BlueMarble Commerce - Digital Transformation Catalog
Omni-channel has become a buzz word in the telecommunications industry, but the basics are not new and remain the same: providing business users and consumers with a consistent and satisfying experience regardless of the channel or the device they use. However, approaches to omni-channel implementation can vary greatly in cost, risk and time.
To unlock omni-channel from a product perspective, many vendors propose solutions that often focus on replacing all legacy environments and back-end systems with a completely new omni-channel stack. However, as described in a recent paper published by the TM Forum, there are typically 4 approaches that can be followed, and those which call for the replacement of current (legacy) IT systems or a new omni-channel stack are very costly, tedious and take the longest to implement.
One of the option discusses placing an ‘Enhancement Layer’ between channels and legacy stacks. This is the preferred approach for Communication Service Providers (CSPs) that are struggling with increasing cost pressures and require a short time-to-market for new products and propositions. A service application or microservices architecture layer translates and coordinates the provisioning of legacy services and applications. Open API (Application Programming Interface) standards ensures that front-end channels have a well-defined, unique and standard way of interacting with legacy back-end systems. This approach was judged by the TM Forum to provide the best balance between time-to-market, cost and risk.
Where is the drive for Omni-channel coming from?
The real Customer Experience (CX) is the result of all interactions a customer has with the brand. It does not arise from a single channel, but is defined by messages the customer receives and the consistent look and feel of the brand on all channels. A holistic customer experience across digital and non-digital channels is required. They must complement, enhance and reinforce each other.
WE ARE THE HOSTS AND CUSTOMERS ARE INVITED TO THE PARTY. WE NEED TO IMPROVE THEIR EXPERIENCE EVERY DAY
– Jeff Bezos
Customers are accustomed to the very intuitive way of doing business with pure online retailers and companies that provide internet-based services. To remain relevant and differentiate themselves in the marketplace, many traditional (offline) retailers are forced to think and act like software companies. In fact, many have begun their digital transformation by building similar in-house applications or subscribing to a SaaS solution. Whilst doing this, online and offline retail businesses must ensure that their new and old channels provide a consistent and deliberate (i.e. wanted) CX. This requires the alignment of processes applied in all channels.
Driving this consistency across digital and non-digital channels is much harder to agree upon and implement than bolting on a commerce layer to traditional systems. Retail businesses must ensure that the deliberate customer experience, captured by their key processes, are configured consistently everywhere; Not only in front-end or back-end systems.
Demands of modern IT programs
For many CSPs, the barrier towards omni-channel innovation is formed by their outdated legacy commerce platforms. These applications often require long development cycles and elaborate deployments which are out of step with the needs of today’s businesses, where new product offerings must be pushed out in near real time. No wonder that so many vendors active in this space can convince the retail business decision makers that the only solution is to consolidate, upgrade, or replace all their systems with a new state-of-the-art system that can ‘do it all’.
Businesses that are thinking about implementing omni-channel solutions are faced with a shift away from traditional IT development approaches towards modern paradigms like Agile/Scrum, DevOps, and Squads/Tribes. They must also respond to the demands of IT teams and vendors calling for a ‘cloud first’ IT strategy.
A solid and workable alternative is provided by placing an enhancement layer between channels and legacy commerce platforms. It works very well for businesses that want to quickly establish a single combined sales and order orchestration platform for existing and new front-end applications. And there are further benefits:
- It provides a consolidated, informational view of the customer that includes offers, purchased and installed products, shopping history, etc.
- It allows consistent commercial offers to be created across all channels, which creates new horizontal capabilities, like commercial bundling of legacy offers, and permits common business rules and sales logic to be shared across the channels, thus creating a consistent customer experience.
- It permits the definition and quick launching of new commercial products across business lines, where each is supported (potentially) by legacy platforms but is independent from changes made to those platforms.
- It permits an independent evolution of the channels and the legacy IT platforms.
Such an enhancement layer can be implemented very well using microservices architecture. Microservices are individual pieces of business software that provide functionality which can be developed, deployed and supported by a small team from cross-functional disciplines. Although these are not new concepts, we now have tools and technologies to support the microservices approach very effectively, completely in line with the modern development standards mentioned above.
Microservices and open standard APIs to the rescue
The microservices architecture has a clear advantage over others – It reduces the complexity of adding new functionality to an already existing suite, enabling a faster and more agile development of the commerce platform. Compared to traditional development projects, it offers a lot of more freedom and the ability to scale with various focused skills. With traditional development paradigms, all developers must use the same coding language, standards and/or frameworks, and all require a deep knowledge of the overall functionality of the solution to align the internal interfaces between the modules. With a microservices architecture, functionality can be developed independently from the software language used in other (micro) services.
The key to enabling this is defining the right set of APIs. This will ensure that every channel can call the same business functionality, which in turn ensures in a standard way of handling the request. The service then translates the request into multiple requests to legacy back-end systems, coordinates the responses and feeds these back to relevant front-end channels. This facilitates quick implementation of omni-channel, negating the need for manual syncing between the different legacy back-end systems.
This approach reduces implementation risk because legacy back-end platforms do not need adapting, for which the knowledge to do so is often no longer available within the company (except for the proverbial individual who ‘knows it all’). It allows for a fast implementation and demonstrates quick results to the business and customers because the business enables only the channels it needs and implements the omni-channel offers they want to push to the market quickly.
While it might appear that a microservices based architecture is a good solution to the omni-channel CX challenge, some caution is necessary. Firstly, as Conway’s law states, the solution design reflects the organization’s communication structure. When embarking on a microservices architecture-led solution, one should be ready to adapt the organization’s structure. This, as many are aware, is not an easy task. Secondly, one can get carried away by the flexibility of microservices and land up with technical sprawl – a multiplicity of technology, tools and languages. Getting experienced people on the task is key because the quality of the implementation defines the effectiveness of your future organizational processes.
The most successful CSPs of the future will have opened their microservices APIs to allow third parties to add additional services to their overall portfolio and may even create new channels. Together they will unlock their omni-channel capabilities faster and further than their competitors, and consequently boost their margins and drive profitability to new heights.
As for us, we will continue to apply the API-driven, microservices approach to our client’s projects. We have already applied this very effectively in several customer engagements with CSP’s across the globe. Using our Omnius product suite, one of the largest multi-play operators in Europe executed the digital transformation for their complete consumer customer base of all its sales channels across mobile, fixed line, Pay TV and Internet Access lines of business to deliver simplified product bundling, improved SIM’s performance and a consistent deliberate customer experience for all their channels.