The concept of the Omni channel evolved from brick and mortar stores that were forced to sell thru the internet.  In the simplest example, a consumer can walk into any K-mart store and purchase some pants.  At the same time, another consumer can shop on the internet and order some pants from K-mart.  A third consumer may go to the K-mart store and order his pants in the store.  In all cases, the consumer shipped their pants (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hL4lSavSepc – a classic commercial worthy of any Super Bowl).  The challenge for the retailer is that they now have 3 channels to the consumer, and most likely each channel has a different technology footprint.  

Now let’s take our simple example and add in some other channels.  Most retailers have catalogues which provide consumers an 800 number with a call center.  QVC and other home shopping networks enable the capability of ordering direct from your interactive TV.  Outlet stores still scatter the American back roads.  Big box retailers try to surviveby selling popular brands that are priced right.  Internet sales may be from a computer at home, a computer in the store (as mentioned above), from a mobile device, or even from a kiosk at an airport. Internet sales may also come from other channels such as Amazon – the consumer may be ordering the product from a third party internet site, but the ordering/shipping channels back to retailer.

It is likely that most retailers have multiple channels to the consumer. Thus how the retailer reaches the consumer, including pricing, promotions and service, has become more complex, more challenging and more important.  Added all together, you have an omni-channel, and retailers must have an omni-channel strategy.

As you probably know, I am a chemicals guy, and I’m a horrible consumer.  I tend to buy things based on need and convenience, and I am loyal to no-one.  But recently I have had various chemical executives ask me about hybris and how omni-channels could be leveraged within the chemicals landscape.  Interesting question.

For the paint manufacturer, this is easy to answer, because it tends to follow the traditional retailer. Some paint manufacturers have retail stores (Benjamin Moore, Behr Paints, Dunn-Edwards, Sherwin-Williams), and most sell thru the DIY hardware store.  But let’s take a chemical manufacturer that does not sell direct to a consumer.  Chemical manufacturers sell to other chemical manufacturers or to formulators.  Dow makes polymers which are sold to paint manufacturers, adhesives producers, and to other chemical companies.    At the surface, it does not appear to be an omni-channel.  But the omni-channel is intended to address more than just who places the order – it must address how the order is placed, how the manufacturer interacts with the consumer, what types of service are offered. 

The customer, such as Behr Paints (let’s stick with a polymers example, simply because I’ve made many a polymer in my day), can call the order desk, can order on line, can respond to a replenishment order (assuming a VMI arrangement), or could even order thru a commodities clearing house.  The person receiving the customer order (often the customer service representative) is not the person that cares the most about the order.  The person that cares the most about the order may be the account executive that sent that customer a sample 3 months ago, the general manager that promised the order at a discount because of recent service issues, or the research scientist that modified the formula to improve tensile strength.  

But, that CSR (the person receiving the order) is the FIRST IMPRESSION to the customer.  We used to have a title at SAP to the person at the front desk – this person is the one who greets you, directs traffic, answers the phones and does countless other tasks that are critical to the first experience.  And the title was ‘Creator of First Impressions’.  I loved the title and it truly resonated with me.

Now, back to the CSR.  I used to manage a group of CSR’s at my old job (I should say they managed me…).  Most of them had about 30 years of experience – they were extremely knowledgeable and had a good handle on the business.  When we transitioned to SAP, I wanted them to provide more service – to truly be able to answer just about any question that the customer might ask.  At the time, SAP was in its infancy and I was not able to empower them with the tools they needed.  But my vision was correct – they should have been able to produce a COA, an MSDS, or a tech data sheet, as well as an invoice or purchase order.  It wasn’t just about the purchase order – it was about giving the customer what they wanted when they wanted it.  The CSR needed to have data at their fingertips, in any form.  Maybe this was the beginning of my definition of the omni-channel for chemical manufacturers, before the term existed.

So what is the omni-channel today for a chemical manufacture?  It needs to manage every source of customer interaction – from Elemica to the order desk to B2B to (gulp) phone/fax/email.  It needs to be 24×7 – you should not have to limit when a customer places an order.  And it needs to provide more service than just orders.  All of these interactions have meaning, and these interactions must be consolidated so trends can be reviewed (ie why have 27 customers requested a tech data sheet for Polymer AAx, is there an issue?).  The consolidation of these interactions is now the key to the omni-channel – the consolidation holds the key to the information.  It is true that the traditional chemical manufacturer may not have the typical omni-channel of a retailer with multiple stores and on-line ordering, but many of the concepts are still applicable.  How do you plan to use an omni-channel in the chemicals industry?

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