We live in a world where we constantly flip from device to device, from smartphones to laptops to tablets, often with the TV running in the background. Then there’s social media and physical retail stores. Increasingly we expect our experiences with brands to be seamless as we move between devices, channels and locations. But when it comes to telecoms, they’re not. So why haven’t multichannel telecoms made the shift to omnichannel – and what’s the difference anyway?

For a multichannel telecoms company the physical and online stores operate as separate businesses, so, for instance, a device bought online can’t be returned to a store. There will be no single, unified customer view and therefore no effective data flow – go online to explain an issue you’ve had at the store and you’re likely to be referred back to that store for help. This makes customer experience of the brand stilted, clunky and inconsistent when moving between the two. It’s puzzling if not irritating for customers, and confusing when there’s disparity between the products and deals available in two different channels. Then what happens when it comes to social media? Are you interacting with something connected to the physical store, online store, or another, completely separate presence?

Omnichannel joins up these experiences seamlessly. A phone bought online could be returned to a store. Customer data would be shared across channels, with one single customer view. All channels would have access to the whole picture of an individual customer and could potentially offer a fully personalised experience – and that makes for a vastly better customer journey. Those telco businesses that can take the lead in omnichannel are likely to win business from their competitors; according to Aberdeen Group, companies with omnichannel customer engagement strategies retain 89% of their customers compared to 33% for companies with weak ones. And that’s important because unfortunately for today’s telcos, customers don’t currently feel much brand loyalty towards them, reserving that for tech brands like Amazon, Apple and Uber with their own omnichannel experiences. And this is at a time when Ofcom’s new text-to-switch rule makes increasing that loyalty more important than ever.

Despite the necessity of going omnichannel, UK research by Ovum shows that 60% of telcos described their omnichannel efforts as ‘in progress’, in ‘early stages’ or ‘not started’. The reason progress is slow is because it’s a seismic change that will affect every aspect of the business.

One of the biggest challenges is that it needs a change in organisational design in terms of employees. Telcos tend to be structured around channel directors, with sales targets by channel that trickle down to junior levels. This means that if a sale is made in the physical store, it’s attributed only to that channel and that staff member. But people may visit a number of channels before making their decision and their purchase. There’s currently no way of knowing if that customer might have previously visited the website and interacted with customer service to ask questions about a product, yet this experience might have been crucial in making the sale. In order for the culture to change to omnichannel, all staff who have a part to play in a sale should be justly rewarded, whatever the channel. If this happens, employees will understand they’re in a new landscape of working together to create sales, not seeing the brand’s other channels as competition. In order to make this happen, Telcos need to commit to and invest in technology that can track every interaction a customer has, whether it’s in-store, on the website or in social media, and de-silo sales incentives.

This kind of technology also creates the holy grail of better customer experience: the single customer view.

A truly omnichannel experience, enabled by technology that can provide a unified, holistic view of each customer, connects up all channels from retail store to social media, with data flowing seamlessly between them. The ability to personalise content for individuals is key for telcos, but for their customers it’s the impact on service which is probably the most important result. In theory omnichannel would mean a customer never has to re-explain a service problem for the 4th time to someone who is totally new to it, because all channels would have access to their full customer service history. It would also mean that customer support can become proactive, problem-solving before a customer is even aware of an issue. It makes enquiries quicker to deal with and reduces the volume of enquiries – if the product and service offering is the same across all channels there’ll be no more issues around ‘why does the website give me one price but the shop says they can’t match it?’. But there’s no getting round the fact that this kind of technology is complex and needs careful planning and significant investment. Telcos may also find that solutions that will work across all aspects of their business are currently few and far between. Deciding which is the right one is a daunting prospect.

In terms of technology, another big issue is legacy systems because different channels were never set up to be connected. The issue is further complicated as today’s telcos have swallowed up smaller companies and their customers along the way, who again may be siloed. It can mean a situation where customer service operatives have to have a number of screens up depending on where that customer originally came from. In addition, Inventory systems is another area that needs to change, as current systems tend to categorize inventory by silo. For the best experience, customers need a holistic view and real-time information whatever channel they’re looking at.

Omnichannel should bring a unified presentation layer across all channels, making them much easier to change and enabling new products, offers and services can get to market quicker. But it’s still important to still remember that the audience online may be different to in-store, and that they also may behave differently. Each brand experience needs to be appropriate to the channel it’s in, operating as a seamless part of a whole.

It’s a huge challenge but many telcos are now in the middle of transforming their IT systems, future-proofing them so they can adapt, react and change over time and deal with whatever unforeseen developments tomorrow brings.

The good news is that becoming truly omnichannel offers huge opportunities for telcos to move from being considered a utility to becoming a much more valued partner, one that could potentially rival the tech companies at the top of the customer experience tree.