Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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How to find the right balance of human/digital service for your new customer needs

Service channel preferences will almost certainly be dramatically different post-pandemic. So how can organisations ensure that their channel mix is appropriate for the new customer needs?

4th Jun 2020
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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Organisations have grown accustomed to the fact that customer channel preferences are in a constant state of flux, as new technologies are embraced and behaviours change. In 2017, for instance, Gartner was forewarning businesses that by 2022 up to three-quarters of customer interactions could involve digital technologies such as messaging, apps and chatbots.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has subjected organisations to a level of volatility that is completely unprecedented -  forcing service teams to work remotely, dramatically driving up support tickets, and shifting customers to alternative channels as contact centres close and call queues escalate. 

Yet while service operations are experiencing major disruption, the interesting upshot is that this turmoil has only served to accelerate some trends that the customer service world was already experiencing. In the report What the COVID-19 crisis means for your contact centre, many of these trends are explored, one of which of course is the adoption of new channels, which many are anticipating will change permanently. 

So that leaves the question of how organisations can identify the right balance of human and digital channels in this new normal.

In a previous article on MyCustomer, founder of Brainfood Consulting, Martin Hill-Wilson, proposed that in order to identify the right mix, three things have to be considered:

  1. The degree of digital behaviour a customer is likely to adopt in how they want to engage.
  2. The type of customer journey and the challenges this throws up for the customer.
  3. The relative strengths and weaknesses of the voice, text and video channels at your disposal that match the type of digital profile and journey.

Let’s tackle each of these in turn.

Digital profiling

A core part of identifying the correct balance is to establish how fast your customers are adopting digital behaviours, and then checking that your organisation’s services are calibrated appropriately for your audience’s digital maturity.

In light of the pandemic, many organisations will have found that their customer behaviours will have changed rapidly - but they will also continue to change. Therefore, it is crucial that there is an ongoing commitment to tracking the digital profile of your customer base, through both existing research and primary research. 

There are a variety of different sources that organisations can pull from - from government level, to research firms and individual brands using research to prove a market demand - though organisations must be very wary of existing research that will now almost certainly be out-of-step with post-pandemic customer behaviour. 

New research will be coming on stream soon that will give a more accurate picture, though Hill-Wilson advises organisations to remember the golden rule of customer insight - use at least three sources before settling on any interpretation of what’s going on. 

This research should provide you with foundation insights about your customer based. An example of this would be UK regulator OFCOM’s annual review of the public’s communication habits, and how digital they are becoming. So this is general data, but still useful to factor into consideration.

The other type of research to learn from is your own customers themselves. Using the findings from existing research, build a questionnaire that enables you to probe your customers and better understand their digital behaviour.

Hill-Wilson recommends that you consider the following:

  1. Preferences in their multi-device use.
    1. Online shopping via laptop/tablet/smartphone.
  2. The scope of their ‘on the move’ mobile behaviour.
    1. Information-based, e.g. maps.
    2. Transaction-based, e.g. ecommerce.
    3. Interaction-based, e.g. social network updates.
  3. Channel preferences for key communication tasks, e.g.
    1. Buying from us.
    2. Getting an update.
    3. Getting advice from us.
    4. Making a complaint.
  4. Expectations around autonomy and self-management.
  5. Attitudes towards the harvesting and use of their own data.

“All this then helps build a picture of how they would adopt various service strategies you might offer. Would they use an app, complain on social, watch a ‘how to’ video?” says Hill-Wilson.

Understanding customer journeys

Customer journey mapping is a valuable discipline as it forces organisations to look at interactions from the customer’s perspective. This means considering not only which channels and devices are being used by customers at various points in the journey, but also WHY they are being used by customers.

So what influences a customer’s choice of channel? Hill-Wilson proposed that typically the most influential is the type of task. Therefore, you must consider:

  • What is the context of their current situation?
  • Is what they are trying to easy or complex to complete?
  • Do they feel expert or novice trying to deal with it?
  • What emotions are associated with the task?
  • How important is the task in terms of getting it done fast, accurately, effortlessly, privately?

However, in light of the pandemic, there are also other considerations that need to be factored in, such as customer expectations around waiting times and channel availability. 

It is critical that you have an up to date, granular view of what matters to your customers in all of the major journeys you provide customer service for. But during the process of understanding your customer journeys, do ensure you dig deep into the mitigating factors behind the use of various channels and devices to ensure you understand the motivations of each.

Hill-Wilson points to SITA research shared during the 2016 Air Transport IT Summit in Barcelona, to demonstrate this point.

  • According to the findings, almost every flight is now booked using self-service technology.
    • Only 8% had contact with a human.
    • 75% used a website. While 18% of these say they now intend to move to a mobile app, only 4% say they will seek out a human.
  • Similar figures for mobile apps.
    • 91% of those who used self-service technology to check-in saying they will do so again.
    • If a passenger is dissatisfied with the technology, they will seek an alternative technology rather than reverting to a human being.

Taken on face value, this would suggest that customers are all app mad and do not require human interaction. However, there are wider situational factors to consider.

Hill-Wilson notes: “Getting onto a flight at a busy airport is a logistically complex task these days. You are probably carrying stuff as well. Maybe you are with others as well. It is these conditions that drive users to the channel mix just described.”

Understanding channel characteristics

So, as we have discovered, much of identifying the right channel mix involves understanding the tasks that customers want to fulfill. So after first researching your customers’ digital behaviour, and then understanding the characteristics of their journeys, the final step in the process is to identify the most appropriate channels for each task in the journey.

At its most simple level, there are only three types of communication channel – video, voice and text. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. So how do you choose the most appropriate channel for each task? Hill-Wilson provides the following guidance:

  • Video: The key scenario is when trust matters to the customer outcome. Key examples include high value sales, VIP service, escalations and counselling.
  • Voice: The key scenarios are when the situation is either complex or emotional or when the quality of relationship matters. Examples being problems, complaints and customer retention outreach.
  • Text: The key scenarios are explanations, simple advice and escalations, Examples being how to do something, where to find something, moving from self-service to live assistance.

Self-service also needs to be considered where there are customer expectations for instant, always-on service.

As we discussed in a previous article, self-service (such as chatbots) is best applied to narrow specific tasks, such as improving the use of existing FAQs and collecting information in the initial part of the conversation. Organisations should examine if there are tasks where self-service can be a quicker, simpler option than a call centre, or where enquiries may be of a sensitive nature so the sense of anonymity provided by a chatbot may be valuable.

Even then, organisations should ensure that the ability exists to connect the customer to a human agent in the event that the self-service system doesn’t understand a request.

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