How to provide effective omni-channel customer service

Evolving technologies and complex customer journeys mean effective omni-channel customer service is becoming increasingly important.

Omni-channel customer service

In a previous post, Martin looked at two examples of companies who have struck the balance between digital and human customer engagement. Here he offers advice on designing effective omni-channel customer service.

In part one of this article I looked at how companies can find a balance between online convenience and the human touch. It can be achieved in quite different ways, so long as the customer situation is satisfied.

Bearing in mind our definition that ‘an effective omni-channel design is an engagement experience that works in any given customer situation’, we have to consider three inputs.

  • The degree of digital behaviour a customer is likely to adopt in how they want to engage
  • The type of customer journey and the challenges this throws up for the customer
  • The relative strengths and weaknesses of the voice, text and video channels at your disposal that match the type of digital profile and journey.

Let’s run through each in more detail.

Digital Profiling

The context for this idea is to do with the speed of change. Do you know how fast your customers are adopting new digital behaviour? If so, are your customer journeys calibrated to meet these expectations? This is the purpose of tracking their digital profile. For instance, would a Saga digital profile (50+ age group) be different to a Blizzard profile (gamers)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

So how do you research their digital profile?

Some of it can be gleaned from existing research. The rest has to be primary research, which by the way should be considered an ongoing feedback loop until the digital wheel stops spinning and settles down. In other words, it needs to be understood as a commitment for the foreseeable future.

Gamers playing Warcraft - omni-channel customer service

Let’s first tackle existing research. There is a ton of it: from government level, to research firms and individual brands using research to prove a market demand. It’s all useful if you remember the golden rule of customer insight. Use at least three sources before settling on any interpretation of what’s going on. It’s the same process your smart phone’s GPS uses as it locks onto more than one satellite so it can triangulate and figure out where you are.

This type of research is useful for developing foundation insights about customers. For instance OFCOM, the UK communications regulator, publishes an annual review of our communication habits which, according to them, are increasingly digital.

The other type of research is what you can learn directly from your own customers. Use the general themes which the published sources provide to build a set of questions that allow you to understand their digital behaviour. Some areas you might consider:

  • Preferences in their multi-device use
  • Online shopping via laptop/tablet/smartphone
  • The scope of their ‘on the move’ mobile behaviour
  • Information-based eg. maps
  • Transaction-based eg. ecommerce
  • Interaction-based eg. social network updates
  • Channel preferences for key communication tasks eg.
  • Buying from us
  • Getting an update
  • Getting advice from us
  • Making a complaint
  • Expectations around autonomy and self management
  • Attitudes towards the harvesting and use of their own data

All this then helps build a picture of how they would adopt various service strategies you might offer. Would they use an app, complain on social, watch a ‘how to’ video?

Of course what this recognises is that customers will fall into various buckets of digital readiness. And the interesting thing is that the dividing lines are not entirely generational. Customer experience demands a much more careful review of who is progressive and who is more conservative which will of course evolve annually.

Understanding Customer Journeys

The reason why we need to think about journeys is that it forces us to adopt an outside-in view of what matters. In contrast there are still too many organisations who think about the channels at their disposal and internal motivations for using them such as cost reduction.

While this is understandable, we all know that customers will adopt the line of least resistance to get what they want: subvert an IVR menu in order to talk to a person, escalate an issue onto social, try to use SMS to text a business. It is all motivated by a desire to find the best option given their needs. So rather than try and out design that instinct, it’s smarter to work with it.

Adidas Twitter - Omni-channel customer service
Adidas UK has a dedicated Twitter account for customer service enquiries.

So what influences a customer’s choice of channel? Probably the most influential is the type of task.

What is the context of their current situation? Is what they are trying to easy or complex to complete? Do they feel expert or novice trying to deal with it? What emotions are associated with the task? How important is the task in terms of getting it done fast, accurately, effortlessly, privately?

To bring this to life let’s compare and contrast two examples. According to SITA research shared during the 2016 Air Transport IT Summit in Barcelona:

  • Almost every flight is now booked using self-service technology
  • Only 8% had contact with a human
  • 75% used a website. While 18% of these say they now intend to move to a mobile app, only 4% say they will seek out a human
  • Similar figures for mobile apps
  • 91% of those who used self-service technology to check-in saying they will do so again
  • If a passenger is dissatisfied with the technology, they will seek an alternative technology rather than reverting to a human being

So, does this prove we are all now app mad and do not need the human touch? Not necessarily. First we should think about the situation. Getting onto a flight at a busy airport is a logistically complex task these days. You’re probably carrying stuff and maybe have others with you as well. It is these conditions that drive users to the channel mix just described.

Contrast this with another scenario. 60% of Millennials agree with the following statement “If I had a customer service question, I would rather use a mobile app or web browser on my smart phone than call a contact centre for an answer”.

We have all seen versions of this research which cements in place a general perception that this generation will not use the voice channel under any circumstances. Not entirely so says other research. According to Cap Gemini research into millennial behaviour in the context of insurance, they uncovered the following expectation:

When asked to rank what’s important when they interact with an insurer, the top preferences are:

  • Ability to speak to a live person 42%
  • This goes up to 51% for female Millennials

And the reason for this is simple. Having less experience in buying insurance than older generations, the opportunity to talk through options and be re-assured of making the right decision means that live assistance in the form of a voice call was instinctively chosen for this particular task.

So the moral of the tale is to make sure you have an up to date, granular view of what matters to your customers in each of the major journeys you provide customer service for.

Understanding Channel Characteristics

Hopefully you are now persuaded that the ‘right channel mix’ is based on understanding customer tasks. Our final input is to use what we have learnt about our customers’ digital behaviour and the characteristics of their journeys to choose the most appropriate channel mix.

In simple terms, there are three types of communication channels. Video, voice and text. Our job as service designers is to leverage their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.

If we consider for a moment that face to face is the richest form of communication that yields the best possibility of both parties being able to communicate effectively, then the ‘next best’ hierarchy of channels is video, then voice then finally text.

Omni-channel customer service

In each case something is lost. From video to voice we lose facial feedback. From voice to text we lose emotional feedback which incidentally is why emojis are needed in text based communication as a way of reintroducing that feedback loop.

So how do we use this idea of declining communication bandwidth in practice? Here are some guidelines that will help you make the right choice.

Video: The key scenario is when trust matters to the customer outcome. Key examples include high value sales, VIP service, escalations and counselling.

Voice: The key scenarios are when the situation is either complex or emotional or when the quality of relationship matters. Examples being problems, complaints and customer retention outreach.

Text: The key scenarios are explanations, simple advice and escalations, Examples being how to do something, where to find something, moving from self service to live assistance

Please remember these are guidelines. You can use text to resolve a complex emotional case. But it is harder given the channel’s limited empathetic bandwidth. So it’s better from a design perspective to resource and promote the right channels for the right uses.

This advice of channels is mainly intended for live assistance. Self service and proactive service obviously need to be considered given customer expectations for instant, always on service.

The balance between live service and self service will vary on based on what customers expect and also on the rapid progress being made in intelligent assistance and messaging based bots which is redefining the boundaries between live and self service in quite dramatic ways. But that’s another topic.

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