Multichannel Customer Service Is Dead. Long Live Agile Service!

Multichannel commerce is dead, says fellow analyst Brian Walker in Forbes . The essence of this article is that customers don’t choose to interact with you on a single communication channel from start to finish. They interact with you over the most suitable channel for them at that point in time — which could be their mobile device, or a chat session, or a phone call, or email, or web self-service from their iPad. Brian calls this agile commerce.

I agree that it is an agile world out there. And yet, agility does not stop at commerce — it extends to everything that we do, from buying to receiving marketing offers to customer service. Think, for example, about the process you follow to fix an issue with one of your electronic devices. You may browse a community forum, browse the company’s Facebook page, then their official website, contact an agent who can't help you, tweet about it, get contacted by a better-skilled agent who figures out that you need to purchase a new driver and transfers you to someone who can process your order, which you receive on your mobile phone.

 

An example of agile customer service

 

The point is that a customer does not make a distinction between a sales transaction or a customer service transaction. All they expect is to be able to receive the same customer experience every time they interact with a company, over any communication channel that they use.

Most companies don’t offer this consistency of experience across channels. They also don’t allow customers to be agile in their channel choice. The question is, what are the foundational elements to support this behavior? From a technology perspective they are:

  • A model of unified communications. Each interaction over all communication channels needs to be queued, routed, and worked on in the same manner, following the company business processes that uphold its brand.
  • A unified view of the customer. Each agent needs to have a full view of all interactions that a customer has had over all supported communication channels so that the agent can build on the information and experience that has already been communicated to the customer.
  • Unified knowledge and data. Agents need to have access to the same knowledge and same data across all communication channels so that they can communicate the same story to their customers.

In addition, companies need to restructure business processes and new organizational models to enable this, which Brian explains in his recent Forrester report.

What does this all mean? Adopt agile communications if you want to empower your customers to choose how they interact with you, so that their sales and customer service experience is easy and enjoyable, and so that you gain their trust, loyalty, and share of wallet.

Comments

This article shows the

This article shows the increased complexity of interaction channels at the disposal of customers. Unified communications, customer view and data were just dependent on in person, web, phone and email channels. Now mobile and social have been added to the mix. So there is nothing new or novel about multichannel but its layers have grown disproportionately with new channels.
However the mix of channels depending on vertical market is yet another deviation and process change. The retail (B2C) customers interaction processes vary greatly with those in a commercial (B2B) model.
It does not seem that long ago when CRM was considered dead for the same rationale.

Promise me you won't be controversial anymore...

I cannot afford to type my name and email each time you write something that I 1/2 agree with.

I totally agree with the concept, but cannot get behind the word Agile - sorry. Mostly, has been bastardized in CoWo (my new acronym, corporate world - how do you like it? yeah, it is not new - but better than saying corporate america or corporations) by the picture painted of lack of strategy, fast, dynamic changes, and extreme adaptability. The last two are features that most organizations lack, by the way.

I would prefer to promote the concept of cross-channel (which is my preferred term, in case you wondered) and agree with everything you are saying otherwise. Then, take it one step further and talk about how "atomized applications (think iPhone apps)" are going to become the solution for cross-channel / agile customer service, and how mashups are back en vogue thanks to all these changes. Wrap it up talking about interconnectivity between platforms to support the cross-channel / agile atomized applications -- and then we will agree on everything (provided you stop calling them agile).

Nice post, BTW.

Now, promise me that we can talk about terms before you publish them - don't want to fill in my information again.

Agility is an overloaded term

It means something completely different to Engineering (Agile process/agile development methodology), and in that regard, the word agility is overloaded. But to get down to basics, the Webster dictionary describes it as meaning "nimble" which is exactly what you need to be able to offer your customers - the ability to nimbly use any communication channel at any point in the conversation with a company.

(And sorry, I cant do anything about having to register every time you want to post a comment. Please dont let this deter you!)

The lines between channels

The lines between channels are blurry to customers, but that doesn't mean that multichannel commerce is dead. It simply means that companies have to be integrated in their efforts.

Exactly

Whatever you call it - agile service, cross-channel service - is here to stay, and it uses more than one channel. And as you say, these channels need to be integrated, not deployed in silos as they have been in the past

Consistency - My Simplistic View

Kate,

Great topic, one that we could all discuss for a long period of time. My simplistic view is that customers do not think in terms of being agile, they simply want to get their job (purchase, issue, whatever) done, when and how they want. I am going to slightly disagree (and probably pay for it later) with Esteban. I like multi-channel, if we are thinking from the customers point of view. That is just semantics, as I agree with the concept.

I believe we are all simply talking about the consistency of the experience through whichever communications means I (as customer) choose to use. I think you hit on these points quite well. Some further research by Forrester (I think you are on that report) does show that the investment within the channels is inconsistent, and missing from the voice channel.

