The Case for Multi Channel Excellence in Customer Service

Call Center by Andrea Baldassarri on FlickrOver at the Desk.com blog, Esteban Kolsky shows (again) to be a great thought-leader. In his thought provoking post titled “The case for single channel excellence in customer service” he makes the case for (1) focus, (2) delivering satisfaction and (3) cost savings through automation, before trying to go multi- or even cross-channel. Going down that route too fast is going down the route of multi-channel failure, Kolsky claims.

Although I think highly of Esteban Kolsky and I very much applaud his initiative to challenge conventions, I have to disagree (the debate is probably what he was hoping for). There are a couple of reasons why:

Many succeed in providing multi-channel service recovery
First of all Kolsky makes his case only by stating that it is very difficult to focus on multiple channels at the same time. As much as this is true, it is also false. There are numerous examples of companies that work multi- or cross-channel that are doing an excellent job at all three things Kolsky wants us to do whilst offering multiple service recovery channels. Zappos is a well known example, but I can think of a dozen companies here in Europe that have been able to do this as well. I think you do too. Bottom line: the fact that many make a mess, doesn’t mean everyone will.

I would also argue that the current state of Customers’ satisfaction (not that bad everywhere) with service (recovery) is due to the lack of an integrated multi-channel approach towards it, more than it is the other way around.

Perfection does not exist
It seems easy to agree with the statement that one needs to be perfect at one level, before entering into the next. This may be the case in your next platform game, it is not in business. Waiting for perfection to happen is like waiting for Christmas and Easter to be on the same day. I would even argue that too many companies are using the very argument, to not have to innovate their capabilities, to stay within their comfort zone, risking their Customers’ loyalty because others are.

How would it be..?
Most services I consume these days are built around multiple channels anyway. How ‘dumb’ would it be if I were at my Banks branch and the employee would ask me to contact the contact center with my question? Or worse, to go on-line and look it up myself? How would I feel if I could ask any question on an Ikea product in the store, but not on-line, or by phone when I’m home trying to put the pieces together?

When to develop new capabilities
Of course it does not make sense to ‘just’ enter into any new channel, nor does it make sense to step into a new channel just because one can exceed expectations with it. Developing the capability to operate new channels only makes sense if these channels help your Customers get their jobs-to-be-done better than before, and preferably better than competition. After all it is a fact that Customers hire different channels for different (parts of their) jobs.

Just ask yourself the question how you got an answer to the last question you had about a product or service. If your reading this it is highly likely that your journey to the answer would have involved more than one, and somewhat likely it would have involved more than two channels. And all that with two or even three devices.

The best service is no service
Of course you can force your Customers into the on-line only, or contact center only service recovery journey. Of course you can automate 40% of Contact Center contacts (not sure you can without using other channels by the way). I’m convinced though it makes a whole lot more sense to prevent 40 % of contact center traffic by offering (multi-channel) experiences that help Customers get their job done in a way they do not need Customer service recovery.

Excellent service (recovery) takes context into account
And in the event something goes wrong, you help them get that job done (themselves) in the most effective and effortless way. And these days that may well include involving other Customers for some service recovery jobs (how do I get my wifi working on this device), the company web-site for another (I’m moving, please move my wifi with me), or the contact center (I’d like to make a payment arrangement for the roaming costs I accumulated during my holiday) for a very personal one.

If you think you can deal with all these different contextual Customer service recovery jobs in one (forced) channel, you are ignoring your Customers’ preferences, every day reality and your company’s urge to make money. Good luck exceeding expectations with that.

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16 responses to “The Case for Multi Channel Excellence in Customer Service

  1. Hi Wim

    Good to see you and Esteban in fine argumentative form (in a philosophical sense). Here are my thoughts.

