Are companies effectively providing multichannel and cross-channel customer service? The answer is yes, but slowly and in stages.
Customers of Extraco, a chain of banks in central Texas, can contact customer service through email, online chat, or click-to-call right from the company's Web site. The company also has mobile applications and a presence on popular social media sites.
"To have an effective social strategy, you need to have an effective mobile strategy," said Misti Mostiller, senior vice president of retail sales, support, and training at Extraco, at this summer's Customer Service Experience conference in New York.
"We had to shift our mindset around how people contact us. We had to revamp our organizational culture, hiring, training, and routines," she said. "Unity across channels is so important."
Many companies know they have to provide customer service over multiple channels, but they're not having an easy time. Often this is due to common misperceptions about customer experiences and communication preferences.
The most egregious of these misperceptions is that young people are the only ones adopting newer online customer service technologies.
Recent research suggests otherwise. In a Forrester Research eBusiness strategy report, 29 percent of all online adults expressed a preference for online support over speaking with a live person on the telephone. Chat adoption, for example, has risen dramatically across all generations since 2009, when only 19 percent of U.S. consumers used it for customer service. By the end of 2011, that number had nearly doubled to 37 percent.
Fortunately for customers, companies—especially retailers—have taken notice of their preferences and are stepping up their efforts to offer live Web chat as a customer support channel. Research from TELUS International, a provider of contact center and business process outsourcing solutions, found that 60 percent of top retailers have incorporated Web chat into their post-sales support operations. That's up from 31 percent in 2010.
The reasons are many. Chat, analysts say, can improve customer satisfaction, drive sales, deflect contact center calls, increase operational efficiency, and cut costs.
According to many industry sources, the cost of a conventional phone call can be anywhere from $3 to $6, while the cost of a chat session averages between $2 and $2.50. And, unlike the phone channel, where the agent can only deal with one customer at a time, agents on chat can typically handle between three and six customers at once.
But cheaper doesn't necessarily mean easier. "There are still obstacles to overcome," says Al Rose, vice president of retail and Internet properties at TELUS. "Companies still struggle with delivering a high-quality chat service when customers ask a wide range of sales and support questions. Also, online chat is implemented very differently among corporate Web sites, making it difficult for some customers to find the service, thereby reducing awareness and effective use of the communication channel."
Also seeing sharp increases in consumer adoption is social support. In 2009, only 7 percent of online consumers had gone to a social community or forum for customer service. By late 2011, that number had increased to 27 percent. As for Twitter, use jumped from 1 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2011, according to the Forrester report.
"Social media often seems to be a back-door entry to customer service because traditional channels (especially the phone) haven't always worked well," says Kate Leggett, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.
Here again, assuming that social media is used only by younger consumers is a mistake. Forrester's data finds that 30 percent of online consumers between the ages of 32 and 45 and 20 percent between 46 and 55 have turned to social media for customer support. Ignoring older cohorts in digital support could prove costly.
"Making generational assumptions about online customer service preferences could lead to missed opportunities," Diane Clarkson, Forrester's senior analyst serving the e-business and channel strategy markets, wrote in the report. "Today, social support use is exploding among consumers across multiple generations."
And the implications for not implementing effective social care are huge, according to Gadi BenMark, senior vice president of the advisory division at NM Incite, a social media consumer insights provider and joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey. Customers are turning to social media channels for customer service regardless of whether the brand is equipped to handle it, he says, noting that customers are dictating when and where they voice their questions, issues, and complaints.