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.