Excelling at Multi-Channel Customer Service

multi-channel customer service

Multi-channel customer service (also multi-channel customer support or even Omni channel if you prefer) is one of the new marketing ‘buzz words’ that we have inherited along with the internet era.

Businesses are told that they need to be multi-channel to thrive. But what does multi-channel customer service mean in practice?

As ZenDesk most ably puts it:

“Multi-channel simply means that there’s more than one way for customers to reach out to you for support—by phone, email, live chat, social media, and lightweight self-service options such as knowledge bases and online communities or forums.”

To some extent, this has always been the case. Even way back in the pre-internet era, customers had a range of options for accessing customer service.

Granted, this was limited to face-to-face, telephone or letters in the early days, but later extended to fax, email and social media as technology became more sophisticated.

The point?

As communication methods develop in sophistication, customers will increasingly seek new ways (or ‘channels’) to interact with your brand.

And if your company is going to be smart about communicating with customers, some basic principles first need to be embraced:

1. Smart companies go where their customers are

The ‘build it, and they will come’ mentality is not appropriate for the realm of communication. Some time and effort by way of basic research needs to be put in place to determine which channels your customers prefer. If you are not already there, you need to be.

2. Smart companies realize that customers are different

A one-size-fits-all is no longer going to work (if indeed it ever did). It’s unlikely that all of your customers will opt for the same communication channel. Even where you can classify your customers into distinct groups (say generations for example), the results may surprise you.

3. Smart companies know that customer loyalty is now so much more about emotion than rationality

Connecting with customers via the channels they prefer shows you to be a company or organization that is progressive, receptive and accessible – i.e. that you care about the relationship you are building with them. It is yet another way to demonstrate that you are ready to deliver on the promise of your brand.

The reality?

Most organizations are already providing some level of multi-channel customer service. But there are some challenges standing in the way of excellence.

In fact, research conducted by Econsultancy and Adobe suggests that only 14% of organizations are running coordinated marketing campaigns across all channels (via the autopilot blog).

Here we present three typical problems companies face when implementing multi-channel customer care, and some suggestions for what to do about them.

Lack of a central platform for integrated multi-channel support

Having Jack deal with customer service over the phone while Jill deals with customer service over Twitter can be a recipe for disaster.
The same goes with email, letters, messaging and face to face.

Without a multi-channel platform, you run the risk of fragmenting your picture of the customer (and your dealings with them) into a thousand tiny splinters.

Despite this fact, if you aren’t currently using a multi-channel tool, the research suggests you are certainly not alone.

To return to the Adobe study: the data indicates that just less than a third of companies are using a cross-channel marketing tool.

This is despite the fact that 90% of those companies who are using a tool report a ‘high’ or ‘medium’ impact.

While such platforms generally aren’t cheap, some added benefits may increase your return on investment, including the provision of campaign management, detailed analytics, and digital marketing functions.

Admittedly, these functions go way beyond customer engagement and customer management to address marketing efforts more generally. However, there are many good reasons why it makes sense to integrate customer service and marketing efforts.

Customers have a view of you as one brand, not as a disparate collection of business functions. However you see yourselves, it is important to present a seamless experience for those looking in from outside your business.

Lack of understanding of customer preferences and behaviors

Ten years ago now, an international research team identified a lack of understanding of customer behavior as a fundamental challenge to companies wanting to engage in multi-channel customer management.

A decade later, this problem still rings true for many companies.

Fact: The world in which we do business is constantly changing.
Perhaps the customers who purchased your product or service ten years ago have now have moved on, and you are dealing with an entirely new customer base. You need to research this new customer base to best engage and provide effective customer service.

Perhaps you have diversified your product and service offering into new markets. Same deal. You will need to research this new customer base for all the same reasons.

Or perhaps even, you are lucky enough to have the same customers, but their needs and preferences are changing to reflect the changing reality around them. Again – same deal. You will need to go back to a clean slate with your research.

All of this is to say: It is not enough to assume you know who your customers are, and how and over which channels they wish to communicate.

Your business will need to invest the time and effort into painstakingly verifying this each time you suspect a shift has taken place, and possibly even more frequently than that.

There is no getting around the need to deeply understand who your customers are and what they want.

Businesses who skimp on this step will wind up short-changing themselves in the process.

Lack of ability to keep up with emerging channels

Imagine it’s the 1950s. A customer wants to engage with your brand. How many channels can they choose? Probably three at most. Add to that the fact that they can only contact you on those channels at very particular times.

Contrast that with the reality we find ourselves in today.

There are a dazzling array of options for the customer who wants to interact with your company, with more emerging every day.

Not only that, but customers increasingly expect you to be available 24/7, every day of the year.

And unlike the traditional customer service model of yesteryear, it is the customer and not the company who chooses the channel they will communicate with you on.

This is why it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of new developments in customer communication technologies.

There are many ways you can go about this:

  • Make sure you regularly survey your customers to find out which communication channels they prefer;
  • Stay up to date by reading key technology blogs and news services (there are many options, but some popular ones are TechCrunch, CNet, and Slashdot);
  • Attend industry conferences (your own and others) to keep abreast of the latest trends and
  • Keep an eye on the consumer space to identify and track new developments.

Multi-channel customer service is here to stay, and growing ever more complex as technology evolves. Achieving excellence in this space is a question of placing the customer firmly at the center of all business considerations, every single time. Companies need to go where their customers lead them, even if this is across the communication frontier into new technologies and formats. Are you prepared for where your customers will lead you next?

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Parker Davis is the CEO of Answer 1, a leader in the virtual receptionist and technology enabled answering services industry. He believes that the application of data analytics, investment in technology, and fostering a positive company culture together create highly efficient and scalable growth companies. In 2016, Answer 1 will achieve record revenues while also being awarded the Top Companies to Work For in Arizona award. Parker is also the Managing Partner of Annison Capital Partners, LLC, a private investment partnership.