The Product Ubiquity Challenge and Opportunity

Unfolding before us is the concept of ubiquitous access to all products, across all channels, anytime.  Operating as legitimate e-commerce platforms in their own right, Loyalty programs offering multiple redemption and purchase options are compelled to compete with non-loyalty e-commerce entities that often have quite a head-start in this new paradigm.

To some vendors in the loyalty space, the prospect of complete ubiquity may be the Holy Grail; to others, it may be as realistic as a desert mirage.  Some products just aren’t well-suited for the omnichannel distribution model, yet contribute value to the customer experience and should maintain a place in the loyalty future.

If a key to CX success is finding the balance between product ubiquity and consumer value, how do we arrive at that balance?

 

The Ubiquity Challenge

The challenge starts at the level of product definition, and extends to consumer expectations of that product.  For certain products important in the customer experience, the proposition of ubiquitous availability means considerable investments in technology, operational processes and ongoing maintenance that, in the final analysis, may not yield sufficient return.

Let’s consider Travel products – flights, cars, hotels, cruises, tours, activities, and custom vacations.  Why?  Travel is a particularly interesting case study in that it faces considerable challenges in the omnichannel distribution model, yet offers so many opportunities to enhance the customer experience.

While many consider the Travel space a leader in terms of making complex transactions possible in an online environment, not every product is well-positioned to become ubiquitously consumed in this omnichannel future.  The human touch of an experienced travel professional is still in demand and preferred by consumers for many transactions.  To quote a wise colleague, “Travel is both cutting edge and ancient at the same time.”

For example, while flight booking has evolved to a relatively ubiquitous self-service product, products like cruises and tours are evolving differently and may never be similarly adopted by consumers.

The functionality to book a flight online has matured to the point where consumers have well-established expectations of researching, booking, and maintaining their air bookings.  Though it is one of the more complex products to book online (especially on mobile devices), it is by far the most transacted across all device types in the Travel loyalty space.  This is due in part to the many investments made by suppliers and distributors in evolving the booking engines for the product and thus in shaping consumer expectations.  Significant expansion in capabilities for online, mobile, and voice interaction are serving to further propel flights into “ubiquitous” status.

In contrast, Travel products like cruises or tours are evolving as vehicles more for consumer research than for self-service booking.  While improvements in systems for consumer reviews are helping inspire buyer confidence, consumer adoption of online booking functionality remains a hill to climb.  These products are complex enough that consumers prefer to rely on the expertise of a travel professional when booking.  It’s important products like these that sit on the periphery of the omnichannel model.

 

What Drives Ubiquity?

When considering product ubiquity, some of the factors that distinguish some products from others include:

  • Product complexity – is the product easy to understand, or is the buying decision heavily nuanced requiring collaboration? For example, a custom vacation package requires the expert input of a travel professional, whereas booking a car rental is a fairly straight-forward, easily understood transaction.
  • Value communication – can the best possible price or value be communicated across all channels? Some suppliers impose price parity requirements.  In these cases, the best possible price may only be offered in a closed-loop e-commerce environment, or the currency must be masked by “points”, making it impossible to share via channels like social media.  Both Travel and Merchandise vendors may contend with suppliers or manufacturers that impose restrictions on the type of transaction by which a product may be sold (for example, points redemption only).  Finally, most Travel products are priced real-time (especially volatile are flights and, to a somewhat lesser degree, hotels), making it difficult to convey accurate pricing across all channels, so other “value” aspects may need to be communicated over price.
  • Content richness – is the product generally homogenous? Or does it have many variations, or value-add options?  Is the product best communicated to the consumer via rich imagery, detailed descriptions, and ancillary details?  Consider the many factors beyond just price that go into a consumer’s choice of a hotel stay; attractive images, placement on a map, points of interest, and amenities are generally more important in the decision-making process than even the property description.

The suggestion here is not that a product must pass all three of the above tests to be suitable for ubiquity, but that a more strategic approach to multi-channel distribution may yield better results for the business and the consumer alike.

 

The Ubiquity Opportunity

Distribution strategy is key to capitalizing on the “ubiquity opportunity.” Organizations need to consider not only today’s model but need to give thought to where consumers buy, what consumers expect on their CX journey, and how products may evolve over time.

The distribution strategy should include an assessment of consumer expectations (and the tools they need) at various points in the decision-making / buying / post-purchase process.  This consideration is yet another driver of the ROI discussion: do all distribution channels for access need to be maintained through the whole CX journey, or is the investment better spent in reducing friction only at key points?

For example, according to Expedia, over 80% of travel activities (i.e. “things to do in Rome”) are booked immediately prior to, or during, the vacation stay.  Implementation of personalization features to offer recommended activities as a cross-sell to a flight or hotel booking can help enhance the customer experience and, at least, stimulate some thought on the activities product.  But perhaps an even more effective channel for recommending these products is in a touchpoint email just days before travel begins, or by providing travelers with a native app-based portal to consume additional information during their travel – information like restaurants or points of interest, or to purchase activities like city tours.

Product evolution also plays an important role in the distribution strategy.  As product features or characteristics change, so may the approach to different distribution channels.

The availability of mobile-only hotel pricing is a perfect example of a product adaptation that begs for a distinct user experience in the mobile booking channel versus the desktop channel (or the offline booking channel).  Here, the mobile user looking to book a close-in stay has come to expect discounted, last-minute inventory; in contrast, the desktop user may be looking for hotel deals 30 days from today and has considerably more time and space to research.

Another prime example of an evolving product is flights.  Just two years ago, while there was price complexity in air travel, the variations in the product were pretty well understood by consumers – choice of first, business, economy and premium economy seating.  With the introduction of new, no-frills economy permutations, seats in an aircraft may come with different attributes (seat style, bag allowance, etc.), and it’s now possible for consumers to redeem for upgrades and ancillaries from within the loyalty platform rather than purchasing them directly from the airline (Montrose/CTM is introducing this functionality for its loyalty clients).  Though this provides an unprecedented level of consumer control over the travel experience, it also poses challenges in communicating the new depth of the offering in certain channels.

 

Finding balance

The concept of ubiquitous access to products presents an attractive future for e-commerce, but not if at the expense of the customer experience.  The elimination or deprecation of products not suitable for ubiquity, or attempts to force certain less-suitable products into the ubiquity model, will only serve to erode consumer satisfaction and, in turn, loyalty.  Being thoughtful about your products and how your customers consume those products will lead to the right blend of product ubiquity, consumer value and, in turn, loyalty to your brand.