“Channel Agnostic”: The Pathway To Customer-Centricity

Having spent the past ten years or so driving customer-centric growth and marketing strategies at places like Neiman Marcus, Sears and Lands’ End, I used to say there were two types of retailers: those that embraced an integrated multi-channel model and those that operated in multiple channels, but treated the channels as largely independent entities.

Today, despite ample evidence of customers’ researching online before going to stores, or shopping physical locations to then go home and order in the comfort of their own homes, we still see many businesses with limited channel integration. In fact, a major player like Pier One actually shut down their e-commerce operation for several years because they somehow thought it wasn’t core to their strategy. They have since come to their senses.

But after many years of pontificating on the power of a seamless, integrated multi-channel experience, I think it may be time to move away from the term multi-channel integration–which by now should be table stakes for any half-way competent retailer–to something that aims for a higher plane and a chance to be truly remarkable in your customer growth strategy.

My new favorite term is: channel agnostic, which I first heard the leadership of JC Penney espouse.

What’s powerful to me about this term, is that it really puts the customer first.  It says as a brand we don’t care which channel you gather your research in, which channel you buy from and which channel you return in, we’re there to make it happen for you.  If we are out of stock in our store, we will jump on our point of sale system, find it at another store (or on the web) and ship it your home if you like.  “Integration” is nice–as if we just want to prove to the customer that we actually talk to each other, but ultimately it’s passive.

So how different would your company be if it really embraced the notion of being “channel agnostic?”  Would your marketing change?  Would your assortments?  Would your return policy?  How about the information that your sales associates have at the store?  In the customer service center?

And if you find that the changes would be significant, then the real question is: would making those changes make your strategy more remarkable, allowing you to better engage, grow and retain customers in the new battle for market share?

3 thoughts on ““Channel Agnostic”: The Pathway To Customer-Centricity

  1. Appreciate the message, Steve. I want to add a different point of view, not related to retailing, but rather to providing services. Somewhat the same issues are driving those of us who provide creative services and marketing messages for a living. It seems as though we need to be able to help our clients go to market in so many media. That said, for us there is also a power to focusing, and that’s the counter message: we may not be able to be effectively channel agnostic — we may not be able to be truly excellent at everything (it may be demanding enough to be excellent in a narrow channel). When we become so “customer-centric” that we are trying to provide every service to our client, or meet every client where and when the client wants to be met, we may not be able to attract clients at all, because we aren’t specialists any longer, we aren’t known for one thing, and although we have a broader offer we don’t necessarily have a stronger offer.

  2. Thanks for the comment. You raise a point that I failed to set up adequately.

    One of the keys to any customer-centric growth strategy is to develop an actionable customer segmentation based upon the value (current and future) and needs of the discrete segments you are potentially well positioned to serve–and ideally “own.” Among the outcomes of this exercise is making the strategic choice to focus on only certain segments. The choice of these segments is the marriage of a company’s capabilities and the economic potential of the segments.

    So, I agree that strategic focus is critical and is in fact a precursor to narrowing your customer domain. I would still argue that there are benefits to embracing the notion of being channel agnostic once this focus has been achieved. Having said that, one should not blindly agree to do anything any customer or prospect may ask.

    Hope this makes some sense and I appreciate your engaging on the topic.

  3. What Steven calls “channel agnostic” is what is referred to as “channel transparency” in The Customer-Transparent Enterprise by Dennison DeGregor.

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