    Esteban’s proposal – to become ‘excellent’ at providing customer service through one channel before expanding to others – is a seductive one for today’s troubled customer service executive. But it would be a bold choice to focus on just one channel at the expense of all others for a number of reasons:

    1. Customers User Different Channels for Different Things

    As you point out, all the research shows that not only do different customers prefer different customer service channels, but also that the same customers prefer different channels for different contacts in different circumstances. You aren’t going to write to the breakdown service when you are stuck on the roadside with a blow gasket late on a dark, rainy night with hungry kids in the back of the car! By reducing customers’ choices to a single channel you are in effect choosing to ignore the majority of customer preferences. In some cases, you may prevent customers from seeking customer service at all. Most customers have plenty of choices for products, services and experiences today. Reduce customer service to just one channel at your peril.

    2. Service Only Needs to be Good Enough. Not Excellent

    Customers want customer service on their own terms. Most businesses don’t know what those terms are because they don’t ask customers. Sure, they ask them about satisfaction and their likelihood to recommend the business, but these are about what the business wants to ask customers not what customers want from business. The terms that customers want don’t usually include excellent customer service. Just ‘good enough’ service. Providing excellent customer service through just one channel is likely to lead to over-delivery in that one channel, with all the associated costs. And paradoxically, research shows that customers respond to over-delivery in similar ways they do to under-delivery.

    3. The Best Customer Service is Not Needing Any

    As the popular saying goes, “the best service is not needing any!” Most companies devote the lion’s share of their resources to all those things leading up to the point of sale. At this point they collect the customer’s money. Once they have the customer’s money the customer is pretty much on their own. And customer service automatically becomes a cost-centre. Although you can never entirely get rid of the need for customer service, most companies would be well advised to spend more time thinking about why customers need customer service in the first place and redesigning their products, services and experiences so they didn’t.

    There will always be a need for some customer service. No matter how well products, services and experiences are designed. And customers will always want service on their terms, not on the business’.

    Should you spend more time fixing customer service problems at source? Absolutely? Should you find out how customers really want customer service? Absolutely. Should you respond by just giving them one choice of customer service channel? It would be a bold executive who answered “absolutely! And as the old saying goes, “there are old executives and there are bold executives, but there are no old, bold executives”.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  2. Wim, you made a solid argument. Even in the simplest of scenarios, designing a low end capability to address the multiple channels that support different steps in a job-to-be-done would likely put you in a better position to compete against a company who is only excellent in a channel that might not be convenient to a customer in a particular situation. I like Grahams analogy about writing a letter from the side of the road to request a tow truck. Clearly, the company would save a lot of money, and it would also have fewer customers to service over the long haul!

  3. Here’s an “Operations” perspective. I work in an organization with hundreds of offices across the US. We also have a Web site and a contact center. Let me address two channels. Let’s call the contact center the “distant” channel and our local offices, the “local” channel.

    Some of the departments that run those offices have been around since the 1950′s. The contact center and web site were created in the 1990′s. The contact center was also created with a customer-centric philosophy whereas as the local offices and the departments that run them had their philosophies (organization-centric) created long ago before anyone understood what customer-centricity was.

    Those departments are divided up into numerous territories and have different reporting relationships. It is much more difficult to change their culture to customer-centricity than it is that of a call center where the senior managers insist on customer-centricity. It is especially more difficult to do this in the current economy where change management can be perceived by many as an unnecessary distraction from the mere act of surviving.

    Should we abandon our attempts to create a customer-centric culture in our customer-facing offices? No, we need to develop different strategies and compete for limited resources. We need to gain buy-in from tenfold people compared to that of the contact center.

    Should we prioritize? Yes. Can we hold up the contact center as a best practice? Yes.

    My take: Each channel needs to be assessed with the customers’ usage of that channel in mind. Is Twitter important to Comcast? Yes, it is. Is it important to a company that sells reverse mortgages to seniors? Probably not as much. Senior management must set a high bar for customer experience and customer service. It will be impossible to bring all departments and all channels along at the same pace. Therefore, strive for “perfection,” but prioritize your efforts and segment your strategies.

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  5. The thing I miss most in Estaban Kolsky’s post is the word ‘customer’. It is only written in the sense of ‘customer service’, very inside out thinking, but I guess customer service managers can be overwhelmed by all the emerging channels and all the stories on the ‘demanding customer’. What would you advise for companies to stop panicking at the thought of so much channels? How can you keep it simple? Or is it just not simple?

