Gone are the days when a customer could only communicate to your business through one-to-one channels such as mail, the phone, or in person. The conversations around your business and your customers are happening in greater numbers across an increasing number of communication channels every year. Even the channels themselves are undergoing radical change with the emergence of many more technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and customer communities that allow for many-to-many communication.
We are in a world where every business must consider the impact of offering multi-channel customer support; as well as what it means to not offer it. Multi-channel means all the various ways in which customers may reach you for service and support, including phone and email, but also newer technologies, including social media and lightweight self-service options such as knowledge bases, communities, and live chat tools. More and more customers are turning to these emerging technologies and expecting businesses to do the same. Amidst all of this, both email and phone still maintain a large portion of today’s support requests.
Rather than allow the proliferation of these channels to overwhelm your customer support and service operations, you have the chance to take advantage of them; and you should. Handled appropriately, they can improve the efficiency of your support organization, greatly increase customer satisfaction, and generate new sales opportunities. Mishandled or not addressed at all, you run the risk of being out of touch with modern communication channels and at a competitive disadvantage.
Why Your Business Needs To Offer Multi-Channel Support
In this paper we will explore the reality of proliferating channels—from the recent growth of social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter, to the habits of a younger generation of customers and where support will be going in the future.
As a part of this, the explosion of mobile devices has created a proliferation of hardware channels in many support organizations. Your employees most likely have a laptop at their desk, a smart phone in their pocket, an iPad in their bag; and your organization might be moving some of its work to those devices. Detaching from the desktop and working across multiple platforms—a desktop, iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry and/or Android devices—can benefit your support team by allowing them to address tickets from anywhere.
Next, we’ll discuss how adopting a multi-channel approach to support can actually benefit your organization and make your support team more efficient and effective. While it can be tough for any organization to open up new channels of communication with their customers, it is a bigger risk to avoid opening them. These channels offer new sales opportunities of which your competitors will surely take advantage.
Lastly, we’ll take a look at some strategies for how you might begin a multi-channel approach, as well as offer some tips that will help your organization get the most out of this approach.
Proliferating Channels and Requests
Newer service and support channels do not mean that the new—chat, social media—will replace the old—phone and email. Instead, each channel is receiving its share of requests.
In addition to the traditional one-to-one communication via phone contact center and email, customer support organizations are also encountering:
- newer one-to-one channels like SMS and online chat
- more self-service options opened up when a business could put its FAQ online
- social many-to-many tools like Facebook, Twitter, and online communities
While phone is still the primary channel customers use to interact with customer support departments, its predominance is decreasing along with email. Other channels, meanwhile, are growing in use. An Aberdeen report from 2009 estimates that phone and email communication has decreased from 73% of customer communication to 59% over the past two years.
Table 1 – Reliance of Multiple Service Delivery Channels
It is not that phone will go away, but that the field of contact will widen into more and more channels, each with their slice of the customer conversation.
Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are now significant channels for customer support. Almost 20% of people using Twitter seek customer support from a business each month, and 61% seek information about products or services.1 And the increase is happening in both B2B and B2C scenarios.
Table 2 - Volume of Social Media Interfaces (Source: TSIA Social Media Survey)
In response, many businesses are actively pursuing the use of social media as a support channel, with large numbers planning to implement such solutions through 2011. The trend is clear: if you do not meet your customers where they are, your competitor will.
On the hardware side, your customers and employees can do more and more on mobile devices than ever before. Whether officially sanctioned or not, many support employees already make use of their smart phones, iPads, and personal accounts like Twitter and Facebook to solve their customers problems because these channels make the support team’s jobs easier. Being able to access your support system from anywhere frees them from only doing support while at their desk. Agents who are meeting with clients or working in a conference room can pull out their iPad and check in with the requests coming in; or create new ones right when they come up. Your response time will go down and your support will be more flexible.
Rather than fight this trend, the business that sets up their support organization to work across these multiple platforms will be better able to respond quickly to the multiple channels of your customers.
