- Companies need to consider making the move from a multichannel to an omnichannel approach
It’s becoming more commonplace now for organizations to engage with customers through multiple channels. You have your call center and for most customers, talking to a live agent is still the best way to get the result they want (and many organizations want to make the move to video chat for this reason too). But then there’s also your website. And in addition to e-mail, perhaps you’re encouraging your customers to contact you via your social media channels too (or perhaps they’re doing that of their own accord whether you want them to or not). So most organizations would probably say that they’ve embraced the need for multichannel customer communication to one degree or another. However in 2016 customers are increasingly going to expect more of an omnichannel approach.
So what’s the difference between multichannel and omnichannel?
The key distinction lies in how the channels are organised. In a multichannel environment the organizational focus is on the channels themselves. Each one is managed separately, perhaps with different targets and ways of reporting data. Each channel is individually optimised for customer satisfaction. Essentially it’s an inside-out approach. By contrast, in an omnichannel environment the focus is on the customers’ needs rather than on the channels. Channels are managed in such a way as to enable customers to switch seamlessly between them or even engage with you via multiple channels simultaneously – an outside-in approach.
- Customers want to be able to contact you at their convenience rather than yours
The move to an omnichannel experience is driven by changing customer expectations, and one of the key trends here is that more than ever customers expect to be able to contact you at their convenience rather than yours. We live in a 24/7 society. It’s no longer acceptable for companies only to be contactable during ‘traditional’ working hours. Growth of smartphone penetration together with development of more sophisticated apps mean that consumers are used to being able to complete whatever transaction they have in mind at the moment that they think of it. People are paying their credit card bills in the middle of the night, submitting meter readings on Christmas Day, reporting poor service via social media whilst still in the middle of the transaction. Companies need to think very carefully about which channels are accessible to people and when.
- You may differentiate between your channels but your customers won’t
Consumers no longer make the distinction between the different channels on offer to them. A customer with a complaint may try calling you but also be emailing you at the same time or engaging with your online chat functionality in order to see which one gets the quickest result. Consequently, you can’t afford to treat these as completely separate channels with no relationship between them. Customers will try multiple routes in order to find the one that helps them achieve their objectives most quickly. You need to be able to recognise that the Mr J Bloggs who’s on the phone is the same Joe Bloggs who’s just sent you an email.
- Seamless payment is expected whatever the channel
With payment systems becoming ever more sophisticated, consumers expect to be able to pay quickly, simply and securely whatever channel they’re using.
- Greater than ever emphasis on data security
Consumer awareness of data security issues is high. Our own research shows not only that consumers are concerned about the security implications of paying through contact centers but so are contact center managers themselves. There have been a number of high profile data breaches over the last year and consumers are also increasingly familiar with newer, more sophisticated security protocols such fingerprint account access, facial recognition and even voice recognition security systems. These kinds of systems are becoming more and more prevalent and so call centers that don’t adopt the latest technology or aren’t offering a clear focus on security will increasingly seem behind the times.
- Cloud computing gives contact centers even greater flexibility
The potential of cloud computing to completely reimagine what a contact center looks like is now starting to be realised. Embracing the cloud means that contact center managers are no longer tied to having staff physically present in particular locations, with an associated reduction in cost and gain in morale and staff commitment. The overhead of running your contact center can be significantly reduced this way (but don’t forget that if you’re taking payments you’ll still need to ensure that your homeworkers and other outsourced workers are PCI DSS compliant). This flexibility is fairly widely accepted now for call center operators but we’re just starting to see the full potential of the cloud to enable supervisors and managers to work remotely and flexibly as well.
- The growing importance of human-to-human contact
It’s tempting to think that the call center of the future could be rendered almost completely redundant by the combination of predictive analytics, big data and artificial intelligence. Telephone banking and other automated payment systems are examples of what’s possible here – however such systems can be hugely frustrating for customers to deal with and when they are badly set up or fall down they tend to fall down badly. I recently experienced the frustration of having my cashpoint card swallowed by a bank whilst on holiday. On calling the bank’s ‘having trouble using your card overseas?’ helpline I discovered that its IVR system had been set up in such a way as to make it impossible to progress through to actually speaking to anyone without first entering the card number using the keypad. The card number which was on the card that had just been swallowed! The push towards automation is understandable but this can’t come at the expense of customer experience.
- Phoning the contact center will shift in favour of new channels
Text-based communication is becoming the norm in people’s personal lives, especially the younger generation eschewing phone communication in favour of text, either SMS or particularly instant messaging apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. Call center traffic is still going up overall according to industry stats, but with Facebook recently starting to allow companies to make commercial use of its Messenger app to communicate with customers, plus the noticeable increase in webchat in contact centers, customers will increasingly expect to be able to communicate with you through the channel of their choice, at the time of their choice, and won’t necessarily differentiate between different channels in the way that companies tend to. You also can’t assume that certain types of customers will use some channels over others – the use of Facebook amongst the over-50s, for instance, is well documented.
- Channel shift changes the skills your call center agents will need
Artificial intelligence and smarter searching algorithms mean that standard transactional calls can be diverted to cheaper channels. Many routine calls can be dealt with by having a smart, well-designed website with automation that answers most of the frequently- asked customer questions and enables a wider range of transactions to be completed online, so that customers are not forced to call you up in order to get everything done. However the flipside is that when someone calls you, the chances are increasingly that it’s going to be for the more complex transactions or when something has gone wrong and needs to be put right, in a way that a computer can’t deal with. Agents handling these calls need to be able to move beyond simply reading from the script and operating the computer and be empathetic and empowered to handle problems in the way that they see fit. The emphasis on recruiting agents with soft skills has therefore never been more important.
- Training and workforce management are crucial
Ironically, as a consequence of all the above, agents are increasingly key to the level of service provided in the contact center, rather than being sidelined by new technology as might be expected, as they concentrate on value-added and more difficult enquiries or transactions, and on more than one channel. So the increasing proportion of graduates recruited in contact centers is perhaps not just a result of the recent recession, but also the increasing requirement for agents to be able to multi-skill and be more proactive.
Ongoing training and performance management are also therefore fundamental and it cannot be assumed that an agent dealing with customers via one channel is equally capable via another – phone skills and written skills need to be separately assessed for instance. And emerging tools to match shift patterns and response teams to customer demand are also vital – there is no point in offering the channels your customers want if you do not have the staff available in the right place and at the right times to deal with them.