What is omnichannel customer service? Definition, importance & strategy
Take an omnichannel approach to create seamless, reliable customer interactions.
Published September 25, 2020
Last updated March 12, 2022
We were already heading for a digital-first world, but social distancing really sped up the process. Amid a global pandemic, brands needed to be able to connect with customers in more ways than one.
Businesses that took an omnichannel approach have reaped the rewards by becoming high performers. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, companies that provided omnichannel support performed better across key customer experience (CX) metrics, such as faster response times and higher customer satisfaction scores.
But Zendesk’s findings also revealed that investment in omnichannel support actually declined by 10 percent last year. This gap represents a golden opportunity for businesses to differentiate themselves from the competition on the basis of customer experience, especially in 2022—half of all customers say that CX is more important to them now than it was a year ago.
Success starts with understanding how omnichannel differs from multichannel—and why that matters. It also requires a business to determine how an omnichannel customer service strategy can create a better experience for its customers, support agents, and other teams across the organization.
What is omnichannel customer service?
Omnichannel customer service definition: Omnichannel customer service is a customer experience strategy that creates connected and consistent customer interactions across channels.
When businesses take an omnichannel approach to CX, they end siloed conversations by consolidating channels and customer context coming from those channels under a single source of truth. This enables teams to reference the customer information they need when they need it—regardless of the channel they’re using.
For example, someone might choose to contact customer support via a chatbot. If their issue is going to take a long time to resolve, they might be given the option to receive their response as an email. Or, they might be referred to a live agent they can talk to via chat or phone. The agent who assists them will then receive all the relevant context, meaning the customer won’t have to repeat themselves.
The ability to move interactions seamlessly from one channel to another is what defines a truly omnichannel customer service experience.
What is the difference between omnichannel and multichannel customer support?
Many companies boast about providing “omnichannel” experiences, but what they usually mean is simply “multichannel.”
- Multichannel customer support means being everywhere your customers are. It’s about providing multiple communication channels, but not necessarily connecting them to one another. A multichannel experience might allow customers to contact support via chat, phone, or SMS but not to continue a conversation from one channel to the next.
- Omnichannel customer support means going a step further and providing a consistent communications journey for your customer. An omnichannel experience is one where the conversation history and context travels with the customer from channel to channel—allowing agents to provide better, more personalized support.
Context is crucial for delivering the type of experiences customers have grown accustomed to in their personal lives. You want to know who your customer is, where they’re coming from, and what they’ve talked to you about in the past.
But context is frustratingly tricky to maintain in a world of countless disconnected communication channels. Customers now contact companies through various chat apps—including Facebook Messenger, Line, and WhatsApp—in addition to email, SMS, mobile, and web chat.
While it’s tempting for businesses to view the proliferation of channels as an inconvenience, the truth is, not all channels are created equal. In real life, a crowded bar might be a good place to start a conversation, but it’s nice to be able to move somewhere quieter for more privacy—in other words, every conversation has its proper place.
True omnichannel customer support means giving businesses the ability to talk to the right customers, in the right place, without sacrificing context along the way.
Benefits of omnichannel customer service
When companies know who they’re talking to and what information that customer (or prospect) has already shared with them, they can:
- Resolve issues faster
- Deliver more personalized experiences
- Better identify opportunities to satisfy customers
- Reduce churn or increase revenue
It's a better experience for everyone involved.
Today, companies have the tools they need to move a conversation to a channel that’s better suited to the topic at hand. By posting a link or call to action into the conversation, businesses can invite customers to join them on a more secure channel, a cheaper channel, a channel that offers a richer experience, or a channel that’s simply more convenient for the user.
With an omnichannel messaging platform like Zendesk, teams can easily transfer the conversation from a chat app to a web chat, from an email to SMS, from social media to the phone—or any other combination that makes sense. Businesses can also provide customers with a set of choices for where they’d like to continue the conversation or how they’d like to get notified of a reply later on.
When the conversation moves, the chat history and context comes with it, so both the business and its customers benefit from a single, continuous, cross-channel conversation thread. Meanwhile, the customer’s identity is unified in the company’s software, allowing brands to provide a truly omnichannel and personalized experience.
When does a business need an omnichannel customer service strategy?
It’s not difficult to imagine why customers and businesses would be interested in having seamless conversations across channels. But perhaps it’s less obvious why companies would proactively move a conversation from, say, Facebook Messenger to their own mobile app or from their website to WhatsApp.
Here are a few scenarios where changing channels might come in handy.
When they want to authenticate customers for security reasons
Consumer chat apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are great because they’re so accessible, but sometimes brands need to have private conversations with their customers.
Let’s say you’re a bank or insurance company and need to authenticate your user before exchanging sensitive information. Using a call to action, you can prompt the customer to sign in to your own mobile app and continue the conversation there.
