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The aim of multichannel customer service is to provide customers with options for how they would like to communicate with a brand if they have a query or a complaint to make.

It is also about providing a seamless experience to the customer, regardless of which channel they choose to use.

Behind the scenes, many companies may not have joined up customer service channels, but as far as customers are concerned, they are dealing with a single company, whether online, by telephone, or in a local store.

Examples of a seamless experience for customers would be the ability to return goods bought online to a local store without any hassles, or to phone up a call centre where the customer services representative is aware of previous conversations that took place via email.

The ideal multichannel customer service operation would have a ‘single customer view’: the ability to track customers and their communications and purchase behaviour across channels.

Why is multichannel customer service important? 

For companies, this would offer the benefit of being able to provide service to individual customers far more efficiently, as well as the data and insight to improve the targeting of marketing communications.

Most important of all, since the customer can be provided with a higher level of service, it can lead to an increase in customer satisfaction and higher retention rates.

When prices and products are often very similar between competitors, then customer experience is one way to differentiate your brand from its rivals.

You need only look at the reputation built up by brands like Zappos and first direct to see what the provision of excellent customer service can do for a business.

Great customer service makes people talk about a brand. Customers will become advocates, recommending a company to friends and colleagues purely on the basis of receiving first class service.

Customer advocacy is ultra-important in this socially-connected age.

The costs of poor customer service

Ultimately, poor customer service will hit companies in two ways: in lost business due to losing disillusioned customers to competitors, and in the bad publicity and negative buzz generated by unhappy customers.

A recent study by Genesys and Ovum/ Datamonitor actually put a figure on poor customer service. Its results showed that it costs the UK economy £15bn per year.

According to the study, 73% of UK consumers had ended their relationship with a firm due to poor customer service. The average cost of a lost customer is estimated to be £248 per year.

Among the leading reasons given for ending relationships with companies were:

  • Customers being forced to repeat themselves.
  • Being trapped in automated self-service lines.
  • Having to wait too long for service.
  • Customer service staff not knowing a customer’s history and value.
  • Not being able to switch between communication channels easily.

Many, if not all, of these issues can be solved with a joined-up approach to customer service.

Customer service channels

There are a number of touchpoints where customers can communicate with customer service staff. At each of these, companies have the opportunity to create a positive impression...

Telephone

This will be the main point of contact for many customers, but it also has the potential to become a major source of frustration.

At its best, when call centres are properly staffed with knowledgeable agents who possess the ability to help customers promptly and effectively, then this can create a positive impression.

However, the reverse is all too often the case. Customers are frequently routed around labyrinthine IVR systems, which sometimes seem designed to prevent people actually speaking to someone.

Add call queues to this mix, and you have customers that, when they finally get to speak to an agent, are already frustrated, making the job of the customer service team more difficult than it needs to be.

According to a survey carried out by Toluna for Econsultancy, call queues and having to select multiple options are the two biggest service-related bugbears for customers, so an opportunity exists for companies to differentiate themselves by providing a better service.

This takes us back to the example of first direct. I have recently switched my banking here from a competitor, and one of the main reasons was the customer service offering. First direct staff actually answer the phone when you call, and normally within a couple of rings. It is unnervingly quick.

It’s a simple thing, though admittedly there is a cost to this in terms of staff and resources, but the benefits in terms of increased customer satisfaction, customer advocacy, retention rates, and positive word of mouth may well outweigh the costs.

Email

According to the survey mentioned above, email is actually the preferred customer service channel for 44% of 2,000 respondents.

I can see why. While an urgent query is likely to prompt people to reach for the phone, many people would prefer to send an email and wait for a reply, avoiding the hassle of calling.

Though they should be answered as promptly as possible, customers aren’t expecting an instant response, so this can take the pressure off call centres, and allows companies to take time to investigate issues and provide information without keeping a customer waiting on the line.

However, email customer service is often poor. From contact forms that seem to be the online equivalent of automated self service on phone lines, to slow responses.

