Cross-channel Customer Service: So Important, Yet So Tricky


My last gig involved covering financial services technology, especially ATMs. In the early days of ATMs, banks viewed them as a way to migrate customers from branches to less expensive, self-service channels. An interesting thing happened, though. Branch usage didn't decline nearly as much as expected. Customers wanted to use ATMs to get cash and liked the convenience of being able to do it outside traditional branch hours. But they preferred branches for more involved transactions, and some customers didn't like ATMs much at all.


When banks introduced online banking, lots of folks made it their primary banking channel. But they still wanted branches and ATMs, so they had the option of choosing the channel they felt worked best for particular types of transactions. The strategy of offering multiple channels went from being primarily about cost reduction (though there is still certainly an element of that) to pleasing customers by giving them what they want.That's especially true when it comes to customer service.


Even Google, which has long handled most of its customer inquiries online through FAQs and informational video and/or via email, is beefing up its phone support, employing 1,000 customer service representatives in regional call centers around the world to handle 10,000-plus calls a week. The agents multi-task, also handling email inquiries. In an interview with Search Engine Land, Google's VP of Global Advertising and Product Operations notes that some 20 percent of its calls are from new advertisers, many of whom are SMBs that want to be educated on Google's product offerings. I suspect those folks like the ability to address their questions to live agents.


That doesn't mean companies should shift support from other channels to the telephone. A recent Econsultancy survey found email was the preferred contact channel for 44 percent of consumers, although just 33 percent think it's the most effective channel. They had similarly mixed feelings for the telephone, with one in three consumers naming it as their preferred contact channel and 39 percent tapping it as the most effective channel. A hefty 48 percent of respondents said the phone was the most frustrating service channel, three times the number that singled out email as the most frustrating.


A Forrester Research survey yielded some different numbers on the most popular customer support channels. The Web trumped the phone as the most popular channel, with respondents saying they use the phone 50 percent of the time, vs. searching for answers online 58 percent of the time, sending an email to customer service 61 percent of the time, and reading online FAQs 66 percent of the time. In general, Forrester found, live-assist communication channels such as phone and online chat have far higher satisfaction ratings than asynchronous electronic channels like email and Web self-service.


A big takeaway here, I think, is that customers want the ability to be able to navigate between channels to get the appropriate level of service. Companies could probably cut down on some of this navigation and save money by improving the quality of those asynchronous channels. (I usually start with online FAQs and research before moving to email, assuming my inquiry isn't too time sensitive. All too often I cannot find what I want online and just get a repurposed version of the FAQ in an email response -- if I get a response at all. That's when I go to the phone.)


The surveys certainly reinforce the growing importance of cross-channel customer service, which I wrote about last month. I called out what I consider two of the biggest customer service problems: an inability to offer a cohesive cross-channel experience and not enough data analysis to uncover the underlying causes of common customer issues. I also mentioned a blog post from Forrester's Kate Leggett in which she offered her opinion of the three elements needed for an effective cross-channel customer experience: a unified communications model, unified view of the customer, and unified knowledge and data.


Leggett offers additional insights in a more recent blog post highlighting the results of the aforementioned Forrester survey. Among them is one I've been harping on in this post: Customers want to use a mix of channels instead of just relying on one or two. So, she writes:


This means that you need to pay attention to your cross-channel experience. Make sure that the experience - the data, content, and business processes that agents follow across the communication channels that you support - are consistent. Make sure as well that customers can start a conversation on one channel and continue it on another.


There's no question offering an effective cross-channel experience is a challenge. For proof, Econsultancy has a nice Q&A with Warren Buckley, who heads up customer services activities for Retail Consumer Customers for BT, a company which was frequently mentioned by respondents to the aforementioned Econsultancy survey as providing great customer service. According to Buckley, BT fields about 100 million calls a year, though customers use automated phone options on about 30 million of those calls. BT also handles 2.5 million emails a year in its BT.com environment, and there are some 55 million instances of customers utilizing self-service capability on the BT.com website. In addition, it helps customers via snail mail and social media channels like Twitter.


Buckley described BT as a "multiple-channels service organization" that is trying to become a "multi-channel service organization." When asked if BT monitors how people move across channels, he said:


Gradually we are starting to track across the channels. For example if someone uses BT.com and then calls us, we track that, but at the moment it's much harder for me to track if someone has emailed and then called.


Two topics mentioned by Buckley caught my eye, the metrics used by the company to measure customer service and Buckley's own role at BT. Regarding metrics, he said one contact resolution is a primary metric. BT defines this as resolving a customer's issue on the first contact, "without transferring the contact elsewhere, without putting it to an off-line queue, and without the customer having to contact us again for any reason within the next 28 days." The goal is to accomplish this 85 percent of the time. Currently BT does it 62 percent of the time.


Among the other metrics BT uses are customer retention and revenue generation. As I've written before, identifying and measuring the right customer service metrics can be a challenge.


Buckley said he is "responsible for all the channels" and thus "can look across them from a strategic point of view." This makes it easier to provide a consistent customer experience across the channels, he said. As I noted earlier this year, appointing a single executive responsible for overall customer service strategy is an emerging best practice.