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Piecing Together Multichannel Support [Customer Relationship Management]
[December 18, 2012]

Piecing Together Multichannel Support [Customer Relationship Management]

(Customer Relationship Management Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Cross-channel support starts with connecting the right channels RE COMPANIES EFFECTIVELY PROVIDING multichannel and cross-channel customer service The answer is yes, but slowly and in stages.

Customers of Extraco, a chain of banks in central Texas, can contact customer service through email, online chat, or click-to-call right from the company's Web site. The company also has mobile applications and a presence on popular social media sites.

"To have an effective social strategy, you need to have an effective mobile strategy," said Misti Mostiller, senior vice president of retail sales, support, and training at Extraco, at this summer's Customer Service Experience conference in New York.

"We had to shift our mindset around how people contact us. We had to revamp our organizational culture, hiring, training, and routines," she said. "Unity across channels is so important." Many companies know they have to provide customer service over multiple channels, but they're not having an easy time. Often this is due to common misperceptions about customer experiences and communication preferences.

The most egregious of these misperceptions is that young people are the only ones adopting newer online customer service technologies.

Recent research suggests otherwise. In a Forrester Research eBusiness strategy report, 29 percent of all online adults expressed a preference for online support over speaking with a live person on the telephone. Chat adoption, for example, has risen dramatically across all generations since 2009, when only 1 9 percent of U.S. consumers used it for customer service. By the end of 201 1, that number had nearly doubled to 37 percent.

Fortunately for customers, companies - especially retailers - have taken notice of their preferences and are stepping up their efforts to offer live Web chat as a customer support channel. Research from TELUS International, a provider of contact center and business process outsourcing solutions, found that 60 percent of top retailers have incorporated Web chat into their postsales support operations. That's up from 31 percent in 2010.

The reasons are many. Chat, analysts say, can improve customer satisfaction, drive sales, deflect contact center calls, increase operational efficiency, and cut costs.

According to many industry sources, the cost of a conventional phone call can be anywhere from $3 to $6, while the cost of a chat session averages between $2 and $2.50. And, unlike the phone channel, where the agent can only deal with one customer at a time, agents on chat can typically handle between three and six customers at once.

But cheaper doesn't necessarily mean easier. "There are still obstacles to overcome," says Al Rose, vice president of retail and Internet properties at TELUS. "Companies still struggle with delivering a high-quality chat service when customers ask a wide range of sales and support questions. Also, online chat is implemented very differently among corporate Web sites, making it difficult for some customers to find the service, thereby reducing awareness and effective use of the communication channel." Also seeing sharp increases in consumer adoption is social support. In 2009, only 7 percent of online consumers had gone to a social community or forum for customer service. By late 201 1, that number had increased to 27 percent. As for Twitter, use jumped from 1 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 201 1, according to the Forrester report.

"Social media often seems to be a back-door entry to customer service because traditional channels (especially the phone) haven't always worked well," says Kate Leggett, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Here again, assuming that social media is used only by younger consumers is a mistake. Forrester's data finds that 30 percent of online consumers between the ages of 32 and 45 and 20 percent between 46 and 55 have turned to social media for customer support. Ignoring older cohorts in digital support could prove costly.

"Making generational assumptions about online customer service preferences could lead to missed opportunities," Diane Clarkson, Forrester's senior analyst serving the e-business and channel strategy markets, wrote in the report. "Today, social support use is exploding among consumers across multiple generations." And the implications for not implementing effective social care are huge, according to Gadi BenMark, senior vice president of the advisory division at NM Incite, a social media consumer insights provider and joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey. Customers are turning to social media channels for customer service regardless of whether the brand is equipped to handle it, he says, noting that customers are dictating when and where they voice their questions, issues, and complaints.

CROSSING THE CHANNEL For companies looking to deploy multiple support channels to address those questions or complaints, the product landscape is rife with pitfalls. Chief among them is the inability to automatically bring insight from each channel into a single knowledge base.

"Many [companies] may have put in the different channels separately. They've organically increased their channel footprints without thinking about how to stitch them together," Leggett says.