Cheers - Mitch

You won't pay online - will get you later :)

Mitch,

There is a crucial difference between multi- and cross-channel: the seamless transition for the customer from one to the other. I agree with everything else you are saying, but i don't consider it a semantics discussion at this point. There is a evolution to cross-channel that involves, to the customer, at the very high level being able to track a transaction / interaction from one channel to the other, being able to monitor / report on it, and not having to ask for the customer account number and information - again (this is probably the most visible benefit to customers).

it may be me, since i have been in this market for some time, but multi-channel cannot accomplish that - they can at best leverage resources like KM and the like. it is a different infrastructure that is required to make cross channel tracking and reporting work - and that is the ultimate goal for customer service.

just an opinion, i was wrong once -- no, twice -- before.

Cross-Channel Conversations

Good blog Kate.

I agree with Esteban. I like the idea behind "agile service" but not the term and prefer cross-channel conversations.

One of the challenges today is that often different groups within a company "own" these different customer touch-points. Each group has different ways to measure customer satisfaction, different and non-unified technologies to address the 3 points you raise, and different goals (upsell, time to problem resolution, build loyalty). Hence, the customer experience is not the same across all these channels.

This area will continue to evolve very quickly with the re-emergence of mashups and sophisticated analytics as referenced above.

Tom

That is the main point...

You hit the nail on its head - the main point is that these channels are not all under the control of the same organization; each which has their own success measures. The issue with customer service is that it takes a combination of unified process, people (organizational alignment) and technology to deliver a consistent service experience across supported channels.

Intelligent Customer Service = Agile Service

I think you can interchange 'agile' and 'intelligent' here. It's clear consumers navigate many channels when they engage a company -- including face to face interactions, and that companies that can provide context to the customer interaction across those touch points are the companies that will gain customers and marketshare. As a consumer I shouldn't be penalized for using a channel offered by the company by having to re-create my interaction history. I shouldn't have to call to check up on an order, an address change, or an application I submitted. Intelligent Customer Service manages the 'Conversation' a company has with a consumer -- regardless of channel. Moreover, you reach customer delight when a company can proactively notify a customer service request is fulfilled. An order shipped, an application approved, a gate changed on a flight, etc.

from cross channel to..

Hi Kate, always good to stir up this discussion which in my view is there allready too long. New channels like mobile and social media are showing that the silos really cannot cope and have to collapse. I sincerely hope not only for a technical integration - which requires what you say but even more in my view. What about vendors, dealers, intermediaries, technicians, employees as channels - everybody can have more roles, even be a customer - the enterprise portal? What about marketing intelligence and propositons? I prefer cross channel to agile, like Esteban and others, as an important capacity will be to cross over to other channels to answer or put your proposition as a service to a particular customer. I think we are finally ready to move on for what I call an Enterprise Relationship Center / Enterprise Relationship Management as the next stage of cross channel which you can see on our maturity model covering all touchpoints for the total customer experience across Marketing-Sales-Service-Supply Chain. It's in the end all about radically changing the organization towards a networking one. Yes for agile teams! Yes for customer group accountability (profits AND costs). I wrote several books on this unfortunately in Dutch, now I see it is time to blog about it in English. Thank you all for getting inspired to finally do so -:)

We need a single unifying "context" for the customer

I remember when we ICT folks began to talk about "channels" for dealing with customers. For me it was at the beginning of the DOT COM boom-bust cycle. People talked about shifting transactions off the old paper-based channels, or telephone-based channels, or face-to-face channels to "on-line-channels". The business justification was to reduce the cost-per-transaction.

Since that time a range of newer channels has emerged: SMS-text-based; social-networking-based; web-site-based; call-centre-based; IVR-based etc. We've become lost in the complexity, and lost sight of the business goals. Our customers meantime (especially X & Y generation folks) have become far more sophisticated and their expectations have risen (about the ways they want to interract with our organisations.) Do we still want to push customers onto the channel that is cheapest-per-transaction? Or are we motivated today more about offering customers richer, more flexible services?

One key thing I think we need to do is keep track of the customers' "context"; i.e. the pieces of dialogue between the customer and your organisation that together provide the total information to support the business transaction. I think this should be drawn together into a contiguous customer record.

Do you remember when we learned about HTML (hypertext markup language)? Or for me its predecessor SGML (simple graphics markup language). HTML and SGML (and XML) embody a simple notion of disconnecting the content (the text; the knowledge) from its form & layout. So back in those heady DOT COM days there was an enthusiasm for keeping information in a single repository, and then applying markup to it whenever we wanted to display it. From this people invented "style sheets", which were prepared templates of markup language; e.g. for publishing on a web site, or for printing in hardcopy.

A similar paradigm: I think we need to evolve a similar process for dealing with multi-channel interractions with our customers. In designing our business services we need to decide where and in what format we are going to capture a single end-to-end copy of the pieces of dialogue between the customer and our organisation (a kind of data de-duplication). Then to communicate via the myriad of new channels (face-to-face, telephone, SMS-text, chat, social networking etc.) we need to devise the equivalent of "markup" or "style-sheets" to allow the dialogue to happen through whatever channel the customers find convenient.

Will this reduce costs-per-transaction? Probably not.
But it will increase customer satisfaction and loyalty. It will allow busy mobile customers to do business with us when they are on the move. And it will improve business outcomes over the longer term. It may even increase the total volume of transactions.

Any thoughts?