Multi-Channel is Toast (and Other Crazy Assumptions)

Last week I watched a presentation given by Barton Stabler at this years eTail conference entitled, “Why Multi-Channel is Toast” and I have to say it was one of the strangest presentations I’ve seen. Stabler seems like an accomplished User Experience professional who has based his impression of multi-channel on bad experiences. I’m not sure what the author’s intent was, and after a few days of confusion over the content — only rivaled by my confusion after seeing the movie Mulholland Drive — I think he not only proved the exact opposite, and despite his best efforts to the contrary, demonstrated why it is so important to implement properly.

Stabler begins with an interesting philosophical paradox, Buridan’s Ass, which states when a mule is placed equidistant between two bales of hay, he will starve to death being unable to make a decision on which bale to eat. The premise of the paradox is that the mule lacks the free will to make a decision given two completely equal choices. The consumer is the mule in this case and I found it an interesting lead in to the presentation to metaphorically call the consumer an incapable ass with no free will.

Given the presentations presumptuous title, I thought I’d organize my walk-through of the presentation highlights by pulling some equally interesting assumptions from history. Here we go…

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” –Mark Twain

Much like Mark Twain’s demise, reports of multi-channel being toast are also greatly exaggerated. I began to understand the point of reference, though as he walked through his “multi-channel” grill shopping experience. In his very disjointed shopping experience, there was an assumption that all consumers approached shopping in exactly the same way he did. And in all of this experience, he really didn’t talk about multi-channel that much. He spoke of different individual channels across multiple retailers and one poorly implemented multi-channel attempt at Sears. Currently, I think multi-channel is done well in very few instances. That doesn’t make it toast, though, it makes it young. Debenhams, the UK retailer, does a great job of multi-channel, in my opinion. In fact, I wrote a post about their multi-channel efforts in April of 2011 entitled, Multi-Channel Done Right. And they’ve gotten better at it since.

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”– Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

Stabler goes on to say that channel messages will conflict. Yes, they will, if you’re not paying attention. And wow, the Beatles had two guitarists and they had to play complementary and appropriate parts that meshed with the other instruments. As with music, you have to orchestrate multi-channel efforts. Managing the group of channels as a single, seamless experience for the consumer is what will make this pay off. Short of that, it won’t have the desired results. So, if this is the concern, you may have the wrong multi-channel strategy. For what it’s worth, George Martin knew that John, George, Paul, and Ringo were his “channels” and it rarely made sense to let Ringo do all the singing.

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876.

We all have to be careful that we’re not discounting preferred communication methods of the consumer just because we don’t think it has validity. True, you have to choose where to invest but many communication options are relatively inexpensive to implement today. To this point, Stabler talks about receiving an unwanted email at 2am and how it totally blew the experience. Sears sent the poor guy an email at 2am letting him know his purchase was ready for pickup. Somehow he equated this as a massive failure on the part of Sears. Really? They sent an email as soon as the order was ready so that he would see it first thing in the morning. If Sears had called him at 2am and told him to check his email, now that would have been a massive failure. But this?  Come on. This is using email as it was intended to be used. Sending the communication at the earliest opportunity was a good option as email is not inherently “invasive” like a 2am phone call. As I’ve mentioned, the consumer should be in charge of how they want to communicate and if they want to check email at 2am, then that’s their choice. If not, no one has actually been bothered in the process.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” — H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

When silent movies met with sound, Warner’s reaction was his above quote. And while I share his passion for not hearing certain actors talk, what he missed was a new interaction that the audience wanted. Stabler makes a good point about companies not being able to decide how the audience wants to talk to them. However, he seems to mischaracterize it as a reason to focus on a single channel. It’s actually the complete opposite. Your customers and your potential customers are waiting for you to interact with them in a manner they prefer. And whatever manner that is, it should be tightly integrated from both a technological and messaging standpoint. In years past, catalog ordering, phone ordering and in-store purchases were examples of multi-channel. Interestingly, Sears happened to be one of the best at this for decades. More channels exist now and the art of combining those channels into a seamless experience — and paying attention to customer interaction —  is what makes multi-channel work.

In the end, Stabler finishes with a slide on what to do when implementing multi-channel and he makes three very good points. It was an interesting round-about trip to get there, but he arrived. It was a surprise ending to say the least. Enter Mulholland Drive, David Lynch and general confusion.

One more point about Debenhams:  Their Online Divisional Director, Simon Forster, has done it right. He doesn’t treat the Internet as a separate business unit. It is outlined well in this post how Forster led consumers to a better, multi-channel experience. By comparison, some said the iPhone wasn’t needed by consumers, but after they used it, they changed their mind. They took a risk, asked the consumers and won. Has such successful risk taking made Simon Forstner the Steve Jobs of multi-channel?

Agree or disagree, I’d like to hear your thoughts. It’s worth mentioning again that multi-channel exists to better serve the consumer. If you don’t realize this, multi-channel isn’t toast. But your business might be.

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