I have had an interesting year talking to many retailers about omni-channel. Mostly, I would say omni-channel is still at the teenage-sex stage of technology. Everyone is talking about it, everyone says they are doing it, but no one is and, in fact, they are scared to death to try it.

So, let us look at some of the challenges facing omni-channel. Omni-channel went mainstream in 2014, and became widely accepted as the way in which all commerce should be conducted in the future.

Around 2016, omni-channel appeared to become less about the logistical backend, and more about how we engage with a customer. Take a brand that has multiple customers who have different ways of using technology, and that has multiple employees who need to be kept up to date on their customers: How does the brand manage all the permutations associated with a customer demanding to be shown that you know me, while demanding that you do know me?

Surely, if retailers can understand a bit more about what a customer personally wants and then presents the right product, they stand a much greater chance of a conversion. Thus, the technology becomes: How does the retailer manage a relationship with the customer while, at the same time, ensuring they have the inventory to meet the customer’s needs—and with employees educated sufficiently to know how to engage effectively with the customer?

Most retailers understand the importance of having an omni-channel strategy to stay competitive in today’s demanding retail environment; even so, many are still struggling to manage their operations efficiently and effectively. The primary challenge facing retailers is how to ensure a seamless customer experience across channels, making a profit on every sale while engaging with their customers.

So how can retailers take advantage of the opportunities that are inherent in omni-channel?

Outlined below are six challenges affecting retailers with some omni-channel perspective on how to navigate through this new retail landscape:

  1. Ensure Data Quality and Relevancy

Today, an omni-channel retailing strategy is essential as retailers need open lines of communication across multiple channels—in-store, online, mobile device, or social media—that lead to a seamless, continuous experience across brands and devices, and that engage a customer one-on-one. To seamlessly engage the customer, myriad databases and systems such as eCommerce platforms, POS (Point of Sale) systems, marketing automation, and customer relationship management tools must be connected to make omni-channel sales and marketing initiatives a reality.

The omni-channel journey starts with capturing customer information. While capturing all this customer information is critical, it is also equally important to ensure that the quality of the information captured is accurate and up to date; therefore, retailers need to measure data quality and set data standards, clean and analyze the data for relevancy, turn the data into action, and, finally, action that data through a customer engagement solution.

  1. Create an Ideal Customer Profile

An ideal customer profile should be based on interviews and research from current and past customers, potential new customers, and employees. The end result is a fictional character who embodies the retailer’s ideal customer.

Ideal customer profiles should guide all marketing efforts, new business outreach, and current customer growth. Retailers can use this information to develop offers that align with different customer types, to create enablement tools for sales representatives outlining common objections and responses, and to segment current customers and prospects for more targeted communication and marketing.

  1. Deliver Consistent Experiences

Delivering a consistent experience for customers across all channels continues to challenge retailers. Two of the biggest challenges are ensuring the consistency of inventory levels and product pricing. To satisfy their customers, retailers need to deliver a consistent and positive experience.

If recommending products, retailers must find a way to make that recommendation consistent. Consider that many people want to use their mobile phone while shopping in-store, so setting up a captive portal to an in-store Wi-Fi will help to engage those customers. It can deliver what is probably at the top of every retailer’s wish list: identifying who is in the store. Discrepancies will ultimately lead to poor customer experiences, so retailers need to place strong emphasis on ensuring they are delivering the same experience every time, regardless of the channel the customer may be using.

  1. Empower and evolve employees’ role

Retailers need to empower employees to deliver outstanding customer service. And the best way to make that happen is to give their employees the right data. With the right data, employees can take on many new responsibilities; therefore, the retailer will need to evolve them from a clerk to a concierge who can deliver a highly personalized service.

Providing employees with the tools that give them a single view of customer transactions is a good way to start, but often they will run into the elusive data issue. Data that allows sales staff to track orders, look up product availability, address enquiries, and understand customers’ purchasing history and preferences, not only can improve customer interactions and ensure positive experiences, but also has the potential to open new sales opportunities as it is the path towards a highly personalized experience for the customer.

However, frequently the data is not there because of the white space between a CRM and PoS information. Moving to omni-channel is not going to make this information suddenly available, it will take time, but at least it is a place to start.

If concerned about integrating, there is no need. If the data has no transactional history associated with it that ties back to the individual, and no way to connect to employees and the loyalty database—it just looks like first and last name and an email address—then a retailer is in the best position to start looking at omni-channel and how to use it because it is basically a blank slate.

If the data is the issue, then retailers do not have to solve it, but instead they can work around it. They can send emails to the people in their loyalty system, thank them for being their customer, and pick five SKUs, whether they are overstock or simply “good sellers,” that will drive the customer to the store. Retailers can tell their employees that if the customer comes in for SKU-A, to ask them if they bought SKU-B and, if they did not, tell the employee to offer an incentive if they buy it today. The retailer can have the employee make a note of it, which gives the retailer some data on what will bring that customer in, and what they might react to in the store.

Retailers could easily create a rule that whenever someone buys SKU-A online, they offer an incentive to pick it up in-store. Employees can be educated on the rules so when the customer comes in for SKU-A, an employee will know SKU-B is an incentive. If the customer reacts, then again retailers have an opportunity to understand the behavior. If this approach is successful, retailers can track and start to build a knowledge base.

A company like omNovos can keep track, so as the customer engagement platform builds data on what is bringing people through the door, then retailers will know the right promotion and the right channel—no integration required.

  1. Make Returns Easier

Many consumers shopping online are often hesitant to buy products because of stringent return policies. Knowing this, omni-channel retailers need to make this a much more seamless process and move towards enabling returns in any channel or location. This way, unwanted stock can be easily converted into available-to-purchase inventory, and consumers can easily return goods in a way that is convenient to them.

One of the best ways to build up loyalty and trust in the brand is to create reasons for loyal customers to show their loyalty matters. Being easy to do business with is one of the best ways to build that personal relationship. If a customer wants to return an item bought online, then set up a time in-store for that customer to meet with a designated employee. Simply confirm a time via email, text or chat that will show the customer how easy it is to return an item bought online.

  1. Understand stock availability and leverage network-wide inventory

Personalization is key to omni-channel experiences becoming positive, but before getting there retailers need to know where their inventory is and how they can leverage it. Retailers need to see not only stock levels, but also availability: What is already on order? What is in transit or returned? They also need to use every supply source to meet customer demand. This includes stores, which are increasingly becoming mini-distribution centers for fulfilling online orders, as well as a place where customers still go to shop.

Only once they are doing this can retailers hope to have complete operational control across their enterprise. This is critical: it will become difficult to have a consistent customer experience and build up a personal relationship with a customer when inventory is never in the right place at the right time to complete a sale.

Omni-channel does not have to be a scary beast. I do not recommend that you try to do all five at once. Your situation may make just one of these points an easier starting point than another—so start there. Do not get wrapped up in integrating and do not get wrapped up in overthinking the personalization approach.

Omni-channel is a new and exciting technology. Take baby steps that allow for the relationship with your customer to evolve and grow over time. This way, if you need to take a tiny step backwards, it is easier and poses less threat to your brand. We all want to have loyal customers, but we tend to overthink the implementation of omni-channel. Start small and start simple and your odds of success will be as high as your omni-channel conversion rates.