Omnichannel customer services: The technology that puts service experience at the heart of any customer contact strategy

In the last few years, the way businesses interact with customers has changed almost beyond all recognition. Customer interactions with brands on Twitter increased 250% in the last two years alone[1], and 67% of Americans reported using social media for service[2], figures which are due to rise in the coming years, with 90% of customers forecasted to use social media for service by 2020[3]. Today’s customers use the channels that make sense for their lifestyles and demand businesses follow suit, with 70% of customers looking for a response to their social media query within 15 minutes[4], becoming frustrated with brands that cannot meet their expectations.

Lili Le from Great Wines USA discusses how she sees omni-channel marketing. “It’s a multi-path purchased experience that seeks to provide the customer with a convenient and seamless shopping experience whether the customer is shopping online, by telephone or in a bricks and mortar store as a tool to communicate with customers. This method provides a seamless, consistent, and convenient communicating channel between the company and customers. Omni-channel marketing creates 1:1 experience between the company and customers.”

Arna van Goch, Founder and Owner of Horizons21, has experience as a Social Media Manager, and says that it isn’t unacceptable for customers to expect an instant response to their queries. However, she does specify that the time frame depends on the the size of your company. She advises: “Expectations should change with what business you are trying to reach. If you are trying to get in touch with Coca Cola, for example, you could expect a medium-fast reply, as a well-established and well-known national company should be able to reply quickly. On the other hand, smaller, independently run businesses shouldn’t have that same expectation. Up to 24 hours is reasonable, I would say.”

Tabitha Jean Naylor, a small business owner who does marketing consultancy for other small businesses, says: “Social media is the great equalizer for customers, because they can interact directly with businesses and express their wants and needs as well as their satisfaction and dissatisfaction with a product or service.

“What’s happening a lot, though, is that customers are treating social media almost like live chat, and they expect a response instantly. This isn’t always realistic, but I think you’re going to find that customers will get more impatient when they don’t get immediate responses on social media, because they are so used to getting responses and messages from their friends within seconds.  It will be interesting to see how brands adjust to that expectation, because smaller companies may not have a dedicated social media representative who can get back to customer inquiries within a few minutes.”

Samuel Pavin, a Marketer, Blogger, Speaker, and Business and Social Media Consultant, also adds: “As a marketer, brand strategist and social media consultant that’s been on all sides of social media customer service, I would say that although social media makes it easier to reach out to a company, at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean getting an answer.

“Social media favors a one-way communication too, and the ease has nurtured this expectation of “timely” (read as “immediate”) answer. However, I would not call this actual service.”

When it comes to choosing the right social media platforms for your brand, Gideon Hornung, Connections Design Director at Publicis Groupe, says: “Facebook is not only the most significant channel for social media; this also applies for customer service. In Australia, for example, they have 12.8 million members versus Twitter, which has 2-3 million. What’s more,  Facebook is evolving its strategy in terms of messenger, which is moving customer service away from posting on pages to live interactions. The newest addition is that now brands can now integrate Facebook messenger into their own website which means ALL brands can do live customer chat.”

Natalie at Milk and Butter Media adds: “We at Milk and Butter Media work alongside a wide range of hospitality and furniture companies to promote their business via social media and PR. We have found that Instagram has been a great platform for these companies to visually reach out to their audience and advertise their offerings. With the right imagery and content, you can grow brand awareness to turn customers into a volunteer marketing army.

“As you can reach a broad range of potential customers, these companies have outsourced this sector of their advertising and marketing to us to be on top of customer inquiries these customers may have. As notifications are turned on, the expectation of response is anywhere between 1 minute to 45 minutes, and the audience have the freedom to comment their opinions and experiences for the public to see which may answer some questions on its own.”

This trend extends to more than just social media. Customers expect multiple methods of communicating with businesses; email, live chat, call centers and social media being those most preferred. Service experience is rapidly coming to be the battleground to win the hearts and minds of customers, with 55% of customers stating they would pay more for better customer service[5], and research from Walker indicating that by 2020 “Customer Experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.”[6]

Impression Healthcare is just one of the businesses that is utilizing as many communication channels as possible to aid in their customer service. Their Marketing Manager, Paul, says: “We have an extremely active social media footprint that’s as much about building community and promoting our product, as it is about customer service. We take an approach where we want to be as accessible to our customer’s as possible, and this is true, too, by the fact that we offer live chat and phone support, as well as quick responses via email.”

With 82% of customers reporting that they have stopped doing business with a company following a poor customer service experience[7], is your brand ready for the service revolution?

Consistency is key

An omni-channel customer service strategy is all about consistency. Customers want their query to persist across multiple contacts. According to Accenture’s Global Pulse Consumer Survey, 91% of respondents are frustrated if they need to contact a company multiple times for the same reason and 89% report frustration in having to explain their issue multiple times, to multiple representatives[8].

Self-help is an important part of reducing this frustration. 53% of customers feel that resolving their issues themselves is important, rather than contacting customer services[9]. So implementing online self-help, customer forums for crowd-sourcing solutions and knowledge bases/FAQs is key to reducing customer dissatisfaction and helping to free up your service resource to assist with more complex issues.

It is these complex issues that can cause customers’ disengagement with your brand. Complex issues often require multiple departments’ intervention, with referrals to more technical staff or back-office support teams for financial or system issues becoming more and more common. Your customer-facing staff can’t and shouldn’t be experts in everything. However, to combat customer dissatisfaction, they should be aware of the status and dimensions of a customer’s query, especially if this is a follow-up contact. Ticketing and issue management systems have long been critical parts of the response process, yet with explosion of technology and contact platforms, 80% of contact centers do not feel that their systems are ready for customers’ future demands[10], and with 80% of businesses reporting that they offer ‘superior customer service’, while only 8% of their customers agree[11], it’s clear that businesses have work to do to ensure that their systems can support their customer service ambitions.