    Anne
    @editoranne

    PS; could you send your feedback my way? ;-)

    • Anne, I believe the answer to your question is to develop a strategy incorporating change management techniques that first sends a clear message that this is an organization-wide effort that senior management fully supports. Second prioritize your channels based upon customer usage and taking into account resource allocation. Execute, then evaluate. Learn, rinse, repeat until all targeted channels meet expectations.

  6. I have never, including now, said that it should be a single channel for customer service. If you go back and read all my posts, as far back as early 1990s, I have been the most staunch advocate for multi-channel (and now cross-channel, multi- is so “passe”) implementations for customer service.

    I still believe that this is the case, even though in special cases organizations can thrive on single-channel, multi-channel (and now cross-channel) remains the way to go.

    There are many elements of supporting multiple channels I believe in more firmly than most people who read and commented on my posts: it is OK to make a strategic decision to NOT serve a specific channel, as long as you communicate that. Ibid with outsourcing them, but needs to be known before the phone rings. And there are more morsels of wisdom I continue to espouse on multi-channel.

    I am not naive enough to think this is not the case; both organizations and customers want multiple channels. There is a line towards the end of my post, right after I list the reasons for developing single-channel excellence, that I think most people who read the title are missing. It says:

    Excellence in a single-channel, once achieved and maintained, can then be extrapolated and leveraged into other channels.

    In short, it says that once an organization developed a good understanding of how it can serve its clients, channels become irrelevant and are artificial means to connect with customers. In retrospective, I should’ve spent more time on that part, maybe it would’ve been clear (then again, a very large number of people read the title and assumed I meant that a single channel was the ONLY solution I was proposing – thanks to Twitter we have lost the capability of reading, are now focused on 140 characters of “wisdom” at the time).

    The bottom line is that I would like organizations to be able to crawl before they can run, and most of them cannot do that yet. They jump into every conceivable new channel to reinvent the way they do customer service.

    Twitter is here? let’s staff it with 100 people, give them 200 tools to monitor, report, manage, use, and analyze to death meaningless statistics about it. Let’s advertise we are the largest twitter customer service in the planet, let’s publish the success stories and show customers how lucky they are that we get it… We are on Twitter — yay!

    What? how much does it cost? how many cases we solved? how does it compare to other channels? how effective is it? how good of a job we are doing? are customers getting what they need? how do we apply existing business rules to it? how do we reward loyal customers? and many more of the questions they need to ask are not being asked — but WE ARE ON TWITTER! YAY FOR US!

    We had the same debate before, many times. When email first began to be used for CS, we had the same debate. Chat? same. SMS? same – you get the idea. My point is, in every instance the people who got it, who figured out the value, who understood what needed to be done were those that had an excellent CS department, treated the new channels as — well new channels, and could answer the questions about purpose, delivery, and results.

    I believe it is time for the new generation to understand and embrace that, and a return to single-channel excellence is the best way to achieve that.

    I stand by my previous statement: I make a case for single channel excellence as an initial step; leverage the lessons learned to build an excellent cross-channel solution.

    (this same answer, or book, has been posted in all the posts that refer mine and that are discussing this).

    • Esteban, your comments: “Excellence in a single-channel, once achieved and maintained, can then be extrapolated and leveraged into other channels,” and, “I make a case for single channel excellence as an initial step;” are what I meant in my “operational” example above.

      One further example. Our employees need additional training around CS and CX. But we currently don’t have the budget or employee time to develop them and the implementation strategy that would go along with them. Most of that is due to the brutal economy we’re facing where we are stretching every available dollar. We are also going through a major restructuring in order to be more responsive to our customers and markets. Now is not the time to introduce major multi-channel efforts.

      But we are making some incremental gains by improving contact center processes and we are becoming more experienced in social media and that’s where we’re focusing our efforts.

