• August 1, 2014
  • By Donna Fluss, president, DMG Consulting

Buzzword Battle: Omnichannel Versus Multichannel

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There is a new buzzword battle in the contact center market. The defender is the term multichannel, and the contender is omnichannel. While it's tempting to let the dictionary end this debate, buzzwords and phrases are not subject to the rules of language. Therefore, anything goes, and the market gets to make the choice.

In the last two months, I have been interviewed on the benefits of omnichannel contact centers versus multichannel contact centers, corrected by vendors when I used the "outdated" term multichannel, and laughed at when I suggested that other vendors are more comfortable using omnichannel than multichannel. While this inconsistency is in itself laughable, the underlying reason for the desire to move away from the term multichannel is a serious matter.

The History of Multichannel Contact Centers

I went to Gartner 17 years ago to cover two emerging trends, Web self-service and multichannel contact centers, as well as other established areas. As someone who had spent the prior 14 years in financial services, I saw the great potential of Web self-service solutions and multichannel servicing environments. As is often the case with new technologies, the adoption curve was much slower than anticipated by the vendors. In the case of Web self-service, the market and consumers around the world experienced the pain of the early generation of these environments. While there is still great opportunity for improvement, companies have been steadily making investments in their Web sites, though it has taken too long to realize that customer service should be an essential element in every step and screen.

As bad as the investment picture was for Web self-service, it was much worse for multichannel environments. Investment dollars, already limited in the late 1990s, became almost nonexistent for customer service and contact centers in 2000. The mantras of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "doing more with less" became the standard for these departments around the world. At the same time, new servicing channels were becoming popular among consumers, who expected companies to support them in their channel of choice, which hardly ever happened then and is still rare now. Email came on strong in the late 1990s, although most organizations either didn't bother to respond or waited too long to get back to customers. Chat arrived a few years later, followed by SMS. And social customer care is still being ignored or mishandled by all but a few organizations, even while the volume of these interactions is growing at warp speed.

Slow adoption of multichannel servicing was exacerbated by the lack of integration between servicing applications. More innovative companies that were willing to spend money on their service organizations added new channels. But even they missed the importance of creating a frictionless customer experience, and instead established siloed groups to handle each one. So, all too often, if a customer first sent an email and then called, the phone agent had no way to find out what happened in the alternative channel, forcing customers to start over every time they reached out in a different mode of communication. The U.S. continues to lag behind Europe, particularly Scandinavia, in adoption of servicing channels, but the lack of a fully integrated servicing environment remains a major issue around the world.

Though brief, this summary of the history of servicing channels points out that most companies have not invested properly in building multichannel servicing environments, even though the technology has been available for years. This is where the omnichannel concept comes in.

Does a Name Make a Difference?

When pushed, vendors explain that the difference between multichannel and omnichannel is that the former is a failed concept and the latter is an unsullied one with great potential. In the world of "buzz," multi and omni are virtually interchangeable. What's different and worthy of attention is the growing emphasis being placed on building effective omnichannel contact centers to deliver outstanding and consistent customer journeys throughout all channels. If changing a word can get companies to invest in improving their servicing environments, then count me in the "omni" camp.

Donna Fluss (donnafluss@dmgconsult.com) is founder and president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center and analytics research, marketing analysis, and consulting.

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