Customer Service Incidents Growing
Add to this that customer service requests are increasing across the board and you have a situation where not only must a business contend with multiple channels; they must also integrate the experience across those channels. HDI (the Help Desk Institute) found that the number of incidents reported to customer service departments via chat, e-mail, telephone, self-help systems, social media, the Web and walk-ins is rising, with 67% of all customer service operations experiencing increases in 2010.
“There is the trend to being able to work anywhere and anytime,” HDI Analyst Roy Atkinson said. “And that requires more support, so the environment as a whole is probably more complex.”
Benefits of Multi-Channel Support
The importance of customer service and support for a business’s bottom line has only been increasing over the past decade as markets go global and digital. According to a recent survey by Forrester Research, 91 percent of decision-makers said elevating their customers’ experience was a mission-critical goal...and 68 percent planned to increase their spending in that area.2
Customer loyalty is increasingly hard to maintain as more and more options and new products make it to market each year. Rather than use just price or product, companies must differentiate themselves by providing their customers an exceptional experience. Offering a great price leaves business open to being undercut; offering the customer a great experience builds long-term loyalty.
And yet, as Don McNair, Senior Director of Customer Interaction at Yaskawa Electric says, “Customer satisfaction is a moving target. As the customer expectations change the service and technology used to provide the service will change. In implementing the technology we believe that the customer has the choice of what technology he/she prefers to use, so our support systems must address the customers technology of choice.”
If you are not engaging customers on the channels they already use, you are missing sales. According to a report by Gartner, for instance, 57% of U.S. online customers say they are very likely to abandon an online purchase “if they cannot find quick answers to questions.”3 By offering self-service options on their websites or a live chat service, businesses can engage that customer at the moment they need it and help them find those quick answers.
Specifically, a business that adopts a multi-channel approach to customer service affords themselves many advantages.
Be ahead of the curve. It is clear that the younger generations are adopting new and multiple communication channels. Those are your potential customers. As Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane puts it, this is “how kids are communicating today. They abandon traditional channels in favor of online and increasingly social channels. The future customer will want to communicate using IM, Skype, Twitter and the like.”
Drive proactive rather than reactive customer conversations. Using new channels such as social media tools and online communities gives your business a chance to more proactively address customer concerns and gather feedback. Rather than sitting back and waiting for customer to come to you, these channels give you an opportunity to engage them. This can lead to very valuable feedback and goodwill not as readily available in more traditional channels.
Save time and money. Offering multiple channels also gives your organization more deflection opportunities—moments when a customer can get the service and support they need without picking up the phone or walking through your front door. And there are cost benefits to this. In a report by Forrester Research, web chat came out at about half the support cost of a phone call, with an email being half the cost of that. Web self-service is a mere dime.4
Table 3 – Approximate Cost of Service Channels Per Instance
Again the point is not that offering phone service is bad, but that by having multiple channels, you provide more cost-effective measures for when those measures are appropriate. “By segmenting and directing customer requests to appropriate channels,” Lori Angalich of Asutute Solutions writes, “organizations expedite access to information, while reducing the burden on more costly service-based resources.”5
Zendesk customer Animoto experienced this directly when they opened up a web self-service channel. Despite an increase of 300% to 400% in customer traffic to its knowledge base, the number of emails and service tickets has declined.
- Increased customer support opportunities means more sales opportunities. Operating your support and service across multiple channels doesn’t just divide up your requests; it can potentially increase them. This means you have an expanded influence. At Zendesk, we have seen some of our customers receive 95% more mentions on Twitter than they get email requests. By making themselves available to that increase percentage, they have the potential to reach their customers proactively.
- Working on mobile customer service platforms like iPad, iPhone and Android can reduce support backlogs. By using multiple platforms within your support team, you open up the time and areas in which support can happen. The benefit of a cloud-based solution is that your support team can be connected away from their desks wherever they can get on the Internet.