      Glenn

    • Esteban,

      I know you’re a multi channel advocate, as much as I know that you are the “think before you do” person. And I’m fully aligned with you on all that.

      I did though not miss your important sentence. I even referenced it twice (not literally, ‘hinted at’ is more appropriate probably). Thus I agree one needs to think before one acts and I also agree it’s an option to not enter into new channels. I don’t think though it is an option to stay on one single channel. Every company needs (self) service on the website and the possibility for Customers to connect with a human being (albeit via chat, phone, store or even e-mail only) on top of that. And yes, one can also hire others to do that for them.

      Social Media is completely optional if you ask me and would typically depend on maturity in other channels or better, maturity with the product/service you are providing to your Customers in the first place. But, even if your traditional contact center service is not that great, it may not be optional to stay out of social. Think of what would have happened to KLM if they would not have switched on Social when the ashes came raining down on us.

      And hey.. I think some could (or are) even learning a thing or two about providing service in Contact Centers by switching on Social..

      And indeed, do not go in un(der)prepared. Because – in the spirit of Graham Hill – new tech and old ways of doing business, usually get you a very expensive old way of doing business.

      What do you say?

  7. I totally agree with Esteban that companies need to focus on what customers really want: consistently and quickly getting high quality answers to pre-sales and post-sales questions. I also agree that first and foremost companies need to make sure that their core customer care infrastructure is able to consistently deliver the goods so that people are not forced to escalate unresolved issues to social channels to get fair treatment. People using social networks to force treatment that is not fair is a whole other topic and one that companies certainly need to deal with, but in such a way to not promote such bad, manipulative behavior.

    I also believe that most companies should extend support to “where their customers are” in social networks, but they should do so without actually using the social network technology as a support channel and instead view and leverage it as an access point into their core customer care infrastructure. More details on this topic that get into the real meat implementers have to decide on are covered in an earlier post by Esteban here: http://estebankolsky.com/2012/08/twitter-facebook-customer-service-and-surgery/

    Providing consumers with easy access to get answers where they are is vital Allowing customer s to dictate the channel/technology used and service levels supported is insane and akin to a baker having their loan and deposit rates defined by customers. Companies need to focus on understanding the needs of their consumers and arrive at execution strategies that utilize the best technologies for meeting the needs and service levels that support their objectives and create sustainable and profitable business models.

  8. ” I would even argue that too many companies are using the very argument, to not have to innovate their capabilities, to stay within their comfort zone, risking their Customers’ loyalty because others are.”

    I think you raise a very good point. Most businesses can’t afford to wait for 100% perfection before moving up to the next level. There is always going to be a learning curve and always something that needs to be improved.

  9. As anything one has to know as of how and when to apply all of the advice above, I think the key phrase here is: “Excellence in a single-channel, once achieved and maintained, can then be extrapolated and leveraged into other channels”.
    It’s not about just simply opening all channels of communication, it’s about striving for excellence, as perfection does not exist, sometimes that means you need to start with one single, coste-effective, channel and then grow on to others; let’s not forget a small common denominator constrain: “budget”; making multichannel efficient and cost effective is a huge challenge where processes, people and technologies all converge.

    The truth is that most companies deploying social media channels don’t have the integrated technologies to provide a seamless process, many companies launching this initiatives are still testing the waters and are taking very small steps that often backfire. Let’s remember that most business ecosystems are made up mostly of SMB’s as oppose to enterprise level players, the last being the ones leading the multichannel approach. Multichannel approach, specially those integrating social media, are very complex structures that require crafted planning, integrated technologies and a change of a company’s philosophy, thus turning into what can be a large investment. I would say that @ekolsky easily resonates across many mid size businesses, CS executives need to understand the limitations of their own companies and their capacity to implement their customer service strategies successfully. Sometimes less is more.

  10. @grahamhill you say “Service Only Needs to be Good Enough. Not Excellent”. I find it hard to agree with that statement as I would think anyone shooting simply for “good enough” may not reach even that, striving for excellence, as oppose to perfection, is a good achievable target though. Can you elaborate on your statement? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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