Why Omni-Channel Commerce Could Cost You Your Job (And 4 Things You Can Do About It)

At the recent Adobe Summit in Salt Lake City, the annual trek made by digital marketers from all over the world to hear everything marketing, there was a buzz around retailers and the challenges poised by omni-channel commerce. When it comes to omni-channel commerce, retailers fall into three categories. There are retailers that are struggling to polish the concept, some that are just getting started, and others that are still trying to decipher multi-channel from omni-channel.

The ecommerce blog Get Elastic put it best when it described the difference between multi-channel and omni-channel: "Multi means 'more than two' and omni means 'every.' You can operate in as many 'channels' as you want, but you're not an omni-channel business unless there is an interconnectedness between every touchpoint from the perspective of the consumer."

And therein lies the rub. Executives trying to make all the right moves when it comes to omni-channel commerce are risking everything by not understanding how that "interconnectedness" comes about, or what elements make up a successful omni-channel strategy.

In many ways, omni-channel commerce is like other disruptions driven by advances in digital technology. Video rental chain Blockbuster became synonymous with failure after executives there turned their backs on digital downloads and shunned a partnership with startup Netflix. Blockbuster executives were blind to changes in how customers wanted to engage with their service, and they paid the ultimate price.

Retailers today are facing a similar shift. Customers are turning to digital touchpoints to interact with brands in every way, and it's not uncommon for customers to use several touchpoints at different stages of their customer journeys. Any cracks along the way, and these fickle and impatient customers lose faith and shop elsewhere. This reality has retail executives scrambling to provide the best omni-channel experience.

Developing a plan for omni-channel success is an involved process that global brands and large retailers should build with a Solution Provider. However, understanding these four simple rules will give you a head start:

1 - One Channel To Rule Them All

Stop thinking about online and in-store customers as different people, or online and physical store sales as separate things. Store managers certainly need to separate out traffic numbers by channel so they can effectively plan staffing levels and other day-to-day tasks of running a specific store, but when it comes to servicing the customer, your channels should operate seamlessly. Don't dump your "channel" problem onto the customer hoping that they'll understand, because they won't.

2 - Embrace the Age of the Customer

Become obsessed with the customer and the experiences they have with your brand regardless of where or how they shop. Retailers today are operating in the Age of the Customer, a term coined by Forrester Research to explain how the scales of influence have tipped in favor of customers armed with digital technology such as smartphones. The new reality is that digital-empowered customers know more about products, services, pricing, and reputation than the actual brands do.

3 - Let the API do the work

Don't rely on legacy technology to build an omni-channel platform. Omni-channel is inherently a multi-vendor endeavor. An omni-channel strategy demands seamless interaction in what are otherwise complex systems, a graceful ballet of technology from different vendors all performing a unique task: point-of-sale, commerce, content management, in-store signage, mobile, customer profiling, product information, and many more. Legacy technology -- think "big box" vendors selling a magic "single stack" solution -- often fail at omni-channel projects because they don't play nice with others. Legacy technology platforms were not built for this new age of retail where software components and services from different vendors intermingle seamlessly. They only work well if all systems are from the same vendor, an improbable situation today.

A recent survey by Forrester Consulting of 102 executives across industries found that the greatest threat to successfully launching digital projects -- including omni-channel -- is relying on outdated technology and "hard wiring" old technology platforms to new customer-facing digital experiences. Companies that ignore this fact, the survey found, have digital projects that fail 60% of the time.

To avoid having your omni-channel project fail, CMOs and CIOs should develop a "best-of-breed" strategy that leverages the power of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Decoupling and abstracting enterprise systems with unified APIs -- a way to combine resources drawn from multiple platforms -- makes it easier for executives to succeed at omni-channel.

4 - Break Down Organizational Silos

Finally, succeeding at omni-channel commerce requires organizations to rethink how they are structured. In many companies, online stores are operated by a specific "digital" team, while physical stores are run by yet another operations team. This siloed structure inside an organization can result in a fragmented customer experience, something your customers will invariably notice. Silos must be broken down. Organizations must undergo shifts -- sometimes radical -- in their structures to align themselves with how customers act today.

Omni-channel strategies are not rocket science, but they can seem overwhelming. By following these guidelines and betting on the right "best-of-breed" platform, senior IT and marketing executives can build a plan that works for their organizations.

This article orginally appeared on The Huffington Post.