smartphoto, the customer’s need determines the channel used. “For small mobile screens we have an app,” says Stef De corte. “Here it’s in fact more about facilitating an instant buy, like ordering prints of photos that are on your smartphone. Customers prefer to make a photo album or personalized cards via our site, on a bigger screen.”
In the digital era the customer appears to be demanding and impatient. “That is the case,” says Herman Van Beveren. “The customer has very high expectations, wants everything to be possible, and wants everything to work. Hence we’ve already equipped our stores with Wi-Fi. Without that connection the customer feels limited.” Van Beveren: “We also offer all possible combinations: order online and pick up in the store, order in the store and deliver at home, and so forth.” But as a retailer you can often no longer keep everything in-house. “Of course we do everything to meet the expectations of the customer,” says Huysmans. “But we don’t necessarily do everything ourselves. We have pickup points in the Albert Heijn stores.” So ecosystems arise in which all the partners involved are responsible for part of the expertise. “Our specialty lies in an online sales platform and the logistics that lie behind it,” continues Huysmans. “That is expertise we also offer other parties as a service. A company like Torfs, for example, also sells its products in our web shop.”
Especially for businesses with roots in the analog world, the switch to an omnichannel approach is not so evident. A logistics platform is needed, and that isn’t created in the snap of the fingers. “The logistics issue is really a challenge,” says De corte. “Customers can pick up their orders in the Spector stores. But if the customer expects his order the next day, we must, in practice, deliver to all the pickup points every day.” That too, of course, is a way to stay close to the customer as a company. “Everything is custom work by request of the customer, so we don’t have product returns,” continues De corte. “But we do offer a type of guarantee. If the customer has had us print a communion card with a typing error, we make that order again with the right text free of charge.” That is a service the customer appreciates enormously; concern over the mistake gives way to lasting trust in the supplier. That creates a strong story that customers like to share via social media. “That way you create impact,” says van Cutsem, “because a lot of people pick up that story. We present ourselves this way too. If there is a problem, we don’t hide it. On the contrary, we talk about it openly and apologize. That only strengthens the bond with the customer.”
The supplier focuses on the customer and builds up a long-term relationship through a network of integrated analog and digital channels. A legacy from the analog past cannot be an excuse here. It’s a matter of choosing a consistent approach. But the consumer is in charge. As a company you must be sufficiently flexible to be able to respond to every change in customer behavior. The customer expects nothing less than an extraordinary experience. In the omnichannel world it is more than ever necessary that the company present itself as the buyer for its customer, not as the seller for its suppliers.
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