Approaching Multichannel

Adrian Bethell, Interactive Intelligence
Adrian Bethell, Interactive Intelligence

If you’re reading this article it’s probably because you’ve already realized, or at least started to suspect, that there is more to multichannel than just configuring some software and updating your website. For those of you who like sneak previews, the main takeaway from this piece is that, while listening to our customers leaves us in no doubt that multichannel is here to stay and needs to be embraced, it’s equally important to understand that it must be approached with caution, as failing to do so leaves us at risk of just giving ourselves more ways to disappoint our customers. While multichannel can help us to meet customers’ desires for easy access, one of the easiest ways to frustrate our customers is forcing them to repeat themselves.

When we’re launching new channels, we should ensure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing: If I’ve told my life story this morning on the phone, then I am going to be very disappointed when I chat later if I’m asked for the information again. Before you launch a new channel, answer this question honestly: Are you delivering consistent service on the channels that you’re already managing? If you give your team leaders a scenario and ask them each to call the contact center at different times and go through the same role-play and then compare their scorecards, are they in the same ballpark?

In theory, multichannel is merely supporting more than one customer communication channel, but it’s very different from just publishing an additional 800-number and having the calls arrive at your existing inbound team. Some of these differences include:

  • There are different customer profiles that will tend to prefer different channels, but none of them want poor service. Each channel should be treated with the same expectations of service quality.

  • You must ensure that adding the new channels results in a net benefit, and that existing channels will not suffer due to the addition of new channels; e.g., strained resources, increased volumes in existing channels caused by disappointment in the new ones.

  • Potential to mis-set customer expectations in terms of what service is or is not available on the new channels. It’s not good if you offer chat and then end up responding to customers that they should probably just call. Typically, the transactions handled via chat are different from those tackled over the phone, but if the chat is there for a limited function this should be clear before the customers start the interaction.

  • You must monitor customer behavior across different channels to assess their global experience. Most customers use more than one channel, sometimes in parallel, and this shouldn’t necessarily negatively impact your FCR scores. You could define success in terms of each interaction’s ability to successfully deliver its part, combined with the customer’s overall ability to easily achieve what they set out to achieve.

  • Effective or poor management of your social media presence can massively impact your brand image. This is still very much a new customer contact channel with many creative ways of making it work for you, but let’s not forget the science—customer who ask questions want useful answers in a timely fashion. Only approach social media if you’re going to take it seriously and are confident you’ll get it right.

5 Reasons to Approach Multichannel

  1. Email, chat, SMS and social media can be cheaper per interaction than calls.

  2. Agent workload is varied, reducing turnover and ultimately leading to a more experienced workforce, which results in better customer experience, driving loyalty and repeat business.

  3. Customers may feel better-suited to communicating in the new ways you’re offering, and therefore, more likely to actually get in touch with you. That’s an opportunity for you to impress and strengthen your relationship.

  4. Staffing appropriately for each channel enables resources to be moved real-time to a channel experiencing a spike in volume. If you’re only offering one channel, you have limited ability to juggle resources to match needs. Often, the quality assurance program is the first to suffer to free up resources to handle the peaks.

  5. Virtual agents can refer to FAQs to answer chat without using live-agent resources, but be sure to use this option appropriately. Customers who have read the FAQs already and who are using chat for a human touch will be disappointed if they get the same responses from chat. Clearly differentiate the experience when a customer is interfacing with a website avatar (virtual agent) and when they have chosen to communicate with a human being over chat.

5 Reasons to Approach Multichannel—WITH CAUTION

  1. Different metrics/agent profiles/processes may be appropriate. This may result in a cultural change with new philosophies driving focus on different behaviors than before, new hiring strategy or different look and feel to the frontline teams.

  2. Technology may be a limiting factor here, prohibiting you from getting it right. You need to consider what happens to your agent desktop when you add these new channels—if an agent can handle calls, chat and email, this should not mean juggling three different tools with potential risk of receiving a contact from each channel all at the same time! Getting technology right also includes the ability to report, forecast and plan resources, quality monitor, remain compliant with appropriate legislation and maintain visibility of activity across channels to achieve consistency in customer experience— there is a need for a common database for all channels to access/deliver uniform information.

  3. You risk distancing yourselves from your customers, as your customers may not feel better-suited to communicating in the new ways you’re offering. Know your customers, understand their demographic and what is likely to please them or add value. ASK THEM!

  4. Multiple channels may mean multiple small pockets of agent resources, which is costly compared to larger groups. There is a tendency to fall to multitasking to regain some efficiency, but this can lead to a dip in quality and FCR, which will result in driving up overall interaction volumes.

  5. Multichannel is complicated. You’re may find that your customers prefer to have easy access to good service over the phone over mediocre service across a diverse range of channels.

Which Channel?

Phone lines represent, by far, the lion’s share of customer contact with email steadily increasing (although still low), webchat coming in third, and SMS/social media/smartphone apps becoming important additions in recent years. In certain industries, there’s no getting away from paper documents, although typically scans of these are acceptable and volumes are a small fraction of the total customer contact.

Typically, customer interactions requiring agent resource are more costly for a contact center to provide than interactions customers can carry out with a system. Technology is usually high investment and low running costs, whereas the opposite is true for an agent team. The short duration of an automated transaction often satisfies customers, although the impersonal nature is inappropriate for some interaction types.

