What is the state of the omnichannel contact centre?
Customers are using more channels than ever, and that is not only to browse and buy, but also to request support. This proliferation of channels has created a fissure in the service landscape.
At one extreme, some organisations are still attempting to funnel customers in need of assistance to their call centres. Unsurprisingly, these companies now find themselves out of step with many modern customers, and under increasing pressure to diversify their support.
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But at the same time, there are other organisations in danger of going too far the other way, over-emphasising digital support at the cost of their manual service.
Dimension Data's 2016 Global Contact Centre Benchmarking report demonstrates how appealing the shift to digital support is to today’s organisations. Asking them about their ‘desired’ split of customer interactions by channel, they averaged at: 42% telephone, 37% self-service, and 29% assisted service. This contrasts with the average ‘actual’ existing channel split at the moment which is: telephone 57%, self-service 18% and assisted service 23%. So there is a desire to double the proportion of digital support being offered.
But this could be based on a misconception, according to Rachel Barton, managing director, advanced customer strategy, at Accenture Strategy.
“Many organisations have an unconscious bias whereby they assume that their digital-savvy customers (born digital/stay digital) are the most profitable, largely due to a lower cost to serve and a greater opportunity to woo them through personalised content and tailored services,” she explains. “This belief has led them to over-invest in digital capabilities and channels so they can give customers (particularly millennials) more digital experiences that they supposedly crave. However, the assumption is not entirely accurate.”
Clearly, each organisation needs to find the right blend of live, assisted and self-service that is appropriate for its own customer base. But at the same time, businesses need to acknowledge that a growing proportion of their audience aren’t satisfied with service interactions taking place on a single channel anyway.
And reflecting this, the 2016 Global Contact Centre report reveals that omnichannel strategies / connected customer journeys represent the number one factor affecting customer experience capability, reported by over 40% of respondents.
What’s more, according to Accenture Strategy’s latest Global Consumer Pulse Research, it is the channel-hopping customers that are actually the most profitable, rather than the digital-savvy consumers that are mistakenly being favoured by some.
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“Profitable customers don’t want purely digital interactions, they want experiences that deliver the results they seek using unpredictable combinations of digital and traditional channels,” says Barton. “This appetite for varied experiences is demonstrated by the fact that over half (51%) of UK consumers are comfortable crossing back and forth between multiple channels, even within a single interaction.”
The problem here, however, is that even those organisations that are acknowledging the importance of supporting these channel-hoppers are unable to deliver true omnichannel service through their contact centres. The number of channels continues to balloon, with Dimension Data forecasting that by 2017 most contact centres will support an average of nine channels. But, at the same time, at the moment just 36% of businesses questioned by Dimension Data said they could track a customer journey that spans across those multiples channels.
So why are contact centres finding it so difficult to deliver omnichannel service?
“Sadly, omnichannel adoption isn’t as simple as setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter account, or putting a “chat now” link on your webpage,” says Jason Griffin, solutions consultant at Aspect Software. “The technological hurdles come in a lot of different forms.
One of the key issues for contact centres is the difficulty in integrating new channels with existing or legacy ones.
“One of the key issues for contact centres is the difficulty in integrating new channels with existing or legacy ones. For instance, with the increasing customer demand for text-over-talk options, some contact centre professionals are reporting the difficulties of sharing customer details between channels. A customer who provides personal information over SMS will therefore face a disjointed experience if they switch to a phone call, since this information would not be passed onto the new agent.
“There could be a number of reasons behind this, such as outdated infrastructures or inflexible software. Siloed channels simply cannot be as successful as those that are fully integrated within an omnichannel contact centre.”
As reported by respondents to the Dimension Data report, the main technology obstacles to developing an omnichannel contact centre are:
- Integrating multiple tech systems (reported by 61% of respondents).
- Legacy systems inhibiting flexibility and progress but can’t be replaced (46%).
- Stretch on resources - too many competing priorities (37%).
- Securing budget and cost burdens (37%).
- No common strategy - solutions created in silos (26%).
- Lack of required technology (27%).
- Speed of change - technology can’t keep up with requirements (27%).
- Maintaining a Big Data view across the organisation (15%).
But the obstacles aren’t only technical.
“Omnichannel often requires a change in mindset, as much as it represents a change in technology,” suggests Neil Titcomb, commercial director UK & Ireland at Genesys. “It’s a big transformation in how to address customer service and can often require a ‘rethinking’ or ‘reimagining’ of corporate customer strategy. To that end, it requires teams from across different departments from across the organisation - such as IT, marketing, delivery – to work together seamlessly in pursuit of this new strategy. Retraining of customer service agents is perhaps also required — but again, net benefits for the future outweigh these costs.”
Barton adds: “The biggest obstacle is actually cost. Trying to get customer experience consistent across every channel can be expensive to maintain. That’s why many organisations cut corners by automating certain aspects of the customer journey – for example, automated call trees which direct customers to the relevant person who can assist with their query.
“Organisations looking to make such cost efficiencies should do so by first ensuring that it won’t compromise on the customer’s overall experience and turn it into a negative one.”
Finding a workaround
While there are efforts to move towards full channel integration, for the time being, in the absence of a truly omnichannel contact centre, organisations need to identify the optimal mix of self-service, phone service and assisted service for their customers, to try to provide the nearest best fit.
“Listen to your customers, and track how they use your services today,” advises Griffin. “Talk to them, either directly through agent phone calls, live webchats, social media interactions or broader surveys, and monitor the levels of activity across your existing channels.”
While brands are well aware that their consumer markets are fragmenting, many fail to appreciate that this does not simply create multiple fixed categories.
But Barton adds: “While brands are well aware that their consumer markets are fragmenting, many fail to appreciate that this does not simply create multiple fixed categories. Rather, each of these groups of consumers have unpredictable and fluid behaviours depending on their need and the situation at hand. What complicates matters is the fluidity of their actions, which can pose big problems for companies unable to keep up.
“Companies that lead customer profitability do so by delivering multiple channel options that not only allow customers to achieve the outcomes they need, but also make it easy for customers to switch from one channel to another. Those that are currently over-investing in digital – or any other channel for that matter – need to correct their course.”
To transition to a more balanced approach, Barton recommends that companies:
- Apply new insights: Observe consumer behaviours within and across channels, and apply analytics to generate entirely new insights about who the customers are, the types of interactions customers want to have, and the economic impact to the company on not meeting their needs.
- Refocus investment strategies: Armed with these insights, companies will be better positioned to not only offer seamless, cross-channel experiences that drive profitable growth, but also eliminate the toxic experiences that push customers away. Addressing negative experiences head-on can have a significant impact on profitability. Companies should zero in on the experiences that have the greatest potential downside for customers.
- Build outcome-focused organisational capabilities: Companies need to ensure the customer is at the heart of everything they do, including how they are organised as a business. Companies may need to change the way they are currently organised and structured in order to better drive end-to-end outcomes.
Conversely, US consultant Esteban Kolsky recently suggested that in the absence of omnichannel service, brands should focus on doing a few channels – or perhaps just one – really well, rather than covering many poorly. Titcomb comments: “Focusing on a few key channels, if resources are significantly constrained, is a workable approach to meeting the needs of your customer—however, you must ensure that your strategy is built around where your customers actually are. Meeting the customers’ touchpoints, rather than the other way around, is the key.”
With omnichannel reported as the number one trend for 2016 by respondents in the Global Contact Centre report, there are sure to be increasing efforts towards full channel integration in the coming years. But for the time being, brands will need to put their customers under the spotlight and decide the most appropriate way to support today’s increasingly channel-agnostic consumers.
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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.