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Winning With Omnichannel Is Like Learning a New Language

Start with the building blocks: design a cohesive, integrated user experience

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Apigee

Languages have fascinated me since I was a young child. Words hold a power and history whose lure I could never resist, and I’ve made a lifelong hobby of learning new languages.

To my surprise and delight, what started as a personal fascination has gradually given me insight into my job at Apigee helping companies execute digital platform and omnichannel strategies. I’m often asked, for example, whether someone can learn a foreign language using some popular app. No, you can’t, I always reply. You can’t learn a new language from any one tool. That’s not how learning a language works.

I see the same thing in business. A company acquires skills in a few areas - web apps, say - and starts to wonder if it’s on its way to omnichannel goodness. No, you’re not, I always advise in this scenario. You’re focusing too much energy areas, and other parts of your business are withering—just like aspects of your language skills wither if you only use one app.  

It's Not About the Number of Channels—It's About Cohesion

People often say, “Well, if one tool is inadequate, the solution must be more tools.”

In language, this means that rather than one app, you’d use multiple: one for vocabulary flashcards, one for verb conjugations, one for listening, and so on. In digital business, this is analogous to a company whose web, mobile, and in-store channels all interact with customers.

But “more tools” isn’t helpful by itself, ipso facto. If the vocabulary app and verb app and listening app are pulling from and contributing to the same core learning plan, each reinforcing the others, then we’re on to something. If they aren’t, the tools are as likely to confuse and discourage the learner as to help them.

Likewise, if the company’s web, mobile, and in-store channels are just discrete units that sit alongside one another, never interacting, then no, “more tools” hasn’t made the business successful. But if the channels constitute a cohesive user experience, where interactions in one space ripple intelligently across the others, then we’re looking at a legitimate omnichannel set-up.

Immersion Enables Omnichannel's Full Potential—but Only If Your APIs are in Order

Cohesion and connectivity aren’t the whole story, of course.

There’s learning a language, and then there’s fluency. Likewise, there’s “legitimate omnichannel,” and then there’s the “omnichannel as holy grail” vision that’s been passed around virtually every industry in recent years—the one that’s inspired countless “right experience, right device, right time” conversations, and frustrated many enterprise execs who’ve found the vision easier to hype than to execute.  

What’s the difference between “I speak” and “I’m fluent” or between “omnichannel” and “holy grail”? The right attitude toward immersion.

“Right attitude” is the operative phrase here. One of the biggest myths in language learning is that the best way to learn a language is to forget about classes or apps, and to just move to a country where that language is spoken. We’ve all met people who’ve tried this. They end up speaking a hacked, overly idiomatic version of the language, never having learned the fundamentals. It’s not immersion that’s important to fluency—it’s immersion at the right moment.  

The business analogue is a company that chases after every new buzzword but never masters the fundamentals. It bolts technical solutions atop one another, assembling something that might suffice in the moment but that isn’t flexible enough to adapt to future shifts in user behavior. The business’s leaders wonder why projects don’t yield big returns on investment, why they struggle to move quickly, why their efforts never seem to click with the market.

Now imagine a second company that, instead of slavishly and superficially trying to immerse itself in each new trend, has learned the grammar of the digital economy.

Rather than operating with silos separating tech talent and business talent, this second company understands that developers create value in digital economies, and has infused technical talent into each part of its business.

When a customer trend gains steam, the first company attempts to hack a response out of its old monolith systems. The second company, in contrast, is prepared to move. It’s already made each part of its business - its CRM, its proprietary data, its digital assets - accessible via an API. The second business’s leaders understand that APIs serve as building blocks for developers, letting devise mix and match services and data to quickly create new apps and experiences.

The second company, in other words, is like a language learner who’s well-schooled in verb tenses, grammar, and vocabulary: it’s ready for immersion.

Omnichannel, Immersion, and Network Effects

For both a business and a language student, properly executed immersion can foster network effects.

In language immersion, the onslaught of native speakers creates a system of rapid feedback, allowing the student to learn more and more, faster and faster. The student’s speech becomes more fluid and natural, communicating more effectively with people, delighting everyone.

In business, well-documented and -managed APIs enable multiple teams of developers to concurrently create apps around a service, digital asset, or set of data. They streamline onboarding of new partners, making it easier for companies to not only participate in their own channels but also those of other companies. They’re used to generate analytics and insights that inform future strategies, turning omnichannel technologies into a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The net effect is a massive proliferation in the number of ways a business can be integrated into customer experiences, and in the amount of information a company has about how its services are being adopted and used.  

And from there? Just as fluency in one language enables a student to more easily learn others, and to engage in new immersion experiences, API-first strategies enable companies to bring digital efficiencies and scale to entirely new areas.

If APIs are a good way to offer a company’s services through a mobile app, they’re a great way to weave those services into an even wider ecosystem—like the one Ticketmaster has cultivated, using an API platform to integrate its offerings with partners such as Facebook, Fox Sports, Tidal, Broadway.com, and Costco.

Similarly, if APIs are good for customer-facing apps, they’re great for partner or supply chain apps—such as the way Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza used an API platform to create its online marketplace. If APIs are good for consumer apps, they’re great for employee apps—such as Burberry’s app, which helps associate personalize the in-store shopping experience by analyzing the customer’s past purchases, color and fabric preferences, and other factors.

Just think of that bigger omnichannel picture: A platform that facilitates dialogue with customers, partners, supply chains, and employees, with all channels feeding into each other to enable faster adjustments and quicker learning.  Sounds like immersion to me.

Download the “Realize the True Potential of Omnichannel” eBook

 

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