Do you sometimes wonder why some established companies provide such little online functionality to complement their existing business? Are existing channels still too good from a revenue and efficiency perspective?

In my experience the main reason is that the change needed to achieve comprehensive online services if you are an established “offline business” is far bigger than expected. Sometimes big from an IT perspective. But even bigger from a business perspective. And it’s exactly that big step that established companies have to take that makes it of outmost importance to move now.

But let’s start with a few general trends we all can observe in the market: customer maturity and individualism (1). Customer maturity puts the customer into the driver seat. He or she has the ability to be informed very well using the information that is available online today. And he or she’s prepared and willing to use and share this information while doing business even for private needs.

Individualism adds the aspect of personalization when doing business. It means that customers expect a personalized experience. This starts with simple things like knowing the customer and addressing him personally at all touch points but also includes personalization of product offerings. The move away from off-the-shelf products is eminent for all non-commodity products and services.

How does this correlate with online functionality? Both trends are fueled by the vast amount of opportunities a customer experiences on the internet. Beyond that, the customer now starts to interweave the online and the physical world and becomes truly multi-channel. Multi-channel in the sense that the same products, information and services are expected to be available to and on the offline and online channels and that channels can be switched at ease.

But can this be applied to every business? I often hear from customers that “their business is different” and that it can’t be “done digital”. The same phrases were used by the travel industry that now faces huge competition by online booking portals and online travel agencies. Or think about how banking changed significantly when e-banking was introduced. And even worse the barriers to open an online business are lower than ever leading to new competitors for traditional businesses.

It is a fact that customers can be addressed more individually in online businesses due to the historical behavior data available. However it is also a fact that customers want direct personal contact in some situations. But the situations where personal contact is expected can usually no longer be identified by just doing a good customer segmentation. Instead they vary a lot. Vary e.g. depending on time of the day, mood, occasion or companions. A typical online retail shopper might want to walk in a store, grab a pair of headphones and buy them on the spot just because of a mood.

And this is where traditional businesses have a big advantage. Their physical close proximity to the customer; their branch network. To win against the new online competition they have to and more important can be present in both worlds, digital and physical. They have to become digical.

Starting such a transformation to become digical is often perceived as a huge task with years of planning and organizational re-structuring needed. In contrast I believe that it can all be done less invasive and incrementally by starting with the following 3 cornerstones:

  1.  Prepare your company to react fast. Establish a multidisciplinary and well-staffed team and empower them to bring live new online functionality quickly. Enforce punctually with external subject-matter experts. Think of the team as of a well-connected but lean intra-enterprise start-up.

  2. Start with a small number of online functions that address immediate customer needs but build them with multi-channel in mind. The same functionality should be usable on all channels. Provide customer facing staff with the same tools as the customer. Build upon existing processes and adapt them. Learn, measure, enhance and automate.

  3. Provide links between online and offline worlds. Invite customers to do certain steps online and continue seamlessly in a branch office (enhanced ROPO). But also use the offline channels to actively promote and work with the online services. This can be as simple as knowing all customer online activities also at the point of sales and could even reach to smartphone aided offline processes.

Even if these 3 principles sound small they’ll have tremendous impact. Multi-channel capabilities will most likely grow over time and lead to an incremental shift and consolidation of distributed functionality. Data quality can be improved on the way, processes will be more and more and simplified. The mind shift towards a true physical-digital convergence in your company has just begun.