In a constantly connected world, consumers continue to set the pace for businesses. In response, brands attempt to keep up. For instance, smartphones and messaging apps provide a communication-rich and instantly intuitive way of getting things done. In contrast, all but the latest generation of organisations are constrained by legacy infrastructure and their complexity.
Nonetheless, customers expect choice. In the world of customer service, this means being able to choose whatever seems the best path to getting something done. And just like a train that crosses lines, customers expect seamless transitions from one form of service delivery to another. This is the world of omni-channel engagement and all the challenges it brings. It’s not easy at all, which is why so many customer service leaders are now focussing on how to develop an effective approach that can deliver improved customer experience at a lower cost.
This whitepaper explores how to do this.
The rise of omni-channel has been on a slow burn. Many organisations simply began with voice as the default channel with IVR acting as its self-service equivalent. Then came email. The rise of e-commerce demanded a real-time text channel which web chat fulfilled. Social networks spawned public forms of customer service.
More recently, smartphone culture led to mass adoption of messaging and its emerging role as a sales and service channel. Alongside this evolution in live assistance has been the rapid rise of AI-based solutions that can power self-service. Text and voice-based conversational interfaces represent the most recent wave of innovation in this trend towards customer self-sufficiency.
As new channels are onboarded, the associated business case is also typically flawed. New channels are always presented as being better than the current ones with the suggestion that they will deliver more for less.
For instance, messaging is claimed to be better because its concurrency rate is so much higher than web chat, email, or voice. While this logic addresses a brand’s motivation to cut costs by deflecting customers away from more expensive channels, real world outcomes suggest this is much harder to achieve in practice unless the customer experience noticeably improves — something often ignored when the motivation is primarily internally cost driven.
The other weakness in this logic is that customers have their own agendas and will do whatever they see as the fastest and easiest path to their own goals. If an IVR or chatbot feels like an obstacle to be overcome, they will find a way around. If your self-service fails to satisfy functional or emotional needs, customers will re-join the queue for live assistance to close that gap.
The net result of all these design failures is customer frustration and higher operating costs. To make a success of omni-channel, we must recognise a few home truths from lessons learnt
Given generational communication preferences, it is not possible to squeeze customers into a single communication mix. A B2C brand caters to five generations of customers. Clothing retailers know this. As do food retailers. Tastes, priorities, and expectations are distinct. Rising to this challenge is the difference between success and failure. It should be no surprise then to accept that customers want to discriminate around how they expect to engage with brands as well.
Expressing their depth of feeling by writing a letter is still the only way to do it for some customers. Others are content with raising the flag on a social channel to advertise their disapproval. People who naturally use their thumbs instead of fingers to fire off a text message are probably the ones who will favour text instead of voice. That’s how they have formed and maintained their own relationship network and it’s the medium they feel most comfortable with. Others instinctively need the additional guidance of tone of voice to get something sorted out because that’s how they are tuned to engage.
It is important to understand these preferences and reflect them in your omni-channel strategy. Will there always be five generations of customers to accommodate? For the foreseeable future, the answer is yes. Already text is being subverted by voice for the youngest of the five generations who are growing up with voice assistants at home which they relate to as part of the family. As a result, this is how they will expect to reach you once they become active consumers. However, there are some important nuances to this general principle of segmenting communication by generational preferences.
First, our communication behaviours do evolve. Grandparents are often members of family messaging groups. They are not smartphone natives, but they are keen enough to want to know what’s happening in their families more than the occasional call or visit. So, they have adapted and joined in.
Equally, it is a myth to assume anyone under twenty-five is never going to want to call your contact centre. They may well be more expectant around receiving rapid, personalised service, given their entry into life as a digital native, but they still recognise the need for the kind of human touch that only a phone or video call can offer.
The other factor that influences choice is the customer situation. Using a voice assistant to order groceries in a public environment is one thing. Ordering your underwear might persuade you to choose a more appropriate channel. Speed is traded for privacy.
Sometimes the situation is unplanned. What happens when there is no signal or your phone battery dies? You adapt and use what’s available.
Other times choice is based on what needs to be done. Booking a hospital appointment for a biopsy after the results of an annual check-up is easy and cheap to offer as self-service from a technical perspective. But it falls short in addressing the emotional needs of the moment. The human touch is appreciated to empathise and reassure. So live assistance is a better design choice.
However, checking on stuff is the opposite. It’s all about the logistics. Fast, low effort, proactive. These are the expectations which flow from this type of customer task. That said, if things start to go wrong, to the point of triggering a negative emotional response, customers quickly switch into wanting human assistance.
In conclusion, we must be mindful of each customer situation.
Hopefully the point has been made that omni-channel success is based on understanding customer behaviour. This is influenced by both generational preferences and what customers are wanting to get done. The optimal contact mix for a given customer journey is based on this understanding.
