As the person who leads consultancy KPMG’s global omni-business practice, Duncan Avis knows in excruciating depth and detail the challenges businesses in all sorts of industries face.
The world is moving faster and faster, with no sign of letting up. The demand for results and the need for profits remain relentlessly constant. And the speed with which competitors can zig and zag accelerates by the quarter.
And that’s before we even get to the issue of customers, which are the reason a business is in business, or should be. Let’s just say, they’re not making things any easier.
“This is a difficult world today,” Avis says, “where customers are constantly changing their expectations.”
I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with Avis at the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show earlier this year. He shared his thoughts on what it means to be an “omni-business,” which in fact requires a greater degree of difficulty than being omni-channel, a staple of digital retailers’ strategies and conversations.
NRF being a massive gathering of retailers, I asked Avis if he could break down the biggest challenge retailers face in 2017. You’re forgiven if even just hearing his answer makes you a little tired.
“I think one of the challenges is that there are a lot of challenges,” Avis said. He elaborated in the video clip below.
One way for retailers and others to begin to address those challenges, Avis told me, is to expand the way they think about “omnichannel.”
“We think about it as ‘omni-business,’” he says. “And the reason why we call it that is because we really think it’s about connecting the front of the office, middle, and back office, of any enterprise.”
Doing business right, it seems, goes beyond simply connecting with customers. It also means connecting the moving parts of an enterprise in a way that promotes a widely held vision and understanding of how to deliver on the promises the company is built on.
As it is, Avis says, retailers and consumer goods companies tend to say they place omnichannel or omni-business as a high priority. But not even a third say they are getting the expected return on investment from their efforts.
Again, that is most likely because their omni efforts are focused on the front office and not on the entire organization. All of which made the case in my mind for the embracing the idea of a chief digital officer, an executive responsible for making sure customers receive a memorable digital experience — memorable in a good way.
But Avis argues that the idea of a chief digital officer is too limiting. Digital should be an imperative throughout the organization, as he explains in the video clip below.
Given that we were at NRF, surrounded by 235,000 square feet of exhibitors, many of them pushing technology solutions for selling, marketing and retaining customers, I asked Avis if he had any advice for those who need to sift through the offerings and decide what technology to buy and deploy.
In the video below, he says that retailers shouldn’t start with the technology. Instead, they should think about the experience they want to provide consumers.
All of which raised another question in my mind: Among the technologies discussed and displayed at NRF were robots that would help in-store shoppers find what they were looking for and Internet of Things advances that would automate ordering and purchasing.
And while they all were certainly cool in a gee-whiz sort of way, I wondered whether retailers, many of whom are facing existential pressures, were in any sort of position to sprint to the cutting edge while the core of their businesses were so vulnerable.
The answer, no doubt, is that it depends. It depends on the particular retailer, its needs, its customers’ needs and the like. Avis added that it’s important to define some of the terms that are thrown around. For instance, exactly what are people talking about when they’re talking about “robots?”
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“Robotics can mean so many different things,” he says. “Where we think there’s a tremendous opportunity, is the use of artificial intelligence and robotic process automation to actually streamline processes, to use it to better understand consumer behavior, to really get beyond what the known knowns are, to get to the unknown unknowns. But that doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical robot. There is tremendous technology in the sense of AI that can really enable an employee, a human employee, to be much more effective and successful in their relationship with a customer.”
The big opportunity with artificial intelligence, Avis says, is to use it to augment human performance — the powerful combination of human and machine.
When it comes to the deep and difficult challenges that retailers face, artificial intelligence offers one key way forward — a key way that will no doubt be combined with others as digital retailers and businesses move forward at a pace far faster than yesterday and much slower than tomorrow.
Photo of Duncan Avis by Mike Cassidy
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.