Figure 1 – View of an Agent’s Ticket Activity in Zendesk for iPad
Optimizing Multi-Channel Support
Establishing multiple customer support channels must be accompanied by a strategy to maintain and integrate them. It’s not enough to open the door if no one is there to greet them.
Understandably, a company may be wary of spreading itself too thin, or of opening up the support floodgates. A company that provides multiple ways for contact raises expectations that they will be providing better service. While this is of course a good thing, your organization must live up to it.
To optimize and benefit from your organization’s multi-channel support, you need:
- Unified tools and processes
- Working cross-channel communication (e.g. when a support request moves from email to phone)
- A strategy of monitoring and engagement
- At least one live—or at least very humanized—channel
“As exciting and new as emerging social channels are, supporting customers via social media requires the same underlying processes as traditional channels. - John Ragsdale, Vice President of Technology Servies Industry Association”
Multiple Channels, Unified Tools
In order to be an effective support organization, you need to capture all your requests in a unified process and set of tools. The proliferation of channels discussed above can lead to a discordant organizational experience with one of your support agents checking email while another is communicating over Twitter. It is a classic problem of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing.
Sadly, that is very often the case. The authors of “The Cross Channel Customer Experience” report that “[w]hile many enterprises have accelerated their implementation of select, new communication channels, very few have tied them together into a complete system of customer care.”6 The result is a scattered, reactive organization, reaping none of the benefits stated above.
Instead, organizations need all their channels to feed into a central tool with a unified set of business processes. While requests may arrive in different ways, the organization should treat them all the same way at some level. This will reduce overlap of efforts, ensure consistent responses, and simplify the management of your support team.
How Zendesk Helps Cross-Channel Communication: Within Zendesk, each customer interaction is captured in a single ticket regardless of channel. Additionally, all the data you have on that customer, as well as their entire support history, is also easily available alongside that ticket. A customer can post a tweet that Zendesk turns into a ticket, and then turn that ticket into a live chat. All those channels are seamless for the customer while appearing as one interaction to the support agent.
Key Benefits of a Unified Tool
- Keeps things from falling through the cracks. In a page taken from David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, a singular inbox keeps things from getting lost. By reducing the number of places your support organization must maintain and review, you also increase their efficiency.
- Ensures cohesion in terms of support philosophy and goals. By using a single tool to collect and organize your support requests, you encourage a consistent approach to support within your organization. In a report on multi-channel support, Forrester found that “inconsistencies—like different product information in different channels—only serve to confuse and frustrate your customers. Use the same language and provide customers with the same information no matter what channel they’re in.”7
- Improves Support Center Efficiency. When your organization requires fewer tools, your agents become more focused and incur less switching costs than when trying to use multiple tools to handle their channels.
Zendesk as a Unified Tool: Zendesk supports multiple channels from email, chat, social media and phone; and feeds them into a central ticketing system. All your interactions with a customer are captured in this ticket. You can use multiple channels to communicate but you only need one tool to manage it.
Ensure That Cross-Channel Communication Works
Customers are often switching from one channel to another when interacting with your company. In a report on cross-channel communication, Forrester found that “[m]ore than 71% of customers reported that they go from the Web to some other channel when researching and buying, and 74% of customers said they move from the Web to another channel when getting service.”8
When they switch channels, it is often recorded as two separate interactions by the support organization; while to the customer, it is simply one continuous experience. The confusion on the support organization side results directly to frustration for the customer. To avoid this situation, you need to lower the confusion on your end.
Ensure that any data that has already been collected by the customer on your end stays with them through the whole interaction. As this is often a technology problem—a chat system that can’t talk to your ticketing system—it further reinforces the need for a unified tool.
The important thing is to not only allow your customers to move across channels; keep your channels tightly connected so that data flows easily between them.