If you really want to diversify your customer experience it would be a good idea to add channels that really do have a different look and feel, rather than adding channels that don’t differ very much from what you’re already offering. To help choose which channel may be best, I’ve defined two main groups that channels can fall into:

Agent: Unstructured Communication

  • Need for a human touch

      • Seeking assistance

      • Seeking explanations

      • Complicated, multifaceted interactions

Non-Agent: Structured Communication

  • Transactional interactions

      • Auto-pay

      • Balance inquiry

      • “Request a copy”

  • Structured requests

If you’re already offering a channel that relies on real-time live-agent input, what value are you really adding by adding another channel that also relies on real-time live-agent resources? If the answer is that one is voice and one is written, that may be a valid response, depending on what your customers are telling you. It may be more appropriate for you to add a channel with automated self-service, which opens a whole different realm to your customers (typically 24/7, customers are in no rush and can take their time, sit around a computer with a partner, etc.).

Multi ChannelI recently applied for a mortgage with my bank and did it all online on their website. I chose my amount, my deal and I entered all of my details, then loaded all of my supporting documentation. Over the following days, I used the website to monitor the status of my application as my documents were revised and accepted. I only got a phone call quite near the end of the process to finalize a couple of details and arrange a date for signature. For me, this was the perfect blend—for filling in forms and checklists, I did it myself with no rush; and for the softer touch part, I dealt with a human being. The human being I dealt with was fully aware of everything I had done myself on the website, and I wasn’t asked to repeat information that I had already given through the other channel.

As it happens, I can also communicate with my bank via SMS, smartphone app and by going into the office. I do like the fact I have a choice and, at different times, I think I’ve used all of the various options, but I don’t notice a massive difference between going in to the bank and calling the phone line. Likewise using the app, the website or SMS are all pretty similar to each other. In an ideal world, all contact centers would provide all channels and would be all things to all customers. If, for the moment, you are only going to do phone plus one other, consider what you’re aiming to achieve with the new one. Are you going to stick with live-agent support but add a written channel (web chat, SMS, email, web-forms) alongside your voice channel? Are you going to stick with just voice for the live-agent support and add an automated channel alongside (website, IVR, app, SMS)?

5 Steps to Successful Launch of a New Customer Contact Channel

  1. Define what you’re setting out to achieve—choose a mission statement. You’re probably not going to get too far if your mission statement is: “To be the first in the industry to be multichannel,” or “To keep up with our competitors—everyone’s talking about multichannel nowadays.” More likely to breed success is a mission statement like: “To invest in people, technology and infrastructure that enable us to put our customers at the heart of our communications strategy by evolving with their evergrowing needs and letting them tell us how they want to speak to us now and in the future.”

  2. Analyze and plan. Research current and emerging trends in your industry. This includes finding out what your competitors are doing—there’s nothing to stop you trying out their service firsthand to see what they are doing successfully or badly. Use your own support services and make a comparison. Analyze the demographics and behaviors of your customer base, and ask your customers what they want!

  3. Align your technology. Analyze your current technology’s ability to provide seamless customer experience, and assess what investment might be necessary to ensure that you’re using the right tools. Is your database ready for you to give your customers a consistent message and service across the different channels? Are you ready for the impacts to your processes surrounding staff resourcing (hiring, training, WFM), reporting (SLAs, KPIs) and quality monitoring?

  4. Define a pilot process. To begin with, consider launching the channel only internally to help road-test the new setup. This enables you to roll back without disappointing your customers. Once you’re offering this to customers, it’s difficult to shut it down and redesign it without losing credibility. You will also need to understand the dynamics and metrics of small resource pools—a small number of interactions will have a small team saturated, so SLA will be erratic. Assess your technology’s ability to throttle volumes during peaks (e.g., only offer the new channel to a reduced number of customers, don’t publicize it on your home page from day 1, remove the chat button from the website when no agents are available, set in-queue expectations with options to convert to a call, etc.).

  5. Roll out progressively. Only roll out when you’re confident you can be successful at doing so—this is not the time for a Big Bang approach. Maybe only offer it to Platinum customers in the beginning to help them feel special about taking part in the evolution. Open it up to the wider audience gradually, and obsessively request feedback and customer assessments to be fed back into the design cycle for version 2.0.

Some Considerations to Bear in Mind

  • Ensure that you always know why you’re doing what you’re doing and let this guide your decision making during the design process. What are we trying to achieve with this new channel and does it achieve that the way we’re designing it?

  • Don’t underestimate the impact new channels will have on your business, including changes to: Agent profile and recruitment process. Are there new skills or experiences that you need to be looking for (e.g., computer literacy, technical profile, age group, etc.)? Training and quality monitoring. Are the process and tools the same for recording and scoring calls, chats, emails and social media? Workforce management. While we can take pressure off the inbound phone lines by adding in automated response options (SMS, some chat, potentially web-forms) or deferrable workload for customer channels with less immediate need for response (e.g., email, white mail), we also need to consider whether phone teams and deferrable work teams are interchangeable resources or two separate teams. Understand occupancy, the value of accurate forecasts, and beware of the temptation to multitask to gain efficiency. Reporting. You may need to redefine your reporting tools and processes as well as your SLAs and KPIs.

  • Be sure that you’ve planned what the pilot process looks like and who your audience is during the different phases. This includes understanding the dynamics of small pockets of agent resources—smaller groups require more idle time.

  • Establish a clear communications strategy, including publicity and advertising, for when you’re ready. How you can use gamification to encourage customers to use new channels and to take part in feedback to help you further improve?

  • Promise very little to stakeholders. Whatever happens, you don’t want to be in a position where you’re under pressure to drive against the clock toward launch with something that isn’t ready.

Adrian Bethell is a Contact Center Consultant (EMEA and LATAM) at Interactive Intelligence with over 15 years’ experience helping customers to maximize value using customer-centric methodologies and contact center best practices.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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