Addressing the Challenges of Multichannel Customer Service

Customer Service
Customer Service
With customers using different channels to interact with organizations, companies need to integrate their various touchpoints to deliver a seamless customer experience. Customer experience professionals share their company's integration journey.

As part of its continuing efforts to better understand the strategic goals, challenges, and trends around how companies are integrating their service efforts and strategies across channels, 1to1 Media conducted interviews with a select group of customer service executives across a spectrum of different vertical industries. Here's a snapshot of their priorities for the coming year, as well as their recent accomplishments.

--Mila D'Antonio, Editor-in-Chief, 1to1 Media

Today's customers are using multiple channels to interact with the brands they do business with. The telephone, Internet, mobile, and social media are becoming increasingly interlinked throughout customers' purchasing journeys. This phenomenon makes it essential for organizations to develop and implement a sound multichannel service strategy that will lead to the integration of all service efforts and initiatives across different channels.

As Jason Faria, director of customer service at ideeli, notes, the organizations that are mostly successful in delivering a great experience to their customers treat their organizations as a tapestry. "Each thread affects another and that must be at the basis of a company's strategic approach," he says.

While most, if not all, business leaders recognize the necessity of integrating their diverse service channels, being able to do this successfully isn't easy. Shelly Stotzer, executive vice president and CMO at Highlights for Children, says while the company has been leveraging multiple channels for 67 years, it has always been hard to figure out how to optimize the various channels. "It's difficult to anticipate needs and be there because customers have so many choices," she notes.

A major problem lies in departmental silos which work on their own rather than collaborate. This was a challenge for Corel Corporation. According to Malgosia Plucinska, the company's vice president of business operations, multiple acquisitions brought new sets of customer databases, and while the organization made an effort to integrate the various databases, Plucinska admits that these efforts often run into technical issues.

The integration challenge is intensified since new channels tend to be added individually as they become popular for customer service. "Traditionally, the biggest challenge for a call center's workforce management was ensuring enough phone coverage was available at all times," says Jamal Ayyad, director of customer care at SurePayroll. "When email became a popular contact choice for customers, it added another layer of complexity." Not only do organizations have to make sure that the different departments are able to work together, but they also have to provide the necessary training. "As we keep laying new service channels, such as chat, the degree of difficulty in making sure you have the correctly trained personnel, in the correct service channel, at the right time becomes an incredible challenge," Ayyad explains. Gabi Kool, CEO of Baltic Miles, agrees. "Bringing various technologies together and making them work as one is certainly one of the challenges," he notes.

Giving customers a choice of which channel to interact with an organization means that they might not choose the most efficient or cost-saving touchpoint. This was a problem that Corel Corporation faced. "The biggest challenge is the fact that many customers prefer to engage via phone and yet we are finding this channel to be the least efficient and very hard to manage," Plucinska says.

While providing a choice for customers to communicate with companies might pose some challenges for organizations, business leaders recognize that this is a way to build advocates. "Our customers have told us that they want to use different channels to interact with us and we're adapting to customers' preferences," notes Beth Dockins, director of customer service at Scotts Lawn Service. Therefore, allowing customers to interact with the organization over their chosen channel is an integral part of the organization's strategy to increase customer satisfaction and subsequently retain customers.

Dennis Fitzgerald, vice president of customer satisfaction at Yaskawa America, agrees. "We know customers want what they want and how they want it," he says. Businesses also need to make sure they inform customers of the different channels that are available. SurePayroll's Ayyad says this is something the company does on a regular basis. For example, when last year SurePayroll rolled out a Web format for customers to securely send messages and documents, the company highlighted this new channel in special callouts in its communications. Ayyad notes that customers' use of the Web form went up by 110 percent in just one year.

Recognizing that customers want to communicate with companies over their chosen channel, Bentley Systems has embarked on an exercise to allow customers to specify their preferred channel. Greg Rhoads, the company's vice president for select support, notes that many companies don't allow customers to contact them in the manner they wish. "Bentley's approach hopes to level the playing field between electronic and phone communications," Rhoads says.

But providing different channels is only the first step. Organizations need to make it as simple as possible for customers to move from one channel to the next as they see fit, something that ideeli is already doing, Faria notes. "We eliminate hurdles," he says. Rhoads agrees, noting that while phone service isn't always the best option for customers, they might not be aware of other available channels and their value. "Bentley makes sure that customers are aware of the available channels and what each can do to help them solve their problems," Rhoads adds.