A recent Online Delivery Report by Snow Valley found that 60% of email enquiries about deliveries sent to more than 200 UK retailers took more than a day to be replied to.

In addition, a shocking 16% didn’t respond at all, which is one way to lose a customer. Also, almost 6% didn’t even provide an email address at all, despite the fact that this is a requirement of EU regulations on e-commerce.

Post

Surprisingly, 9% of respondents to our survey cited the post as their preferred channel for customer service, though 15% said it was the most frustrating, which is perhaps a measure of the quality of the service they have received.

Offline

Around 9% of our survey respondents said they would prefer to go into a local store or office if they had a customer service issue, in order to speak to someone in person.

This may well be a quicker way to resolve some issues, and in the case of returns, it can be more convenient than returning goods by post or waiting for a courier to collect them.

For companies, this kind of customer service offers an opportunity to provide a positive experience, and have the customer leaving with a better impression of the company. It may also be an opportunity to upsell.

A joined-up approach is key here. If a customer has bought an item online and has a problem with it and wants to return it in store, then staff should have the appropriate information and authority to deal with this.

Live chat

This is an instant messenger style service that can be employed on websites to give customers an alternative contact option while they are shopping.

It is more of an accompaniment to online shopping, and it can be shown as an option on product pages, or during the checkout process.

These kinds of tools can also be used proactively. For example, a certain pattern of behaviour – such as a customer having problems entering payment details – could be used as a cue to invite the customer to chat, to hopefully resolve the problem and make sure the transaction goes through.

It can answer customer questions promptly when they most need a response. In the case of luxury gifts and home furnishings retailer Amara, for every 20 sales that go through on the site, four or five occur after a customer has used live chat.

Social media

The use of social media for customer service is still relatively new, but it offers a great opportunity for brands to be proactive in dealing with customer complaints, and can also show others (potential customers perhaps) that a brand is listening and willing to engage with its customers.

It may not always be the right channel, as some queries may be too complex to deal with in 140 characters, or a quick wall posting, but an initial contact made via social media can always be shifted to another channel if necessary.

Some companies, such as BT and ASOS, have made the effort here, and launched dedicated customer service accounts via Twitter, which provide information, refer customers to the best place to get their queries dealt with.

As well as providing a place to go for customers to get issues resolved, good customer service on Twitter can help to give big companies a more human, friendly face to customers.

However, many companies just aren’t getting it right. A recent study of the top 25 UK retailers with social media profiles found that just 25% of retailers responded to a question that had been directed at them.

What does effective multichannel customer service look like to the customer?

The key here is to present a unified face to the customer. You may be a company with thousands of employees that sells online and offline, but remember that the customer just sees one company.

No distinction is made between the web part of your business, the high street store and the call centre. It’s all one and the same to the consumer.

Consumers do not care about the organisational challenges involved in providing a seamless experience and joining up data from different channels. They will become annoyed if they have to repeat the question they have previously emailed in when they call to follow it up.

What are the challenges in implementing this?

Providing a joined-up customer experience for customers is a massive challenge for a lot of companies. It’s much easier said than done, but the vast majority of firms certainly have the intent.

As BT's Warren Buckley explained in a recent interview, there are some huge challenges involved in joined up large customer service operations. 

The good news from Econsultancy’s Multichannel Customer Experience Survey is that 90% of firms recognise the importance of providing a joined-up customer experience.

However, just 4% of companies claimed to have their internal systems and processes joined up to the extent that they have a ‘single customer view’, which highlights the extent of the challenge.

Issues which get in the way include organisational structure, which was cited by 41% of company respondents to our survey, and which is one of the core problem areas for big companies.


Specific customer service channels are often managed by separate teams: one team may deal with telephone queries, another with emails, or social media, or live chat.

This kind of silo-based structure makes it difficult to integrate email and phone conversations to provide a seamless customer service experience. The left hand does not know what theright is doing.

