A truly effective corporate virtual presence is not a website, but what lies beneath.
If your organisation has a website, a mobile site or even corporate apps, it has a virtual presence, but is it a valuable presence your customer will want to have around?
To deliver value, virtual presence must reach into the internal systems, the people and the processes that form the heartbeat of your organisation. By exposing internal processes, knowledge and information more effectively on the web, companies and other institutions at the cutting edge of web development are creating a new, more animated social and semantic online presence. To remain competitive, organisations must ask themselves how they can use this type of enhanced virtual presence to augment all online and face-to-face interaction with the customer.
For the generation of companies born online, building an accurate profile of customers, recommending new products based on purchase history, and being able to customise online interactions to suit the customers’ priorities and preferences have always been part and parcel of daily operations. However, whilst online customer relationship management (CRM) and effective website visitor profiling undoubtedly form a vital part of a more meaningful virtual presence, this is only one side of the bargain. Equally, if not more importantly, virtual presence should draw out knowledge and information of value to customer and partners from within the organisation itself.
It may be hard to remember, but international travel was once an arduous process, which started with a call, or even a visit to the travel agent. Online booking has removed this need, but has also done so much more:
The airline’s virtual presence now provides the option to book competitively priced car hire and hotel rooms, it offers an online process to register passport numbers, as well as guidance and assistance with visas. Check-in and seat reservations can be done online, reminders and travel updates are sent your smartphone. You have one less item to leave behind, lose or have stolen because travel documentation is a 3D barcode on your phone screen, and with a combination of near field communication (NFC) and biometrics, you will soon be able to pretty much book online, have your bag scanned and walk straight onto the plane.
In looking to create a richer web experience, there is a strong temptation for firms with an existing physical presence to build their online operations in isolation. The creation of what is in effect an online start-up sharing the brand, is far simpler than any meaningful integration with existing operations and the people and IT systems at the core of the business. However, such a move creates incompatible silos of information and a schizophrenic customer experience. Moreover, it fails to fully capitalise on the significant business advantages that exist for companies with both a physical and virtual presence.
In retail, many customers still value the in-store experience, with the ability to get hands-on with products, discuss services with sales advisors or simply enjoy the high street shopping experience. However, an ever-increasing number of customers now research prices online before deciding which stores or branches to visit. With nearly all businesses facing ever-stiffer competition from online-only firms and price comparison sites, cumbersome static brochure websites with manually adjusted pricing can be the death knell for sales. The ability to react rapidly to changing market conditions and to offer the best possible up-to-the-minute pricing is vital. As such, real-time web integration with internal operations, procurement systems and even suppliers can be vital for companies in order to compete both online and in store
Virtual presence can also add significant value to the face-to-face customer experience, removing common frustrations and creating a unified and vastly improved service. The ability to check in-store availability, reserve products and book appointments with advisors are simple but effective ways to supplement high street shopping with online services. Add mobile web and social media into the equation, and the possibilities for improved customer experience are almost endless.
With social media and the mobile Internet, the web is no longer just an alternative sales channel. It is a way to bring customers into your store or branch, to recognise them as they enter and to learn about what makes them tick. It enables a whole new level of truly personalised marketing.
A strong virtual presence must be implemented top-down from the C-suite. It must be seen as a core part of company strategy, and it requires buy-in and participation from all key areas of the business. Leaving it to the IT department on its own misses the entire point of generating new, meaningful synergies between the online and offline business.
Executives and staff in all areas of the business should consider two key questions: Firstly, what information and services can our department bring to the web to enhance the experience for online customers? Secondly, what new services could we offer through the fixed and mobile web, that could enhance our face-to-face interactions with customers and partners, or even replace them with a better, online alternative?
With a lengthy list of answers from across the business, it then comes down to a cost benefit analysis on the various options. Almost inevitably, the most attractive options will come from customer facing departments. Integrating CRM, social media and other marketing campaigns more effectively with the web can deliver rapid returns. However, it is in some of the less obvious internal operations and processes where some of the real innovation can be found.
The key to virtual presence lies in exposing what is already there within your business and in not duplicating existing systems. The ‘cost’ side of any cost benefit analysis for creating new online services will be highly dependent on the openness and flexibility of your content management system (CMS). The CMS must focus on simplifying the task of bringing content to the web, whether that is through integration with back office and other third party systems, or by drawing valuable knowledge and information from staff, partners and even other customers.
From the IT standpoint, openness and simplicity are vital. An effective CMS should simplify integration with your existing enterprise architecture, development frameworks and industry standards. The use of open technologies will drastically reduce the cost of integration.
Conversely, duplicated, non-core and proprietary functionality within the CMS can dramatically increase the complexity of back-end integration. CRM, campaign management and enterprise analytics all have a vital role to play in managing a modern web presence. However, these are specialist systems already in place in most enterprises.
Duplicating this functionality within the CMS represents both dubious logic and an unnecessary cost. More importantly, it destroys the coherent single view of the customer that these systems are designed to create. Wherever possible, existing enterprise-wide systems should be integrated with the CMS to deliver a more holistic approach. Too much standalone functionality within the CMS creates an isolated, ‘standalone’ virtual presence.
Finally, meaningful virtual presence cannot neglect the human and social aspects of the web. During the early days of social media, many companies fell into the trap of trying to build their own social networks. The key to corporate use of social networking lies in the ‘social’ as opposed to the physical IT network. It is about people, and in the same way, a company’s virtual presence should also be about integrating the people who make up your organisation into the online experience.
Complex monolithic content management systems with bloated menus offering all possible options to all users, simply deter human contribution and prevent the development of any meaningful social aspect of corporate virtual presence. Content authoring needs to be as simple, intuitive and unintimidating as posting on a social network or using a new mobile app. The modern CMS must offer the flexibility to create these kinds of simple task-oriented apps to encourage staff, partners and even customers to feed living information into websites and online tools.
Customising a content management system to create new apps for common tasks should be the norm. Sales and marketing staff should be able to create campaigns and build pages that link to real world activities and social media outreach. Customer service staff, product developers and technical staff should be able to add value to existing content and even interact with customers through the web.
In this way, not only does the entire organisation reach out to the customer, but the web also becomes the main channel for customer centricity to permeate all areas of the business.
Data from customer relationship management (CRM), marketing, dynamic pricing and stock control can then be used to deliver new, more competitive services to the customer. Staff in all areas of the business can animate websites with insight, experience and social campaigns. Only through real integration can companies create a coherent multi-channel customer experience.