With the proliferation of channels and devices available to consumers the vision of a true omnichannel customer experience - a seamless approach regardless of which channels customers to interact with the brand - seems rather like an impossible dream, according to Katharine Hulls, vice president of marketing for Celebrus Technologies, who here examines the key steps in addressing today's multi-device conundrum and gaining a real understanding of individual customers. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

Companies and brands simply can't afford to avoid this new reality, with customers across the board increasingly interacting in multiple ways, using multiple devices and channels, and they expect brands to deal with that new behaviour. Failure to do so risks disenfranchising customers, but getting it right will allow companies to tailor every interaction based on customer expectations and behaviours, and to increase conversion rates across every platform.

The mobile opportunity
Mobile commerce has exploded over the past 12 months, with IBM's Online Retail Index data demonstrating that m-commerce experienced growth of nearly one third in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012. The research found that m-commerce makes up 17.4% of all online retail sales, where in 2012 it made up only 13.3%. Visits to retail sites through mobile devices also experienced impressive growth, with overall m-commerce traffic from all devices rising by 40% in the first quarter of 2013.

The explosion in mobile activity is prompting huge interest from marketers who are understandably keen to exploit new technologies and creative innovations to reach customers, from mobile coupon offers to consumer apps - and even more so thanks to phenomena such as show-rooming and location-based marketing.

But mobile is just one channel. According to the Pew Research centre, while 45% of adults in the US now have a smart phone, more than 75% have a laptop or desktop computer and 31% a tablet computer, showing brands the importance of understanding customer interactions across multiple devices. In addition, approximately 25% of the TV sets shipped globally in 2011 were internet-connected, a figure forecasted to approach 50% of total TV shipments during 2015, according to data from the Screen Digest arm of IHS Research.

The omnichannel challenge
As the ways in which an individual can interact with a brand inexorably continues to increase, the concerns of consolidating online behaviour with bricks and mortar activity become even more critical and difficult. Individuals not only use multiple devices to access the internet - with undoubtedly a growing emphasis on mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets - but they also use these devices differently, according to time of day, location, and wireless availability. Each of these interactions needs to be both optimised individually and as a coherent whole in order to maximise the positive effect on the customer experience.

A single individual may read emails on a smart phone on the way to work; check out the brand's Facebook page during their lunch break on a work laptop; use the brand's mobile app on an iPad in front of the TV and make a purchase on the home PC before going to bed. Or they may simply visit the brand's website on all those devices during one day.

Despite this extraordinary change in activity, each customer still expects brands to connect the pieces of the puzzle. There is little tolerance for brands that treat customers as a series of disconnected personas to whom they send differing messages, offers and experiences across all channels.

Brands know that they must put in place the building blocks to ensure they understand the way their customers are interacting with them across all of these touchpoints. To do this they are developing customer analytics in areas such as understanding if smart phone users have a higher average value and whether customer conversions are higher on tablets than on smart phones.

For example, global heat styling brand, ghd, identified that a high percentage of their customers used mobile iDevices to interact with their website. However, through analysing their customer analytics, digital marketers at ghd saw that the website had a high bounce rate with customers using iDevices. This led to a rethink of the iDevice mobile experience, making it slicker and more user friendly, which has consequently resulted in a 40% increase in conversation rate for customers using iDevices as well as an enhanced customer experience.

The individual view
While having overall insight into the effectiveness and purpose of different channels is valuable, the real value comes from being able to piece together the puzzle for individual customers in order to more effectively engage them at each point in the purchasing lifecycle. Digital marketing has evolved considerably over recent years and organisations are now looking for individual-level data from across multiple digital channels in order to enhance the customer experience and drive personalisation for improved customer engagement.

That improved engagement may take the form of improved communications via real-time website personalisation, behaviour-based offer management or personalised triggered emails. For example, a customer experience enhancement could include a pop up "request a call" button in front of someone having difficultly tracking an order on a website. Whatever form the activity takes, it must be able to understand the individual as one whole person across all customer touchpoints to avoid faux pas such as offering different prices for the same individual on different devices because they are recognised as an existing customer on one device and not on another.

It is therefore essential for brands to not only have access to highly granular individual-level data from across multiple digital channels and devices, it is also crucial that they have the analytic capability which enables them to link all the devices and histories of interaction together into a single customer view. For example, if a customer typically reads emails from a designated brand on an iPhone in the morning, then the brand should optimise emails to render correctly in that format. If the customer browses using the brand's app but doesn't buy, the brand should look at delivering messages to explain the security and privacy policies around mobile purchasing. If the customer browses the website on an iPad but never puts items in their basket and only purchases on a laptop the brand should as a first step review how iPad friendly their website is.

What next?
Whilst the term "omnichannel" is relatively new, analysts have been preaching the concept of a single customer view for years, and there is no doubt that the explosion in internet-connected devices and diverse channels is creating a huge challenge for organisations to achieve that vision. But with customers expecting to be treated as one coherent individual across all channels used to interact with a brand, and demanding a good experience regardless of channel, organisations must meet this challenge.

Understanding individual customers' interactions across all devices and channels, and putting the pieces of the puzzle together to create a single view of one real person, is the first step of the omnichannel journey toward improving the customer experience, optimising marketing effectiveness, and ultimately driving business and customer value.