How Omnichannel Marketing Fuels Remarkable Customer Experiences

What if creating remarkable customer experiences was as easy as pushing a button?

The “Easy Button” has become a marketing icon for Staples, the office supply retailer. It is a wonderfully simple manifestation of their Brand Story and it clearly and succinctly communicates the brand promise of being “easy to do business with” – a perfect example of a six-second story. But let’s face it: we’re talking about a red plastic button that says, “that was easy” when you press it. At last count, Staples has sold over 8 million of these things. Impressive indeed, but what real, measurable impact has that had on Staples’ customer experience (CX)? 

With an 800-lb gorilla like Amazon breathing down your neck every day, you need more than a red plastic toy to win in a highly competitive and commoditizing market.

When Faisal Masud joined Staples as Chief Digital Officer in 2015, his mandate was clear: follow B2B shoppers moving online and meet their demands by doubling down on digital… and make it easy!

Staples has had a digital presence since 1998 — long before many other retailers — but Masud’s ambition was to take it to the next level and create a seamless omnichannel customer experience. He knew that just supporting multiple channels for customers would be insufficient. Staples would have to be sure that all channels would connect to one another.

“The goal for Staples has been to be a unified view of the customer, where we are completely agnostic to where customers shop, offline or in the stores, on their phone or on their desktop, or through any other means, and really making sure that we personalize that experience to them.” — Faisal Masud, Chief Digital Officer at Staples

One of the biggest challenges of omnichannel is resolving the deal-breaking frustration customers experience when they are forced to engage separately with the online and offline pieces of the same business, from deals and coupon offers to product purchases and returns.

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Watson IBM and AI Powered Chatbots Reinforce Staples’ Brand Story

The Staples team started by attempting to reduce some of the friction in their customer service department by building an online chat function using IBM Watson. The brand leveraged artificial intelligence tools to answer basic customer questions in real time on their mobile app. Staples later announced plans to extend the chat functionality beyond customer service to support more sophisticated customer ordering experiences across on its website as well as Facebook Messenger and via Slack.   

With the quick success of the chatbot enhancing the customer experience, Masud’s team moved on to a much bigger challenge: transforming their iconic Easy Button into an intelligent, voice-driven interface that allows customers to reorder office supplies with minimum human interaction. In a single afternoon, Staples built a simple but effective and engaging conversational platform using Watson services to link the Easy Button with a customer’s online shopping cart.

“A critical component of Watson’s technology is engagement, facilitating better interactions between brands and consumers, deepening connections, and enhancing how people engage,”
— Steve Abrams, Vice President of Developer Advocacy at IBM Watson

But Masud and his team have not stopped there. They continue to build out the technology to include natural language processing and analytics tools from Watson. Today, the Easy Button is truly living up to its iconic promise: making it far easier for any customer to place an order and get access to other Staples services, anytime, anywhere. 

However, as Masud has pointed out in his public comments, successfully delivering an omnichannel customer experience has more to do with breaking down barriers in the organization rather than beating the competition with technology.

“The biggest challenge retail faces is not Amazon — it’s actually the structure within, that setup where the store location and the online business are completely siloed and essentially combating each other. And it doesn’t work for the customer. Because the customer is looking at the retailer with one lens: Can I shop with them any which way I want?”  — Faisul Masud, Chief Digital Officer at Staples

And that’s where Staples is headed next. They are exploring how to “fingerprint” customers across channels – stitching together all the valuable customer data they must have to provide a cohesive, personalized experience regardless of channel touchpoint. For companies like Staples with lots of retail locations, this is a major barrier to overcome. Fingerprinting a store customer requires attaching an identity to every shopper who walks through the door. No one’s nailed the algorithm for this yet, but Staples is working on it!

So, what can be learned from Staples’ omnichannel experience?

First, we all must acknowledge that customer experience is at the heart of every business. No matter what your business does and how you do it, your customers are what keeps your business going. Finding new and innovative ways to engage with them and make their experience better is what every company must strive to do.   

“Customers don’t care when they start browsing in one place and end up purchasing in another  — but you need to.”

By adopting an omnichannel mindset and answering two key questions, you can begin to uncover new opportunities to create remarkable customer experiences:

1. Do you have a unified view of the customer?

As we learned in the Staples case, an organization must have a unified view of the customer. That view must be completely agnostic to where customers shop – offline or in-store, on their mobile device or on their desktop – so you can personalize and optimize the customer experience. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer than having to share their same information with your team over-and-over to complete a single transaction or resolve an issue. Your team should have visibility to every interaction that has occurred across all channels with the customer up to that “moment of truth” – with the data they need at their fingertips to not only respond to the specific request but also to anticipate their potential future needs based on interactions with other similar customers. Tools like Weaveability can greatly improve your team’s ability to deliver a consistent, unified experience across all customer channels and touch points.

2. What are the channel preferences of your customers?

Customers have become used to a retail society that is nearly always open and accessible. With 24-hour stores and “always-on” social media, customers expect instant gratification. Social media interaction tools and online chat are enabling companies to be accessible at all hours and on their customer’s terms. Until recently, this technology was expensive and could only be afforded by companies with deep pockets. But that is no longer true. Today, even small retailers with limited budgets can leverage these capabilities for their own business. Of course, many of your customers still seek out more tangible, conversational interactions – preferring natural voice over text. Chatbots, using embedded natural language processing, are maturing rapidly and we predict they will become a standard way for companies to reduce friction in customer experiences and to eliminate long queues in their call centers. Chatbots are especially ideal for responding to customers who are asking routine or frequently asked questions. As a side benefit, this enables the company to focus their human CSRs on serving those customers with more challenging or complicated issues.

We can learn much from Staples as they evolve and enhance their omnichannel customer experience.  Clearly, it is a company whose leaders have embraced a transformative approach to their business and they’ve tackled the 3S’s. They have a simple and compelling Story, a clear and integrated go-to-market Strategy, and they are aligning their Systems (people, process, and technology) to deliver a remarkable, omnichannel customer experience. Learn more about the 3 steps to transform customer experiences and how to bring simplicity, clarity, and alignment to your brand’s Story, Strategy, and Systems in our eBook Transformational Marketing: Moving to the TopRight.

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