I was recently asked a question: Do we invest in multichannel or get the basics right?

It got me thinking that all too often we think in ‘exclusive absolutes’ – one or the other – multichannel or the basics, Twitter or Facebook, social or traditional, chat or email, call deflection or everything else…

And yet the answer is far more complex. Complex because ultimately what companies are trying to decipher is the panoply of human behaviour. Customers are unpredictable. The challenge for companies is not in understanding that, but rather where to draw the line?

The order and structure that has been built within the service ecosystem of today has become its very undoing.

Customers rail against control and a lack of transparency, not because these are fundamentally wrong, but simply because we have all experienced something a little bit better. We know ‘better’ exists. 

The democratisation of the tools of self-expression has made us powerful. We have become participants, where once we were bystanders. We tread a fine line, balancing between the weight of our industrialised heritage while looking ahead at the possibility that the future might bring. 

We have at our disposal, literally at the end of our fingertips, access to increasingly powerful and agile technology that forces a blurring of the line between online and offline, London and New York, text or Twitter, one and a thousand…

This is a world that is far more accessible, immediate, convenient, self-regulating and determining. The Cluetrain Manifesto, written in 1999,points to this and its 95 theses are prescient of a time that had yet to come:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

Companies that still seek solace and refuge in the safety of their walled gardens are seeing it being gradually eroded away Tweet by Tweet. It is time for them to ‘get down off that camel!’ (Thesis 73)

The ubiquitous smartphone empowers us to participate in a state of ‘always on’, which only serves to further undermine and challenge accepted norms.

The smartphone connects us not only to each other but to the physic al environment around us. It allows us to participate in, share and celebrate the mundane minutiae of each other’s lives.

In a social media survey conducted by the IAB UK (December 2010), 28% of people have uploaded a picture of a meal they were eating to a social site, this increased to 47% for 18 – 34 year olds. 

Like the Aboriginal songlines that criss-cross Australia, our online world (our other half) is likewise increasingly criss-crossed with the events of our lives and our thoughts of the moment. 

The difference now is that for those who take part in this ‘online social other’, we have all willingly removed the blackout curtains.

‘Voyeurism’ in this ‘social’ context is acceptable. Our individual ‘songlines’ are displayed for all to see, to comment on, to participate in, to share with others. And through Augmented Reality we can physically embed ourselves into the landscape around us. 

And then we remonstrate companies on Twitter or on their Facebook Wall for not being where we are! For not answering my email, tweet, comment or call at my hour of greatest need: now. 

I was having a conversation with John Bernier (@bernierjohn) of BestBuy a couple of years ago and I remember him saying something along the lines of: ‘Give a customer ten channels and they’ll use all ten channels. The first channel to respond wins’.

This got me thinking about customer touchpoints and how they had evolved over time. I played around with some ideas and my former colleague at Foviance @PdeRobert came up with the idea for the following visual:

A number of thoughts struck me:

  • The options by which a customer can communicate with companies has increased from an entirely personal and physically proximate one at one end of a spectrum to a wholly virtual and impersonal one at the other.
  • Both a multichannel (ie. phone, online, store) and a multiplatform (ie. blog, microblog, video) world now exist. 
  • Communication channels do not disappear, they continue to sit alongside each other. This results in the rich variety of options that exist, some of which are literally at the end of our fingertips now. 
  • Communication has been freed up in both time and space. It is not fixed to a physical object that sits in one location. I can communicate at any time and from anywhere. I do not need to be standing in front of you to ask a question or to complain. 
  • Communication is shared and participatory. Anyone can be involved in a conversation if they have the inclination and the time.
  • Technology has resulted in the possibility of more complex types of communication. Even at a still rudimentary level, Augmented Reality, QR Codes, NFC (near field communication), show all of us the possibility of something new and different.

    As we become more sophisticated in ‘mashing’ these different platforms together, so will we move to another level of communication and interaction.

  • As we move outwards, so the role of the company fundamentally changes from creator to participant. Historically, the company has created the means by which its customers communicated with them. Without a postal address, telephone number, fax number, email address a customer could not communicate with a company. 
  • As we move outwards, so communication moves from a closed transaction between company and customer to an open interaction between people, of which the company is just one part of the conversation (if at all). 
  • As we move outwards, further to the right the company no longer has the same degree of control or ownership as it once did. In today’s multichannel world, a company’s ‘help’ homepage from a customer perspective is just as likely to be Google, YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook as it is their corporate help homepage. 
  • Communication is no longer a single linear action. It is asynchronous. Apps empower me to distribute my query or my complaint to a multitude of destinations at the same time. While the #hashtag helps to unite the disparate strands of the story together. 
  • The time between the cause of the complaint and the complaint being made has condensed from weeks or days to minutes and seconds. 

However, regardless of the increasing complexity of our multichannel/multiplatform world, some things remain the same. As a customer I simply want to be heard, my question answered, my complaint acknowledged regardless of which channel I use.

Oh and by the way, I want my answer ‘NOW!’ 

And from a company perspective, predicting and responding to customers’ behaviour remains the same impossible, implausible challenge it always did. 

Whether it’s on the phone, via email, Twitter or chat, really shouldn’t make any difference. A complaint is a complaint is a complaint…