The sheer complexity of providing a joined-up customer experience when there are so many touchpoints is another problem for 39% of firms.

Other issues include (34%) difficulty unifying different sources of customer data (34%), lack of resources (33%) and lack of budget (31%).

While these barriers may be difficult to overcome, and perhaps more so in larger firms, customers are becoming ever more demanding, and those firms that want to keep retention rates high need to become more customer-centric.

Firms that make the effort should be rewarded over the long-term.

Graham Charlton

Published 15 September, 2011 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Jonny Rosemont, Managing Director at Rosemont Communications Limited

Agree with the sentiment of the entire article. Regarding social media specifically, you simply shouldn't go into it unless you have a customer service strategy in place. It will do more damage than good. The strategy we launched at John Lewis involved customer service from the outset - we needed to make sure that area of the business was up to speed before we entered Facebook, Twitter etc.

There is the increasing expectation from people that they should have their issues responded to from social media. If you ignore this it will be an indelible stain on your brand reputation.

about 5 years ago

Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/MobileEnterprise

Really interesting post. I'm wondering though, and I've wondered this off an on for a while now, how much of an imperative multichannel customer service really is?

Is the pursuit of a multichannel customer service strategy, becoming perhaps more important than simply resolving a customer's complaint or answering a query?

If a customer's complaint is resolved or query answered first time, putting issue complexity aside for one moment, does this require a multichannel strategy. What actually drives a multichannel strategy?

If I buy a washing machine and it breaks down, what does the fact that I can email, telephone, tweet, post to a company's Facebook Wall, rant on Google Maps to a company about it actually mean? Will it fix the problem any more effectively?

Is perhaps the pursuit of a multichannel strategy in reality more about the need for a single knowledge base or crm system than it is about offering the customer all the different channels under the sun.

Just a thought which I'm still thinking about.

about 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Guy, that's a good point, and I'd say that quality of service and the resolution of the customer's issue at the first point of contact trumps the number of channels on offer. Better to have two effective channels than five average ones.

However, if you are a big enough company, and can offer a range of choice of contact options, AND provide a consistent quality of service across these channels, then it is something that can differentiate you from competitors.

about 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,

Thanks for the post. Guy's right in the sense that resolving a problem or answering a query is the most important goal for customer service. However, in a multi-channel company, that can only be done effectively if all channels are well integrated to ensure consistency and clarity.

A good example if my recent dealing with Talk Talk for home broadband. They royally screwed it up. They didn't set-up a the billing account or send out my router. So as a freelancer dependent on internet connection, I spent 3 weeks with nothing. I called and was told it was being sorted. Nothing happened by the date promised. I emailed via the website. No reply that day. I got on to their Twitter account. Quick response. Then I got an email response the next day. Each email had a different CSA signatory, and each person kept asking me the same questions despite the info being in the answer trail. Concurrently the really helpful Twitter chap was sorting the problem. In the end I got two solutions to one problem, neither channel knew what the other was doing and they charged me more for account set-up than they should have done. Total chaos.

So for me multi-channel planning is essential for customer service. You can't have consistently good service without it. Whoever owns Customer Service has to influence the other parts of the business that serve as customer touch points. The info needs to be shared and there does have to be a central view of the customer with contact history. Without it CSAs can't do their job properly because they don't have the full picture.

So I guess that comes back to Guy's final point, that a central knowledge base/CRM is the key. Then you need to open up the communication channels to enable different customers to correspond via the channel of their choice, making sure internal teams know how to capture relevant info in the systems for future reference. Plus you need to think about system checks - if I'm handling a Twitter complaint, how do I check there isn't an open ticket for the same customer issue from another channel?

Thanks
james

about 5 years ago

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Sven Cooke

Just found the article via a search about multi media. Multi channel support is extremely important for businersses. This will increase with the rise of the new 'Omni Channel' retailing. Sellers have to make sure they are putting the same messages in store, on their websites. Websites have to put our the same message when view via a PC, tablet or mobile phone.

over 3 years ago

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