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Multi-Channel Customer Service: Improving Access, Training, and Results

Accessibility is a hallmark of the current customer service environment, and it is defined by the customer, not the company. As such, organizations can no longer limit their customers to telephone and email communication only- whether it’s mobile browsing, live chat, social media support, SMS (text messaging), or video chat—new communication channels are critical to maintaining a high level of customer service. The resulting network of resources (and customer expectations) is ever-increasingly complex, and the same tactics that work well for one channel may be disastrously wrong for another.

The concept of “omni-channel customer service” must be briefly addressed here as well. Though the details of the term are still subject to debate, generally speaking the concept entails keeping a unified record of interactions for each customer, regardless of the various channels used across those interactions. The sector is still struggling to achieve a perfect vision of what this might look like, but it’s important to note that that seems to be the direction customer service is moving towards.

However, until a perfect vision of omni-channel customer service can be realized, contact centers need to equip themselves to more effectively manage multi-channel communications. Just as “best practices” look different for email and for phone, the needs and challenges of new communication channels differ from old methods and from one another.

Mobile Access

At a minimum, the primary webpages for your customer service organization should be mobile-friendly. This is important because of the significant growth in the use of web-browsing via smartphones and other mobile devices (e.g. tablets) by customers seeking assistance. Many companies have had this well under control for a few years now, but some still lag behind.

“Mobile-friendly’ means that text on the page is easy to read, links/buttons are easy to select, and pages are easy to navigate on a smaller, touch-enabled screen. It’s also helpful to ensure that the most common actions taken on the page are featured at the top of the page, so the majority of your customers don’t have to scroll back and forth trying to find what it is they need. Think about how frustrated customers can be coming out of an IVR maze; the same kind of frustration can result from attempting to use a smartphone to navigate a non-mobile-friendly website. Why force your customer service reps to start at a disadvantage like that?

You have three options to mitigate this frustration point for your customers: 1) responsive web design 2) a mobile-specific site 3) webpages that are both mobile-friendly and computer-friendly. Your marketing team can likely help you figure out what makes the most sense for your organization. Be sure to double-check that the pages are indeed user-friendly on devices of various screen sizes – some tweaking may be required to get to this point.

Social Media and Live Chat Access for Customer Service

Customers have an expectation that if the live chat button on your website indicates that agents are online, that they will receive a timely reply. If no agents are online or if it will be an extended period of time before one becomes available, a message should be displayed indicating that chat is not currently available and a form should be provided for the customer to reach out about their issue. Otherwise, the chief feature of this channel, accessibility, is undermined and the customer’s experience is soured.

Similarly, some companies have historically suffered customer backlash at having a twitter account that addresses customer service requests during “normal business hours” only, despite their business serving customers nearly 24/7 (Delta was like this several years ago but has since become a generally good example of good customer service via the twitter channel). If it is not feasible to maintain customer service via twitter 24/7, there are plenty of tools that can be used to send automated messages reminding customers of the easiest way to receive timely support during “off hours.”

In an ideal world, you’d have the budget and staff to provide instantaneous responses to all of your customers, across all channels. In reality, you need to make hard choices about allocating staff time and probably need to determine which channels would be most relevant to your customer base altogether.

Regardless of which new channels you ultimately decide to implement, it needs to be obvious to the customer what they need to do in order to reach out to you and receive the timeliest response, and about how long they might expect to wait for said response. Even on an “old” communication channel like the telephone, many customer service organizations now offer the opportunity for the customer to hang up and receive a call back from a customer service agent, with an estimated time for when that call back might occur.

Agent Training for Multi-Channel Customer Service

Training is about equipping staff to meet or exceed customer expectations. Whether it’s professionalism through courtesy, timeliness or knowledge of your products/services, agents need to be told and reminded of what is expected of them in each channel.

While all customer service agents should strive to be patient and diplomatic in all of their dealings with customers (even the least shareable communication channel, telephone, can cause backlash when a rep handles a situation poorly), some channels (e.g. twitter) require more sensitivity than others.

Similarly, while response time is always a critical metric in customer service, some channels (e.g. live chat) require more immediate responses than others.

Two more items to look out for:

  • While your agents are not doing their job well if they’re only managing one live chat conversation at a time (industry standard is as high as 4), you might be foolish to encourage agents to attempt to assist more than one customer via video chat simultaneously.
  • Do not assume that your staff will intuitively understand how to communicate in the “bite-size” style of twitter or text messages.

It is necessary but not sufficient to merely mention these differences during new hire onboarding. Team leads and/or management need to check in on their colleagues’ activities periodically to ensure that these channel-specific priorities are still being met. Most customer service/communication tools should accommodate the data and/or oversight required for this kind of monitoring.

Results Across Channels

Training isn’t the only reason you’ll want to collect data about staff performance across channels. As an organization that prides itself on accountability and excellence, you’ll want to be able to report to senior-level staff on how your customer service teams are doing. I’ve seen this done two different ways in a multi-channel environment: 1) reporting individually 2) reporting comprehensively.

Though visually cumbersome, the most informative way to report on the performance of your team across various channels is to present the metrics for each of those channels individually. For new channels, you’ll want to do this for 3-6 months before offering your thoughts on what “standard” performance for your organization might look like (as frustrating as it is to view stats without such a context). Understand that some seasonal fluctuations will occur as well. This type of reporting is ideal for leaders who like getting their hands dirty.

Reporting comprehensively is visually clean but is logistically challenging. In this model, you’d report on whether the team as a whole is exceeding expected target numbers, is meeting targets, is within 10% of targets or is missing targets by more than 10% (or however you choose to break down the thresholds of performance). The challenge here is determining whether each channel gets an A+, A, A- or Needs Improvement, and combining the results to a single reported score. This is ideal for leaders who take more of a “just checking in” approach.

Regardless of which approach you take for reporting to your organization’s leadership, it’s important to gather feedback data from your customers about the quality of the service they feel they’ve just received, and use this to inform changes to your internal processes.

Especially for companies with leadership who may not appreciate the nuances of multi-channel customer service, you will want to collect and report data on training, operational metrics, and customer feedback so the correlation is clear to them between what you’re doing and the positive impact it’s having.