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COVID-19 isn’t just revealing issues across society, health-care preparedness, and business continuity — it’s also revealing new omnichannel capabilities for retailers beyond “curbside pickup” or a flash message about pandemic hardship.

As a loyal customer of a retail clothing chain with over 1,000 locations, I placed an order online and picked the option for “store pickup” at a convenient location for me. Two days later, I received an email letting me know that the order was ready to be picked up. That same day, COVID-19 shuttered the doors of this company’s brick-and-mortar store in my location. Despite the store being closed, I was receiving daily pickup notifications and made the assumption that the business was using some form of curbside pickup. However, when I attempted to pick up my order, I was greeted by locked doors and a sign that said ‘we are not sure when we will open.’ I was not alone in my experience as I was not the only disappointed customer there to pick up an order.  

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Like any other frustrated customer, I took the only option I had to learn more about my order and contacted the call center. After a three-hour wait time — the call center agent checked the store closure information using a service application and let me know that there were no details available about when the store would re-open. The agent gave me a few options: cancel the order or wait until the store reopens with details on when that might happen. 

Being an integration expert, this led me to ask a few questions:

  1. Why couldn’t they stop the notifications when they knew my local store was closed?
  2. Why wasn’t I sent a notification about the store closure? 
  3. Why was the retailer so reliant on its call center?
  4. Why wasn’t the order information and store closure data not available on the retailer’s web or mobile channels?
  5. Why couldn’t they have the information that was accessible in the call center system on its website or mobile app?
  6. Why couldn’t the store transfer that store order to another fulfillment channel and offer me free shipping?

Many retailers struggle with similar customer experience problems. With COVID-19, many are discovering that it is critical to embrace every channel as a means to serve customers and provide self-service capabilities and services across channels. It is critical to rethink the effectiveness of each and to meet customers where they are.

Modern customers in the digital age want their questions answered and problems resolved with speed. Businesses can only make this possible by providing connectivity from their back-end systems to allow the customer to self-serve this information. This will greatly reduce pressure on the siloed channels. Self-service with a consistent experience across channels is a necessity to provide a positive customer experience.

Breaking the channel silos and connecting channels with the business process, independently scale channels according to demand and the ability to quickly serve new capabilities across/to new channels requires a flexible architecture. MuleSoft’s three-tier approach detailed below will enable businesses to quickly expose capabilities (eg: store closure, order tracking, change store pick up to order shipping, etc.) across various channels and enable customers to self-serve.

1. Surface relevant data with System APIs 

System APIs provide a means of accessing underlying systems of record and exposing that data while providing downstream insulation from any inherent complexities. Being able to easily access relevant data and swap core systems of records with little change is critical in keeping up with technology changes.

Underlying all IT architectures are core systems of record (e.g., inventory, customer, billing systems, proprietary databases, etc.). These systems often are not easily accessible due to connectivity concerns and how difficult they are to change. APIs provide a means of hiding that complexity from the consumers. 

An example of a System API is a shipping API that exposes the latest shipping information from the third-party vendor system(s). The shipping API abstracts the complexity and connectivity details to the third-party systems and provides downstream insulation from any changes or rationalization of the underlying vendor system(s). 

2. Enable functions with Process APIs 

A Process API is where you build your logic and orchestration. It does not access the core systems directly but instead connects to the System APIs to access data for a specific business purpose (e.g., customer preference, order status, product availability, etc.)

A process API can aggregate data from multiple system APIs. This layer provides a way to orchestrate business processes or capabilities independent of source systems from which the data originates and the channel that consumes it. 

For example, an Order Status Process API that encapsulates logic and aggregates data about the customer and order information from the underlying Order and Customer System APIs.

3. Provide self-service with Experience APIs 

There are a plethora of front-end channels where the same data is required in a variety of forms. Eg: web site and mobile channels may want access to the same order information but in different formats. Experience APIs allow data to be reconfigured and reformatted so they can be easily consumed by the respective channel, all from a standard business service (Process API), rather than building separate point-to-point process silos to support integration for each channel.

An Experience API can be seen as a doorway into your business processes, given every type of client has different information needs in different formats. It is the Experience APIs responsibility to be ‘render ready’ to deliver a consistent message across the channels and devices. Also having channel-specific experience APIs help accommodate channel needs without affecting other channels and tailor the experience according to the capabilities of the different devices that support the channels.  

For example, the store closure data could be served using a mobile API serving lightweight JSON data to the various mobile devices and a web API serving xml data to web and call center channels.

The businesses that do well today are the ones that can effectively use technology to create deeper relationships with their customers. Being able to provide capabilities, respond, and resolve issues immediately, and in the manner that customers prefer is key to winning customer loyalty and improving business efficiency. That is why weaving a strategic integration capability/strategy throughout how a retailer does business is important. Self service is no longer a nice to have but a true necessity in this digital age both for business and the modern customer.

For more information on MuleSoft’s API-led approach to omnichannel, download our whitepaper. For more resources on COVID-19, see our resource hub