When customers want to be notified that an agent has replied to their message
Let’s say someone is browsing your business’ website and pings you with a question via your custom web messenger. Maybe your agent isn’t able to answer right away. Or maybe the user has a little back-and-forth with a bot but then has to run before the issue is resolved. Rather than hang around your website, the customer would probably prefer to receive a notification via Facebook Messenger (or email or SMS) once someone has replied to their message.
Most web messengers prompt a user to enter their email address, but in the modern messaging age, it’s nice to give customers more options. And when the customer is available to continue the conversation, they can do so on the new channel without skipping a beat.
When they want to move the conversation to a channel that provides a better user experience
Being wherever your customers are is important, but that doesn’t mean channels are interchangeable. Chat apps offer better user experiences than SMS, and they’re also free. (Depending on the country, SMS costs can really add up for businesses and consumers alike.)
Email conversations may beat phone calls by a longshot, but they don’t hold a candle to the rich messaging experiences users have come to know and love. And in some cases, the secure, branded environment of a company’s mobile app or web chat may be the best place for a conversation to flourish.
No matter the case, a CX platform like Zendesk Sunshine empowers you to move a conversation across channels—whether it’s from email to web messenger or from a messaging app to SMS—with the click of a button. By integrating Sunshine with Zendesk Suite, you never lose track of who the customer is, where they came from, and why they contacted you in the first place. Because that context is precious.
When they don’t want third-party platforms eavesdropping on the conversation
Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Twitter—these channels are great for discovery, but they’re still Facebook’s Messenger, Tencent’s WeChat, and Twitter’s Twitter. Many businesses aren’t keen on sharing conversations with the Big Tech companies for them to mine and monetize.
Luckily, you can now engage customers on a popular platform and then get down to business on a more private one.
Omnichannel customer service examples and use cases
In 2022, the advantages of an omnichannel experience are more obvious than ever before. Customers are increasingly online, requiring more digital channels to connect with brands. Many support agents are still working remotely, too, making it more imperative that they share a unified digital workspace in the absence of a physical one.
If your business is still siloed, consider how these two companies were able to reap huge rewards from a more omnichannel approach.
1. Northmill Bank makes life easier for customers and agents
The pandemic may have pushed life online in 2020, but Northmill Bank was already ahead of the curve. Founded in 2006, the Swedish “neobank” doesn’t have a single physical branch. Instead, customers use an app to apply for loans, pay bills, and handle all their other banking needs.
Northmill used to offer multichannel support, allowing customers to connect via email, phone, or live chat. But behind the scenes, the company’s support team was dealing with significant workflow issues. Agents had to juggle four separate email inboxes and lacked a unified view of the customer experience.
But after adopting Zendesk, the company was able to get a 360-degree view of the customer experience. Instead of needing to log in and out of multiple systems to find information, agents could access all the customer data they needed—from previous interactions to preferred channels—in one place.
Northmill also used Zendesk to create a help center for its customers. The self-service option contributed to a 50-percent decrease in call and chat volume, saving agents even more time.
2. Learnsignal provides omnichannel educational experiences
The Dublin-based online education platform learnsignal has helped tens of thousands of students earn accounting and financial services certifications. The company provides its customers with subscription-based access to online classes, tutorials, and 24/7 access to expert tutors.
Being able to provide that round-the-clock support across multiple channels has been key to learnsignal’s success. Many of its customers are busy professionals who might use a mobile device to start a conversation on the train and then finish it on their computer at home. But the company often struggled to provide that seamless, reliable omnichannel communication.
So, learnsignal turned to Zendesk in February 2020—right before pandemic-related lockdowns made online education a very popular option. It turned out to be fortuitous timing. Within weeks of adopting Zendesk, learnsignal saw significant increases in its chat volume and its CSAT score, which jumped to 94 percent. The company’s customers can now pick their preferred tutoring channel—chat, web form, email—and easily move from one to another without missing anything.
What does omnichannel customer experience mean in other contexts?
There are different kinds of omnichannel experiences, depending on your customers’ needs and expectations. Beyond communications, the term omnichannel is also used in retail and marketing. Although the specific details are different, the concept is fundamentally the same: one consistent experience regardless of channel.
An ecommerce company, for example, might enable customers to make purchases through channels beyond its website, such as inside a messaging thread of a social channel or mobile app. The business might also make product suggestions or send personalized offers to the customer based on their shopping history.
Imagine a brand sends you an email or push notification that tells you one of your favorite items is on sale. You take a look at the online selection but don’t buy anything. Later, you get a retargeting ad on Instagram that convinces you to take another look. This time, you buy and receive your order and shipping confirmations via SMS. Congratulations—you’ve just experienced an omnichannel marketing and retail experience!
Delivertrue omnichannel customer support
Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of hype around messaging technology and how it’s transforming the customer experience. But the fragmented nature of the space makes it complicated for businesses to harness the full potential of messaging.
With Zendesk, you can turn the promise of a truly omnichannel experience into reality.