The impact of service

It’s a well-known fact that customers share stories of bad customer service with their networks of friends, colleagues and family far more than they share the good. In fact, 95% of people report sharing a bad service experience with others, and 54% say they’ve shared their story with more than 5 people. With social media’s propensity to spread news, the likelihood is that these stories will reach much further. What isn’t widely understood though, is that customers will share good stories too; 87% of people report sharing a good service story with friends or family, or even through reviews[12].  These positive experiences can have a huge impact to business performance, with 76% of customers trusting online reviews to determine their choice of provider[13].

Social media is key to ensuring that good customer experiences are shared, with 67% of people likely to spend money following recommendations of family and friends on social networks[14]. Examining the reports of positive customer service stories, the ones that stand out are those that exceed customer expectation, offering a moment of delight that encourages the recipient to share, such as when Ritz-Carlton found Joshie the Giraffe for a distraught young customer[15], and spun the story of the return into a multi-part social story outlining the stuffed animal’s adventures while parted from his young owner. To create moments like that, businesses need to build an internal culture of sharing, with PR and marketing teams aware of and engaged with moments of positive service from front-line teams.

But it’s not just the big stories that help boost a brand’s reputation (and therefore their sales and customer retention); every interaction your business has with it’s customers influences reviews and feedback. Moz state that having four or more negative articles about your brand in google searches can cost you up to 70% of your future sales,[16] while customers are likely to spend 31% more on a business with ‘excellent’ reviews[17]. Every customer interaction is critical.

Looking to the future

As technology continues to evolve, customers will expect businesses to keep abreast of innovative ways to provide service. Businesses that offer new routes for contact, or easy ways of transacting through technology will find a corresponding increase in customer retention and new business. The top priority for customers is that service experience ‘makes things easy’[18] so businesses that stand out keep that tenet firmly in mind when offering new ways to interact.

Aodhan MacCathmhaoil, from Waster, a low cost waste & recycling service for small and medium Australian businesses,  firmly believe and put into practice a focus on customer service. Currently using a plethora of channels – Live Chat, Phone, SMS, WhatsApp, Email and an on-line help centre. Even with all these facets covered they too believe further investment is needed and as such will be looking at using chat bots in 2018, primarily on an initial lead/enquiry basis before extending to chats in real time!

One of customers’ key frustrations is authentication. All business have a legal responsibility to make sure customers are who they say they are, and current methods can feel cumbersome and restrictive to customers. Erste Bank in Austria have launched a video-based customer recognition system, allowing customers to use video-chat to validate documents and prove identity, allowing instant account opening online[19]. Video and facial recognition for customer service is rare at the moment, so businesses that adopt these methods early may see some competitive first-mover advantages.

Automation is another area of service that is rapidly gaining momentum. AI-powered chatbots allow businesses to respond in real-time to customer enquiries, using machine intelligence to give personalised and relevant interaction, without having to worry about staffing levels or queue times, and 66% of customers[20] are keen to interact with brands through messaging apps – ideal environments for chatbots.

Donna North, co-founder of fashion tech business Dressipi says that “Conversational marketing or customer service provided by chatbots is an effective way for brands to have a one-on-one conversation with their customers, learn what they care about, and build long-term relationships to better serve them.”

Sharon Melamed, Managing Director at Matchboard, adds: “At the end of the day, customers want fast, accurate answers to their questions more than anything. So for simple inquiries, chatbots are a great way to provide for this.

Most importantly, according to Srinivas Seshadri from Ideas2It – “chatbots aren’t restricted to company websites; they can be deployed where customers hang out (social media, Skype, etc), which means that customer service can be provided on platforms that customers are comfortable with, truly making it an Omni channel experience.”

There are, of course, many inquiry types which go beyond simple, and that’s where a blended approach of bots and humans makes sense. However, what’s important is that there’s a seamless handover from the bot to the human when things get complex. Companies should also remember that chatbots are not for everyone: while British Telecom research showed millennials would prefer to clean a toilet than call a call centre, speaking to a human on the phone is often the default for senior citizens.”

Greg Baker, Director of IFOST (The Institute Open Systems Technologies Pty Ltd) has experience of developing chatbots for customer service, and given talks at conferences on how to write them. He says there a number of things businesses need to consider when using chatbots, and advises: “Too many companies dive in to chat technology for customer support with completely unrealistic expectations for how well it will work for them. The biggest problem is the “long tail” of customer support queries: anywhere from 10% to 90% of problems that customers contact support about are problems that no-one has ever had before, and no-one will ever have again. It will never be cost-effective to hire programmers to handle these kinds of calls.

For almost all companies, chatbots can only be cost effective if they are just there to “off-load” common calls, and then quickly fall back to a human operator when the bot doesn’t have a good answer. This actually makes development much easier, because it’s possible to use machine learning to learn the common answers automatically from chat logs and only interject when it is very confident that it has the right answer.

Users react very badly to chatbots that can’t recognise when the conversation has gone out of hand but they don’t seem to notice if they are talking to a chatbot if it answers the same way as a human being.

However, there are a couple of exceptions. For example, one is where you provide support for something that is embarrassing to talk about. Many teenagers wouldn’t talk to anyone about their pimple problems, but will engage with a badly written chatbot with glee — they like the zaniness of it and it provides assurance that they aren’t talking to a human.”

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