2014-08-July-Eye-Exam.jpgOmnichannel is rapidly taking over the customer engagement conversation, but it's more than just a new label. Omnichannel, according to the Winterberry Group, is defined as “seeking to promote a long term, channel agnostic approach to managing and optimizing (customer) relationships.” Customer engagement (or experience if you prefer) is defined by New Business Strategies as “a buyer’s satisfaction and perceived benefit with or about a brand’s messages, people, processes, products or services, through any interaction across all touch points over a relationship’s lifetime.”

Both focus on understanding how to engage with customers across the entire lifecycle of the relationship. They differ in their perspective. Customer engagement centers on the customer’s behavior as a result of her emotions, opinions and reactions to brand encounters. Omnichannel focuses on how brands can and should engage with customers.

Customer Experience as an Emergent System

Core to both of these is a belief that if brands can dissect the relationships customers value at a detailed enough level, relationships can be replicated and optimized at scale. Just as they taught us in school, if we take things apart to see how they work, we can understand the whole and affect it. While we have dissected animals and humans to understand “how they work,” the sum of the parts does not adequately explain what and how humans behave.

That is the challenge with omnichannel experience. Reductionism does not provide a model that brands can effectively implement. A better approach is to view customer experience as an emergent system. Reductionism focuses on causality or behavior triggers while emergence focuses on cues that produce outcomes or influences, positive and negative.

Instead of a sum of the whole to explain behavior, emergent theory focuses on how environments and cues trigger behavior. A buyer living in a technology hub like Silicon Valley or Seattle is more likely to rapidly adopt a new way of collaborating, shopping or approaching an existing problem than a buyer living in a rural town. The environment is heavily influenced by a cultural norm and behavioral cue of early adoption. That explains why Uber was initially successful in cities that are also technology hubs: swarming happened.

Our understanding of customer behavior and their cues is nascent. That doesn’t mean we should throw out omnichannel experience theories. We should view them in a broader context and understand they are stepping stones to a more holistic understanding of customers and how to effectively engage them.

Defining and Creating Value 

We do know that customers’ definition of value is often related to more than just the product they purchase. We know that customers have implicitly given brands permission to collect all sorts of information about them, their desires and behaviors through web forms, cookies, social listening, etc. Armed with knowledge about their personal tastes, needs and life events customers expect brands to engage them in human-like interactions with relevant value in the form of content, special offers, pricing, product usage information or inclusion in a community of like-minded individuals.