• December 1, 2013
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Overcome Multichannel Customer Service Challenges

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Adapt to customer preferences

The focus then can move to delivering effective service and support on whichever available channels customers find convenient. It's not about whether a business serves customers in multiple channels, but rather whether its channels align with customer preferences. Multichannel initiatives need to be determined by customers rather than by statistics or vendor pitches.

Customer Management IQ, a division of International Quality and Productivity Center, found that while 80 percent of companies recognize the value in engaging customers in their preferred channels, only 30 percent can do this consistently, and 21 percent never can.

That can have a huge impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty, according to research by ICMI, which found that 93 percent of consumers would be more satisfied with customer service if they were offered their choice of channels.

"In the past, companies tried to push customers to one channel or another," Pal says. "Now it's the customers who are in control of how they contact companies."

That's something modern companies need to accept, first and foremost. "Companies have to adapt to the channels of their customers rather than saying 'This is how we want to communicate with our customers,'" says Mikkel Svane, CEO and founder of Zendesk, a provider of multichannel contact center solutions. "The new mantra is to put support into the context of relevance. It's about opening the door and listening to customers where they are."

One of the biggest challenges, though, is that customers are all over the place. "Not only are the number of channels customers [use] constantly changing, but usage by channel changes widely from one year to the next," Leggett says.

That's particularly true when it comes to customers making complaints against businesses that they feel have done them wrong. Research released in October by Populus Research and Kana Software found that the average American consumer spends 384 minutes (or 6.5 hours) a year lodging complaints about businesses and uses many different channels to do so. Those in the 25–34 age bracket in particular were found to use the widest number of communication channels, with a full 39 percent claiming to have leveraged multiple channels to resolve a single issue. Among all age groups, getting an issue resolved fully took an average of three attempts, with more than a quarter (27 percent) of consumers using multiple contact channels to do so.

Unfortunately, the ICMI research also found that companies are unable to address the same issue generated across multiple channels. "All too often, customer service suffers from a lack of integration and a misunderstanding across service channels," Kana's chief marketing officer, James Norwood, explains. "This leads to overwhelmed agents, lost productivity, and frustrating and laborious experiences for customers, adding perceived insult to injury."

Customers expect businesses to be able to accommodate interactions that begin on one channel and then move to another. An email might be followed up with a phone call. A request made through social media could move to a more private channel as more detailed information is exchanged.

And often today, a call to the contact center—once the first and only choice for consumers—is made only after a failed attempt on an online channel. Three-quarters of customers move to another channel when online customer service fails, Forrester recently found. This unnecessary escalation, Leggett maintains, costs companies more than $22 million on average each year.

A thorough, effective multichannel strategy can impact the bottom line in other ways, especially when one considers that Web chat is half the cost of a phone call, and email is half the cost of that, according to Forrester data.

While the financial considerations are compelling, companies shouldn't just start opening support opportunities on these other channels simply because it could cut costs. Customers will be very quick to drop a channel if they find it to be too cumbersome or ineffective, regardless of how much it cost the company to implement or maintain.

"Customers want a channel of least resistance, and that is the channel that they will use," Nuance's Pal says. "It's all about customer effort. If you make it easy for customers to interact with you, they will be more satisfied and happier."

To that end, Leggett and others suggest involving customers directly in the selection of channels.

"Develop a company strategy first," Leggett advises, "and then map that against your customer service strategy. Look at the types of channels you want to support, and don't be afraid to ask your customers what they want."

Customer Channel Metrics

Once that's out of the way, the company can start using hard metrics to determine how well the myriad channels are working. These metrics, Leggett says, should include response times, and take into account that some channels require a more immediate response than others.

Then companies can look at other considerations, such as internal engagement metrics, revenue metrics, customer satisfaction metrics, operational metrics, key performance indicators (KPIs), service-level agreements, and many others. "And you need to measure them on every single channel," Leggett advises.

But regardless of whether they operate in two channels or 15, many businesses don't measure the KPIs for all of their customer interaction channels. While just about every firm records and scores calls and the agents who answer them and looks at various details of their phone interactions, from how long the caller waited in the queue to average handling time, few companies extend those same phone metrics to their other customer service channels. According to Dimension Data, only 28 percent measure Web self-service interaction costs and KPIs, 19 percent measure Web chat, 10 percent measure social media, and 6 percent measure their smartphone apps.

"It is necessary for all channels, regardless of volume, to have well-defined KPIs," Stealey Reed says. "While they can evolve and change over time, metrics will show the value and impact of each channel on the customer and the business."

That's not always easy, especially for some of the newer channels. "It can be challenging to establish the proper metrics [speed-of-answer, need-to-answer, containment]for some emerging channels, like social media and portal/community moderation," Stealey Reed adds. "This is where tools that utilize text analytics to analyze written communication channels can be helpful. These applications are not yet commonplace, but we at ICMI anticipate an uptick in 2014 as more self-help and social mediums are adopted for customer service."

Beyond the comparison data collected through these and more traditional metrics, Leggett also suggests directly soliciting customer feedback as often as possible. "No matter the channel, you should be surveying customers after every interaction to see if the interaction served their needs," she says.

Melissa Kovacevic, a customer experience consulting and coaching expert, takes it even a step further. "I encourage our clients to experience all kinds of interactions from the customer's standpoint. We tell them to call into their own call centers, experience the IVR,

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