In these environments, customers are forced to repeat their account information each time they encounter a new channel. And, understandably, customers find it frustrating to switch from an IVR to an agent who has no insight into their previous interactions with the company or to the information they fed into the automated system a few minutes earlier. It also applies when customer calls are escalated from Tier 1 to Tier 2 support.

"We're seeing more and more channel switches," explains Dena Skrbina, senior director of solutions marketing at Nuance Communications. "When customers switch channels, you need to take their data with them, and then have the reporting and analytics across channels so you can see what they did already and what they did to bring them to that channel." Lack of integration among channels is widespread. Econsultancy, in its Multichannel Customer Experience Survey, recently found that while 90 percent of companies recognize the importance of providing a consistent multichannel experience, only 4 percent have joined all of their internal systems and processes.

It's not as though cross-channel solutions aren't available. "There are many vendors that offer multichannel as well as cross-channel capabilities," Leggett says. "But there are few companies that have deployed true multichannel applications, and even fewer that have deployed true cross-channel ones." To get the full benefit of any truly multichannel strategy, "companies need to make sure that every customer contact gets melded with one customer record," Leggett says. "It's not hard from atechnology standpoint, but. . .the number of legacy systems, silos, and organizational challenges make it difficult." THE CHANNEL MIX Though most companies can't yet deliver fully integrated cross-channel support, there is an underlying sense of urgency to move in this direction as customers often use more than one channel to resolve a single issue. Recent Ovum research found that 74 percent of consumers today use three or more channels when seeking customer service. Of those, 22 percent use five or more.

Further research found that when customers reach out to customer service, they're still using the phone or email most often, a fact that hasn't really changed in the past few years.

The greatest change in the phone channel is more a reflection of the ubiquity of mobile phones. By 2016, more than half of the inbound calls to contact centers are expected to be made on mobile phones, while calls on traditional landline phones will decline sharply.

The rise of the mobile channel is also introducing customers - and, in turn, companies - to other contact channels, including chat and text messaging, says Jim Milton, president and CEO of SoundBite Communications, a provider of customer experience management solutions. He sees great promise in text messaging. "Given the SMS open rate of ninety-eight percent, SMS must be a part of a company's communication strategy," he says.

The same could be said for email and social media, but a lot of companies are making it difficult for customers to access these channels with their mobile devices. When they have mobile applications, few companies provide clickable links that allow customers to call them directly from within the app, Skrbina observes. That forces them to toggle out of the app to make a phone call or send a text message, defeating the purpose of a mobile app in the first place.

It's as much a problem in the mobile space as it is on static Web pages accessed through PCs or laptops. In both types of Web pages, it's rare to see company email addresses listed in the "Contact Us" section. That was the case on 89 percent of the sites that Genesys Telecommunications reviewed in an informal study. Furthermore, more than half of the sites failed to provide links to company Twitter or Facebook pages, and 13 percent do not list phone numbers.

For small and midsized businesses (SMBs), the numbers are worse. Fortyfour percent of all SMBs in a study by vSplash, a provider of digital media and commerce solutions to the SMB market, do not list phone numbers on their Web sites, and 78 percent do not list links to their Facebook pages on their sites.

Companies of all sizes must adopt a customer service strategy that understands and integrates social media channels across every customer touchpoint.

As of yet, they have not done that, and it shows in a number of ways. For one, many companies are slow to respond to customer service queries raised on social media sites, if they do at all. This is particularly true among retailers: Only a quarter of the retailers in the Econsultancy survey responded to questions via channels like Facebook and Twitter.

"Response times are critical. Customers expect an answer quickly," says Duke Chung, cofounder and chairman of Parature, a provider of customer service and help desk solutions. "[Social] channels are very public. If you're slow to respond, everyone sees that." The risk of not responding in a timely fashion is great. By 2014, Gartner predicts that organizations refusing to communicate with customers via social media will face the same level of customer frustration as those that ignore phone calls or email today. The end result could very well be a 15 percent increase in customer churn, Gartner maintains.

That's not a problem for PlayFirst, a developer of mobile games, including the popular Diner Dash series. When the company's popularity soared in a very short time, it quickly realized that it needed a social presence to reach its legions of casual gamers, who are largely accustomed to spending a lot of time online.