The design process is captured in this omni-channel planning framework.
Once operationalised, it becomes the way in which brands track the evolving behaviours of their five generations of customers (or whatever customer personas make most sense), manage the quality of their service journeys and enable a contact mix that supports the spectrum of customer behaviour. Here are some practical tips and design principles to help get value from using this way of planning.
The goal here is to maintain an up-to-date picture of your customers’ evolving communication preferences. This is used to inform your contact mix. In practice, this can be achieved by tapping into in-house Voice of Customer (VoC) capability combined with public domain research on national communication trends.
Use VoC to ask customers for their interaction preferences and capture them in CRM so they can be referenced at the initial point of contact. It is even better to ask for their channel choice in relation to actual service interactions e.g. paying a bill, making a complaint, seeking advice, receiving updates, since they will vary.
Public domain data can be sourced from government sources such as OFCOM in the UK which publishes their annual review of communication behaviour. They analyse by age and socio-demographic and show trends over time. Sometimes research firms, vendors or agencies will publish their own reports which can be valuable supplements to help build a picture of key behaviours and trends. Find your own local versions.
Whatever you end up using as input, you should aim to summarise it as a set of customer personas which describe generational preferences for engaging with you whether service-specific or more general. Here are a couple of summarised personas for guidance.
Expect personalised self-service/proactive with escalation to live assistance as needed. Willing to trade personal data in return. Primary device is smartphone. Preferred channel is messaging. No email.
Prefers to sort issues out with human assistance. Either voice or text is OK. Email still acceptable. Appreciates relevant proactive communication. Personalised service is optional but wants control over how data is used.
Journey mapping is now more common. The most advanced contact centre cultures will be using localised versions to guide their quality assurance programmes and VoC. Visually rich maps provide an excellent opportunity to explore functional and emotive needs. As mentioned earlier, this helps identify when live assistance is most likely to be expected.
Advanced users of the omni-channel framework will be able to recognise and respond to the unique demands of separate service journeys. For instance, it is not difficult to imagine the differences between on-boarding, progress checking and pursuing a complaint in terms of the mix of functional and emotive expectations. As with generational preferences, there will be some evolution over time in terms of accepted resolution channels. These will need to be tracked and responded to.
Another benefit of journey mapping is that habitual inside-out views of organisational processes are refreshed through the lens of what matters to the customer. It is common to discover that customers are often subjected to high effort as part of ‘getting what they came for’.
Hopefully these journeys are recognised as such and redesigned to become simple and low effort. However, some will remain on the digital transformation ‘to-do’ list. These need to be recognised as complex and potentially emotive for customers. This is an important consideration in the light of what can be then shortlisted for self-service. As a design principle, only attempt to hand over simple, low effort tasks to customers as self-service. Otherwise, expect a high degree of escalation din response to the difficulties encountered.
Understanding journeys and preferences sets the scene for offering the appropriate contact mix. This spans modalities (video-voice-text) and channels (live assistance-self-service-proactive service).
Modern contact centre infrastructure knits these together with unified queuing and single desktop which orchestrates customer interactions together with any required workflow and data. The net result for both customer and advisor should be an informed, low effort conversation which enables the advisor to concentrate on delivering the customer’s functional and emotive expectations.
The need for this functionality shows up at several key points in journeys. Nailing them is the hallmark of a competent contact strategy.
The other hallmark of an effective contact strategy is optimised use of modalities and channels. When this is achieved, customers should enjoy an improved experience which they stick with. The brand then benefits from both reduced service costs and the positive commercial behaviours that flow from high NPS (net promoter score) - or equivalent customer metric. Research from Forrester and the Bruce Temkin Group consistently show that much of that positive customer score is based on providing them with the most direct path to ‘getting what they came for’. Put another way, is live assistance being used optimally? Remember that from the customer’s point of view, the price of access to human assistance is a queue. This absorbs precious time. Equally some modalities absorb full attention (phone) while other channels such as messaging offer asynchronous interaction. Which is the most worthwhile investment? Let customers decide. From a service design perspective, the principles we talked about are a solid way of estimating demand for each interaction option.
Brands cannot avoid their customers’ expectation for choice in how they engage. Brands can however turn it to their advantage by shrinking use of live assistance in favour of lower cost self-service and proactive service. The current rise in AI powered solutions provides strong assurance that these new options will only grow in popularity. This will progressively free up advisors to be used correctly for the interactions that really matter.
However, this requires deep, up-to-date insight into what your customers expect, ideally within the context of each distinct journey. Some of those expectations will be common across generations. Some unique.
Technology enables you to support this game plan. Solutions that are designed to work as a single ecosystem become essential. Investing in the right generation of capability therefore matters. Following the advice in this whitepaper provides a solid foundation for becoming a successful omni-channel brand.
We wish you every success in rising to that challenge.
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