Leveraging social media

Customers are using their social channels to interact with brands more than ever before. Scotts found that some of its customers interact with the organization solely on Facebook, leading the brand to enhance its social media strategy to communicate with clients in their preferred channel. "The result is that we retain more customers, our satisfaction scores are up, and even retention is up," Dockins says. The added bonus is that social media is less expensive than the traditional contact center.

SurePayroll is using social platforms to proactively help small business owners stay informed of changing payroll and tax regulations and also offer them reminders, for example of banking holidays. Ayyad says that while the company monitors social media and engages with customers socially, the sensitive and private nature of payroll means that discussions often have to be moved offline to protect privacy.

Corel Corporation is also seeing growing customer engagement over social media. Plucinska explains that customers are using social media for a number of reasons, including technical support, customer service, and to engage with rich media content like photographs and tutorials. "We have presence across many of the social channels, although some sites are generating a lot more traffic and engagement than others," she says. Plucinska notes that providing immediate response and deflecting negative comments have been key goals of Corel's social media customer service initiative.

Social media is an important channel for Highlights for Children. Stotzer explains that social media is integrated with the customer acquisition and service strategies, allowing the organization to use social channels to provide service as well as content. Further, Highlights for Children uses social media to track parents and grandparents and also remind them of who the company is today. Stotzer notes that the company trains customer service professionals to engage on social media, using social channels to resolve issues and learn more about how to improve products and service.

Ensuring mobile integration

Customers are increasingly using their smartphones to interact with brands, making it absolutely essential for organizations to integrate mobile within their overall service strategy. "Mobile is no longer the future. It's the right now," says ideeli's Faria. The brand started its mobile integration journey with a mobile optimized site and an iPhone app, while tablet and android apps are in the pipeline.

Similarly, Corel also kicked off its mobile strategy with an app that allows users to easily learn about photography, video editing, and graphic design. Apart from offering mobile payroll and paycheck apps for both Android and Apple devices and optimizing many of its web pages for mobile devices, SurePayroll is currently looking at mobile chat as a service option. Highlights for Children's Stotzer notes that the organization's mobile strategy is well integrated within the overall service strategy, with a mobile-friendly website and several apps already available.

More than 10 percent of Baltic Miles' members access the company's website on their mobile phones. Gabi Kool, the company's CEO, notes that considering there are several mobile operating systems, Baltic Miles opted against creating an app for each. Instead, the company invested in creating a mobile optimized site that works across all platforms and devices, when it comes to both phones and tablets. "Now members can access all the functions of the main webpage through their mobile phones," he says. Aware that many of its members open newsletters on their devices, Baltic Miles is currently working on reducing the use of flash-based content in its marketing campaigns to accommodate iPhone users who would otherwise not be able to see the content.

Cognizant that its clients might need to address payroll issues while on the go, SurePayroll invested in the creation of payroll and paycheck apps for both Android and Apple devices. Ayyad notes that the majority of website pages have also been optimized for mobile devices, and the organization is currently reviewing options to better integrate mobile into its service model, allowing it to create a more seamless user experience.

Especially for organizations whose employees are on the go, mobile integration is essential. Scotts Lawn Service, for example, has 1,200 technicians who are all mobile enabled, increasing the company's ability to offer better service to customers. The company is currently developing a mobile app after noticing that a staggering 75 percent of customers who communicate with the brand over Facebook were doing it on their mobile devices, Dockins says. Yaskawa America's sales force is currently implementing a mobile strategy with sales force automation that links to the company's CRM. "This will allow us to have a 360 degree view of the customer," Fitzgerald says. "We will all have the same data and tools to communicate, assign tasks, and deliver clear consistent data to the customer."

Recognizing and addressing problems

It takes courage to admit a mistake but business leaders have no choice but to recognize when a strategy is not working as effectively as they would like it and change direction. In its bid to interact with its customers on as many channels as possible, Scotts Lawn Service decided to start using Pinterest. However, Dockins notes that this has not shown any value so the organization decided to stop investing in this channel.

SurePayroll had a similar experience. Recognizing that many customers were faxing their tax documents, the company invested in fax technology that would integrate into the CRM system. However, Ayyad says that this system still required contacting customers by phone or email after the documents had been received. "We realized that we could provide a better and more seamless way of allowing our customers to get immediate confirmation by creating a web form page with a receipt confirmation function," Ayyad explains, adding that fax cases have since dwindled to almost nothing.

Additional reporting by Tom Hoffman and Anna Papachristos.