Managing Customer Communications in a Multichannel World
July 03, 2011

In the customer service and contact center markets we used to talk about phone calls, letters, faxes and email; now we talk about “communications,” “interactions,” “contacts” and “touch points.”These four terms are used almost interchangeably to talk generally about actions involving customers and can include all forms of communication – calls, documents (letters, email, forms and surveys), website visits, text messages, instant message (chat) sessions and social media – over all types of channels – fixed and mobile phones, in person and the Web. This proliferation of forms and channels of communication has caused various issues for companies. 

The first challenge of having so many forms of communication is who should respond to them. Calls, for example, might come in to marketing, sales, the contact center, customer service, finance (for billing enquiries), home-based agents and mobile workers. When you include the other forms of communication, my research into agent performance management shows personnel (complaints about agents), manufacturing (delivery inquiries), executives (serious complaints about liability and reputation) and other business units can all be involved. This breadth puts a strain on consistency of response. Most business units have their own processes, training and systems, so a call to one of them might produce a different response than another might give; this can happen even between individuals within a business unit. My research into customer experience management shows this inconsistency is a major cause of customer dissatisfaction and increased costs, as customers often have to call several business units to get the answer they want. 

My research into the state of contact centers shows that the number of channels in use is rising; on average companies now support the telephone and four other channels. Once again the first challenge is to determine who owns these channels, followed by how to ensure consistency of information regardless of channel. One potential solution is a common knowledge database to support all channels, but my research into the state of contact center technologies shows only a few innovative companies have adopted this approach; the majority use individual departmental systems to source information.  

A related challenge for companies is to deploy technology to manage each channel, which can involve several systems, a diverse range of skills to use and administer them, major integration requirements and a lot of money. Fortunately more vendors now offer an integrated platform that supports multiple channels, and they and others are moving their systems “into the cloud,” making them more affordable and practical alternatives. 

Managing customer relationships and providing good customer experiences depends on several factors: recognizing the customer at the point of communication, directing the communication to the best-qualified person or system to handle the request, and having the right information easily at hand to resolve the request. Getting each of these aspects right requires analyzing past communications and using that analysis to put skilled people, processes and systems in place to ensure the best possible outcome from each communication. We find that the most innovative companies use predictive analysis to anticipate customer behavior and position themselves to deal with future communications.  

The sheer number and types of communications outlined above have until very recently made this almost impossible. Most products can deal with structured forms of data (such as in CRM, ERP and service tickets), but only recently have they become able to deal with unstructured data (including text, speech and event data regarding desktop usage). Now vendors gradually are integrating more sources of data, structured and unstructured, to provide the acclaimed 360-degree view of the customer that shows not only what channels customers use but how they have to navigate across channels to resolve their issues. 

These days no writing on customer communications can avoid mentioning social media. This explosive trend adds another dimension to the issue of customer communications, as companies struggle to deal not just with another channel but one that is different in nature from the others. It is the first channel over which companies have no control; customers can basically write what they like, and companies have to deal publicly with the consequences. Unlike any other channel social media is not one-to-one, it is one-to-many, and one customer can be “seen” by hundreds or thousands of other customers. And it transcends line of business boundaries both in content and responsibility for responding. Companies therefore have to decide who responds (whether it’s each line of business, the contact center, a specialist group, or even no one), how to control the content of the response (there are many examples where a poor response has led to more negative exposure than the original entry) and once again how to maintain consistency. 

Communicating with customers has never been so difficult or indeed so important. How is your company responding to all these challenges?  

Regards 

Richard Snow – VP & Research Director 


 

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