In 2011, it turned to Parature for a customer service solution. With the solution, the players can contact customer service through email, Facebook, and Twitter. The company has shied away from phone and live chat support because its customer service interaction volumes on those channels are relatively low, according to Christopher Newman, PlayFirst's social media and customer support manager. The company receives about 250 support tickets a week via email and 15 to 20 tickets a week through its social media outlets.

Through the Facebook and Twitter support channels, gamers can also access PlayFirst's online knowledge base and customer forum and submit inquiries, without leaving the social networking site.

Thanks to the extensive knowledge base and forum posts, the number of support tickets submitted has decreased by about 30 percent. When tickets are submitted, the response time is typically less than 24 hours. This more streamlined and efficient support system has kept staffing and customer service spending at a minimum.

For a company like PlayFirst, "social is very easy to monitor and respond on," Newman says. "And when it's not, we can still direct [users] to our regular ticketing system." PlayFirst is open to adding other channels, like phone and live chat, should it make sense, but right now, the company and its customers are satisfied with what's available, according to Newman.

PlayFirst not only realized its own limitations, but also took the time to determine how its customers want to contact the company. And it's not trying to do too much, a frequent mistake.

"Don't think you need to offer the full breadth of channels," Leggett states. "Figure out which ones complement your brand and offer those." "To be successful, you need to know who your customers are and how they like to be supported, and then have people in place to respond to them in those channels," Chung adds.

MAKE IT PERSONAL That, too, is sadly not the situation at most companies. A great many still operate under the mistaken notion that automation is a cure-all for high customer service costs and inefficiencies. That mode of thinking is no longer in step with current customer sentiment either.

Regardless of the channel they use, customers want a personal touch. Whether communicating via phone, email, live chat, text message, social media, or other medium, some maintain that problems are more easily solved by a real person. It can also add to their perception of how much the company values them as customers.

For this reason, scripted responses are best avoided with these customers, according to Chung. Customers can see if a company's response is scripted, he warns. "A lot of companies want to automate the response, but [for these customers] you can't do that. You can't have robots respond. You need a real person to respond." That's not to say that automation shouldn't be applied in other cases and that some of the same elements can't be shared across channels for consistency. Nuance's Skrbina suggests that companies can cross-apply the same natural language engine and voice biometrics technology to multiple interaction types. "A lot of companies have invested a lot in speech and natural language interfaces and are only using them in the IVR," she says. "You can apply natural language understanding not only to the voice channel but also to text applications like chat or a Web -based FAQ," she says.

"We know that two of the most used channels are phone and mobile. You can have the same voice and personality answering the phone for both through one single interface," she adds.

Beyond that, common visual and architectural designs, reusable content, platform logic, services, platform elements, delivery processes, as well as common data collection and analysis tools can all be applied across channels for greater consistency, according to Stephen Powers, a vice president and research director at Forrester. Personalization and contextualization can then be applied across channels based on shared customer information, including the customer's location, social status, past behaviors, purchase history, languages, and devices used, Powers adds.

It's also a good idea to integrate the contact center software with the applications and support databases for the other channels "for greater efficiency," Extraco's Mostiller suggests. "It's all about expanding CRM software capabilities to gain process efficiencies." "Making generational assumptions about online customer service preferences could lead to missed opportunities." Online Support Young people are not the only ones adopting online customer service technologies. According to Forrester Research, online support was preferred by: 37% of Generation 39% of Generation Y 36% of Generation X 24% of Younger Boomers 20% of Older Boomers 16% of the Golden Generation Not Integrated You're Not Alone According to Econsultancy's Multichannel Customer Experience Survey, many companies lack the following channel integrations: 10% lack Web integration 16% lack email integration 19% lack telephone integration 29% lack social media integration 41% lack text-messaging integration 49% lack mobile app integration "Given the SMS open rate of ninety-eight percent, SMS must be a part of a company's communication strategy." "You can't have robots respond. You need a real person to respond." News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at

(c) 2012 Information Today, Inc.

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