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Dont Fear the Multichannel: How to Meet Your Customers Where They Are

This post originally appeared on SmartCustomerService.com .

To succeed in business, companies need to be agile, take risks, and find new approaches to problems, according to TV personality and author Bill Rancic, who kicked off this year's Contact Center Expo and Conference. However, a strong foundation needs to be in place before a company should approach making changes.

"Once you have a foundation, then you should take the risk," agreed Sarah Stealey Reed, content director and senior analyst at ICMI. "Take the risk to do multichannel. Experiment with social media and mobile, try out video. What have you got to lose? If you have the right guidance and parameters in place, you can do those things without hurting your customers or your business."

Who Moved My Channel?

Reed expanded her sentiments in her breakout session about taking a multichannel approach to the contact center. She pointed out that, first and foremost, companies should know that the era of businesses dictating to customers in how they communicate with them are over and that siloed information will no longer cut it. Simply put, Reed said, customers don't think in channels and they expect an almost instantaneous response.

"Customers now have so many avenues to reach us," Reed said. "It used to be that all of our channels sat in silos so customers only went into one channel at a time. Customers weren't happy about it, but they accepted it. Now when a customer starts a conversation in one channel, they expect to seamlessly go across other channels. It doesn't matter if you move them or they move."

Multichannel Myths and Realities

According to ICMI's research, Reed said, about 86 percent of contact centers are already servicing at least two channels. Additionally, the research found that 72 percent of contact centers are planning to add at least one new channel within the next 12 months. Whether it's through an IVR, self-service, SMS, social media, or video, customers have come to expect that there are multiple ways to reach businesses.

It's also not just the millennial customer who wants multichannel, Reed says. Truly connected customers are also older people who use multiple devices. "They want to tweet about something; they want to email about it or talk about it or post it on Facebook," she said. "This is the customer that we're now dealing with. These customers are a lot more savvy than they used to be."

Another misconception is that companies think that if they add SMS or social, it will decrease volume in other channels, but that's not true, according to Reed. "The only channels that we see currently that have any volume decrease are fax and mail. Everything else is on the rise."

Many emerging channels are non-voice, according to Reed. For example, ICMI's research has found that 60 percent of contact centers now support social media. But, there's a caveat: Only 39 percent are actually supporting a formal social media program with queues and dedicated agents that can make parameters and build playbooks, according to Reed. The others offer a more informal approach and provide social media customer service in an ad hoc manner when the need arises.

Customers are also demanding more of agents on their terms. The contact center and the agent in particular have the most frequent customer touch.

"That means that the contact center and the agent have more power and influence than ever before, which is why you have to set up a multichannel contact center effectively,"Reed explained.

Dipping Your Toe into the Multichannel Pool

While companies may want to set up a multichannel contact center, they may face certain barriers.

"I hear all the time, 'I can't set up my contact center with multichannel because it won't be able to handle it,' or 'My company isn't willing to invest in the necessary technology,' or 'I'm concerned that my staff will be a mess if I add another channel.

"But the biggest reason most people say that they're unwilling to add multichannel is because they don't know where to start," Reed said.

The first place to go is back to basics: know who your customers are, Reed said. While they don't think much about where the channels are, customers will notice when they're not available. If you're not providing the right channel for your customers, it could negatively impact your bottom line.

According to ICMI research, 49 percent of consumers said that they would be willing to move to a competitor who provides the same product and service but in their preferred channel. "That's why it's so important to be looking at these new channels and know the right channels that are good for your customers," Reed said.

Let the Experiments Begin

Whatever channel a company decides to use, whether it's social, mobile, etc., they need to experiment, she added. Reed suggests gathering a small group of trusted agents into the planning stage and have them play around with the chosen new channel.

Following that, a company can roll out the new channel to customers who are also trustworthy, "customers who aren't going to be upset if the new channel goes awry because it will at some point," Reed said. "This will allow your contact center to work out the kinks and establish procedures. Then get those agents and customers to help you with feedback."

Reed also suggested that companies begin experimenting with non-voice channels, such as chat.

"Chat right now is the third most common channel, and it's so popular not just because it's not just on the Web but also on mobile devices."

Reed advises that even after taking those steps, companies should continue to do research to see where people are talking about their services and products.

"Whether it's on blogs or social channels or the Web, listen to your customers," Reed said. "They will let you know what channels they want."

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