Figure 2 – Multiple Channels Captured in a Single Zendesk Ticket
Live Support Channels Balance Self-Service Options
While self-service and email support are often enough to resolve your customer support issues, supplying a live channel—chat, phone, or even Twitter—is becoming more and more important. While it seems counter-intuitive, the increase in good self-service options for customers—from communities to knowledge bases—makes live support agents more relevant, not less.
Customers who cannot resolve their issue through a self-service option or the delayed interaction of email need to be able to reach a human. Otherwise they feel helpless and can direct their frustration to their friends and social networks.
How Zendesk Achieves This: With Zendesk, alerts and notifications (emails, texts, Twitter DMs) can be set up to notify agents about incoming tickets and chats, as well as many other points throughout the support process. Also, Zendesk for Twitter gives you the chance to create and save Twitter searches right within the tool. You can add your industry name, your product name, anything you want to monitor. Also, any and all mentions of your Twitter handle can be automatically turned into tickets.
The implication is clear: our history of the customer service desk and getting help directly needs to stay with us in this digital market. It is important to offer your customers a way to reach you immediately when they need to. It is a balancing act—live support can be time-consuming—but it is one of the most effective ways to ensuring customer satisfaction.
Yet, with good self-service channels in place, as well as all your other channels, you will need less live support agents in place that you would otherwise, making multi-channel support much more cost-effective.
Live and Self-Service Channels in Zendesk: Zendesk offers a native live chat feature, as well as a number of integrations with phone services. Incredibly, some large Zendesk customers who have turned on the live chat feature have seen their ratio of emails drop to 30% of their tickets with chat taking the bulk of the 70%.
Figure 3 – Support for Multiple Customers During a Live Chat Session within Zendesk
Strike A Balance Between Monitoring And Engagement
While we’ve talked a lot about centralizing and integrating your multiple support channels, it is also important to realize how each channel is different and treat them accordingly.
While it is up to your support organization to decide on your engagement style, it is always a combination of monitoring the channel and engaging the customer.
Email, phone and chat are very reactive channels—your agents wait for the customer to initiate the interaction. Because of that, they require some immediate engagement from your agents. To facilitate this, alerts need to be set so the agent is notified when an email has come in, a chat has started, or a customer is on the phone.
Social media channels and customer communities allow you to be more proactive. While they have their reactive components, because your organization does not own those channels, they require much more monitoring. You can create rules that notify you about conversations mentioning specific names. But you don’t necessarily need to engage them right away. Sometimes sitting back and listening can be more valuable.
On the flip side, you also don’t need to wait for the customer to initiate the conversation. Your service and support organization can also post updates about your product, or initiate conversations about it.
Where To Go Next
The customer experience is happening more and more on multiple channels and the savvy businesses are opening up on those channels themselves. While this can seem like one more challenge to your team, adopting a multi-channel approach to support as well as making it possible for your support team to work on mobile platforms will make your support organization more effective and better able to turn support interactions into sales opportunities.
The most important thing to remember when supporting multiple channels is that you need a unified tool to do it. As channels proliferate, the need to engage in them is not only a best business practice but also a criteria for success.
How to Get Started
Want to take advantage of multi-channel support but not lose your mind doing it? Sign up for Zendesk. You get a 30- day free trial and we have a lot of resources to help you see whether it’s a good fit for you. Already have an account? Download one of our mobile apps today!
15 Social Media Stats and Why Dealers Should Care, ISMDealers.com (November 9, 2010)
2Optimizing the Multi-Channel Agent Desktop: Empower Your Customers and Frontline Employees, rightnow.com (2008)
3Diane Clarkson, It’s Time To Give Virtual Agents Another Look, Forrester Research (December 18, 2009)
5Lori, Angalich, 5 Key Steps for Optimizing Customer Service, Astute Solutions (Aug 23, 2010)
6The Cross Channel Customer Experience: Challenges, trends and gaps in customer expectations across 16 key economies, alcatel-lucent.com (April 27, 2010)
7Adele Sage, Cross-Channel Design, One Channel Pair at a Time, Forrester Research (Jan 21, 2009)