What Will It Take for Omnichannel to Live Up to Its Promise?
When the idea of omnichannel customer service first came about, the goal was to allow companies to offer seamless communications with customers whether they were online communicating via email, text, or a variety of social media platforms; on the phone; in a brick-and-mortar location; or even switching between channels in the course of a single transaction.
So how close is customer service to that goal? Experts agree that we’ve come far, but there is still more to be done.
And it’s not for lack of trying on the part of customers.
“Customers—especially younger ones—often access multiple service channels at once in hopes of quickly resolving their issues, a tendency that can escalate customer contacts and cost,” Gartner notes in a recent report.
It happens because customers often don’t know which service channel is best, so they cast as wide a net as possible, reaching out through several channels at the same time in hopes of finding an easy resolution. Gartner’s research found that this behavior happens in 20 percent of all service interactions. And it is far more common among younger generations, with 37 percent of Millennials and 46 percent of Gen-Zers using multiple service channels simultaneously. The trend is only going to continue as these generations comprise a larger share of the customer base.
Consumers often find that the process is flawed, though. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of a clean handoff of communications between channels or from one agent or department to another.
“Making sure that a customer’s experience is consistently positive across all channels is often more challenging than anticipated,” says Dmytro Lazarchuk, CEO of data migration services provider Relokia. “For example, customers may be frustrated that they have to start the conversation over when transferring from one channel to another, or that the quality of their experience is different depending on the channel they’re using.”
To compensate, some companies have taken to eliminating some channels, which runs contrary to the omnichannel trend. Earlier this year, Frontier Airlines eliminated telephone support entirely. That leaves customers with nothing other than digital channels—or if at an airport, with a Frontier counter—to handle customer service issues.
Though the trend is certainly toward digital interactions for customer service, phone support is still a necessary component for companies looking to deliver outstanding CX, according to Jim Davies, chief experience officer of contact center solutions provider Calabrio.
“With the rise of consumer expectations and digital-first brands, contact centers are focused on an omnichannel approach to meet today’s complexities,” Davies says, pointing to a 2022 study that found that 53 percent of consumers are having more first-time digital interactions with companies than they did in the previous year. But at the same time, other studies have shown that supporting the voice channel needs to be very much a core part of any contact center’s communications strategy.
There are other reasons that omnichannel customer engagement strategies haven’t exactly worked out as planned just yet. The industry has, for years, worked toward the promise of seamless interactions across an integrated network of devices and touchpoints, says Frank Schneider, artificial intelligence evangelist at Verint. “Until recently, this promise was under-delivered due to rising consumer expectations, constraints and gaps that exist across organizational silos, budgetary and resource cutbacks within relevant labor pools, and the relative technology available to close these gaps.”
IT’S NOT MULTICHANNEL
“First, everyone has to understand what omnichannel truly is,” adds Tara Bryant, chief revenue officer at Optimove, a CRM and customer data platforms provider. “There’s a difference between omnichannel and multichannel. Most retailers do a good job with multichannel. They have all of these different channels, but they’re not integrated. Omnichannel is about integrating channels for a consistent consumer message.”
Omnichannel isn’t multichannel, agrees Rob McDougall, president and CEO of Upstream Works, an omnichannel contact center desktop solutions provider. “Multichannel is the ability to support multiple incoming channels of communications—think phone, email, messaging. From the customer’s point of view, multichannel gives them the ability to use the channel of their choice.”
Multichannel ignores the agent side of the equation as well as long-term customer satisfaction, according to McDougall. “Omnichannel separates the business need from the requesting channel,” he says, noting that businesses should provide a consistent set of services and capabilities regardless of how the customer chooses to reach out.
“Agents need to be able to deal with the interaction types as peers, so that tools that are available in one channel are available in all. This means that an agent processing two voice calls has the same capabilities as [when she is processing] a voice call and an email.”
Another problem is that although consumers interact with companies as one entity, many companies don’t service them that way. Rather, they still communicate with consumers via siloed channels, according to Bryant. “For those silo-channeled brands, no one team, whether it be email, chat, in-store, or web, has one single view of the customer.”
“The ability to seamlessly transfer interactions from one channel to another is a reality today, but only for businesses that break down technology silos,” says Laura Bassett, vice president of CX product marketing at NICE. “It is essential for businesses to adopt an open, single, scalable, cloud-native platform offering the most advanced solutions underpinned by AI. This makes data accessible across the platform, which is how businesses are able to orchestrate seamless CX.”
NO LACK OF TECH
Ask CRM technology vendors why omnichannel customer service hasn’t reached its potential and they will put the blame elsewhere.
“We’ve been talking about the promise of omnichannel since the cloud migration movement kicked into gear nearly a decade ago,” says Owen Robinson, vice president of CX modernization at Waterfield Technologies, a customer engagement solutions provider. “The technology to support what the industry refers to as the seamless customer journey, from interaction to interaction with every last bit of context intact, already exists. The tech is there.”
The democratization and alignment of agent technology is helping with the omnichannel effort, according to Verint’s Schneider. In best-of-breed contact centers, these technology solutions and customer-facing self-service can now share data, including knowledge, history, and context, so that true omnichannel solutions can exist across one workforce of humans and AI or chatbots, he states.
As an example, Schneider highlights a large cable TV provider that restructured its CX organization to include an employee and customer tools division. “This organizational shift that is occurring reflects modern technology colliding and actually aligning with strategy insofar as an automation application or solution that can be used for a customer to engage with a brand can be and should be leveraged to influence employee-/agent-facing tools.”
For businesses that have unified data and applications, an agent receiving a transferred call would already have the necessary information on the customer and any prior interactions, Bassett says. “This is the only way you can guarantee that the transfer is seamless from one channel to the next—with context.”
And companies today can marry all available customer data in one source of truth, according to Bryant. It houses retail store data with online data and more to optimize all customer experiences in one channel.
For customer service reps, it means that with omnichannel, they are not left in the dark. “They don’t have to ask irritating questions such as ‘Did you say the product was viewed in store or online?’ or ‘Can I have your name again?’” Bryant says.
By having all technologies working together, companies not only can provide better customer service, they can also improve their sales and marketing efforts by communicating with the customer with the right message at the right time through the right channel.
So if the technology exists, why is seamless omnichannel very rare in practice?
“The reason a lot of people haven’t done it is that it’s hard,” Bryant says. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
More often than not, it’s the people and corporate processes that are getting in the way, according to Waterfield’s Robinson. “Perhaps more specifically, it’s our intrinsic resistance and fear of change. It takes effort and work to try new things. It’s daunting to re-envision and re-create the entire customer experience strategy and scale our customer interactions across 19 different channels. We already know what we like and what works, so why change it? We don’t want to retrace the hours of configuration, testing, deployment windows, and cycles of optimization required to curate customer experience.”
It’s seemingly cheaper to provide stand-alone digital channels alone than it is to provide them as an integrated solution, according to McDougall. “But adding in channels that your customers can use but your agents can’t support will lead to dissatisfied customers and increased servicing costs. Omnichannel starts at the agent’s desktop. If they can’t handle things easily and consistently 60 times a day across any channel you support, then your digital strategy is going to fail.”
“You not only have to do technical integration, you also need to have a brain behind it and make it smart,” Bryant adds.
Bryant sees a much larger problem at the heart of omnichannel’s missing the mark: Companies aren’t putting the customer first when adding new technologies, she says. “The biggest mistake that companies make is they are not starting with the customer.”
“We believe that when you put the customer first, you’re going to gain their loyalty for life, because you are not going to give me things that are siloed, like multichannel does,” Bryant says.
For omnichannel to work as promised, AI will also play a greater role going forward. Companies need to pull together a number of data points, and AI can be the critical unifying factor, according to several experts.
By using AI-driven bots to facilitate conversations and reduce wait times, companies can get their customers the help they need more quickly, Relokia’s Lazarchuk says. Companies can also use AI-driven analytics to understand customer preferences and provide tailored, personalized experiences.
Experts do point out, however, that not all companies are coming up short of their omnichannel aspirations.
Particularly in the technology arena, some companies are already providing the promised seamless omnichannel experience, according to Martin Taylor, cofounder and deputy CEO of Content Guru, a cloud communications provider. “The technology required for seamless omnichannel experience is readily available and in widespread use. Businesses that have deployed the most modern contact center-as-a-service (CCaaS) solutions are already able to enjoy the benefits of consistent omnichannel engagement.”
However, to realize the potential of their technology investments, more of these organizations must leverage the capabilities for which they are paying, Taylor adds. “There is no point in having the ability to engage customers through digital, spoken, and visual communications, or buying intelligent automation and quality management, if the service delivered to the consumer is still only average.”
Haley Slade, CEO of Slade Copy House, a digital copywriting agency, adds that companies that have invested in the right tools and processes and have a clear understanding of their customers have been able to provide seamless experiences across channels. They have also seen benefits such as increased customer satisfaction and loyalty and improved efficiency and productivity, she says.
NOT THERE YET
For most companies, though, omnichannel is still a work in progress, Lazarchuk argues. “Companies have certainly made strides towards providing a seamless customer experience across all channels,” he says. “With the right technology and processes in place, companies can ensure that customers have a positive and consistent experience, no matter which channel they’re using.”
It’s difficult to say when seamless omnichannel will become the rule rather than the exception, Slade says. “It will depend on factors such as industry, company size, and level of investment. However, we do see a trend toward increased investment in omnichannel capabilities, as companies recognize the importance of meeting customers where they are and providing a seamless experience across channels.”
Gartner offers the following recommendations for companies trying to improve their omnichannel support options:
• Use an interactive voice response system to guide customers to the best channel to resolve their issues, letting them know they can still speak to an agent if necessary.
• Ensure consistent information and design throughout all service channels. Given some customers will inevitably hop across channels, consistent information and design will limit customer confusion and effort. You can achieve this goal by establishing consistent knowledge management systems and practices throughout all service channels.
Even then, it will continue to be a challenge to manage the growth in volume and diversity of interactions across this myriad of communication channels, especially during peak demand periods. But in the end, it will be possible once companies start to do what they should have been doing all along.
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.