Keeping it Human: The Key to Success in Multi-Channel Customer Service


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It was 2010 when I began my journey of getting to know many of Ask’s 100 million monthly users. They come from all walks of life, demographics, countries, and each user has a unique perception of what we customer service folk do. In the many months since I’ve been here, I’ve enjoyed some incredible revelations about customer care in this digital world in which we all live. Today, I’d like to share a few of them.

People are still people

Technology today has taken us light years beyond anything our grandparents could have imagined, but we humans still have some basic, primitive needs concerning communication. When my grandmother’s nine-inch Sony black-and-white television went out, she went downtown to the appliance store and spoke directly with the person in charge who resolved the issue on the spot and sent grandma home with a working television.

Today, that same experience would involve a call center, automated phone tree, eventually a Return Merchandise Authorization, and perhaps a trip to FedEx to return a defective unit. This is a hard process to grasp if all you want is to just talk to a helpful, knowledgeable person.

It seems that despite our growing dependency on technology, at the end of the day most of us still like to at least have the option talk to a real person. While a large amount of questions can be fielded through a FAQ page, or even email support, there are still issues that could most efficiently be solved by a conversation with a customer service specialist. This is especially true for certain demographics. For example, at Ask, we have a general population audience that includes older customers who strongly prefer to have their questions answered over the phone.

Most customers find automated support to be more of a barrier than a resource

In today’s multi-channel support world, companies create complex systems of analysis and routing to eventually (and hopefully) land a customer in the right department or support location. Some support systems never actually connect customers with a real person – phone calls are routed to endless phone trees, and emails are automatically parsed for keywords, with mechanical responses automatically fired off.

Unfortunately, there was a time when Ask, too, was a culprit in this scenario. Last year, when I audited Ask’s auto-generated email responses against the actual content of user emails, only 38 percent of the auto-responses addressed what people were actually asking. This was a huge barrier, and fail on our part.

When we launched Ask’s new Parature-powered Help Center last fall, we made sure it removed every possible barrier for the customer, enabling Ask’s support reps to provide the kind of personal, friendly service that embodies what the brand is about (asking questions, and getting trusted, credible answers).

The result? Several times each day we hear, “thank you!” from people who are surprised (and very grateful) to have received a simple email from us in response to their inquiry.

Disappointed customers are not always what they seem

Take Ted, for example. A few weeks ago on a late Friday afternoon, Ted called and left an expletive-filled voicemail over a product experience he perceived to be less than stellar. I called Ted back immediately – not wanting to leave him hanging – and the guy on the other end of the phone was not the same guy.

Ted ended up being smart, friendly, and highly conversational. As it turns out, he and I know a lot of the same people in our hometown in Oregon. His product concern was resolved in 5 minutes, but we spent another 55 minutes getting to know each other.

It was clear that Tim’s initial aggressive outreach was due to frustration and lack of solutions. Taking the time to personally reach out and interact with him in person diffused a situation, which may have otherwise left him with a bad perception of Ask. Positive customer service interactions can turn even the most disgruntled customers into evangelists for your brand.

Multi-channel support is the only way to reach all of your users

I’m sure all customer support reps would love it if everyone carefully read through all the information on their support portal before making an inquiry. But let’s be honest; most people don’t want to take the time to research the answer when they could have a person answer their question directly.

I was reminded of this a week ago when Kathy called me from Pennsylvania. She had just received a new computer from her kids for her 73rd birthday and was having trouble getting Ask set up as her default search provider. Frustrated, she navigated to the Help Center, got to the contact form, and simply requested a phone call without saying why.

I called her back myself, quite curious what it was about. I was able to both help set Ask as her search results provider, and managed to coax out of her an amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe. Kathy’s experience is great example of how multi-channel support is successful. It allowed Kathy to establish an initial contact and ask for a transition to a different method she was more comfortable with.

Ask’s customer care strategy has come a long way since I arrived, and the journey is far from over. I believe the challenge for all of us is to continue discovering ways to the transaction process of interacting with our customers, and not allowing technology to overshadow the all-important human element. Ask is mindful that without its 100 million monthly users, there is no brand, and thus no company. For that reason, we pledge to give our users the very best care we can offer.

Eric McKirdy
Eric McKirdy oversees worldwide Customer Care and Technical Support operations and is the primary point of contact for all user-submitted product feedback across all web properties. Since joining Ask in 2010, Eric has worked to completely revamp the company's overall CRM platform to better serve Ask's 100 million monthly global users. Previously, Eric has helped organizations in several industries connect better with their audience.


  1. Like we always say in the office, “Nothing beats the basics.” And it’s true. Even with all the technological advancements, customers will drop everything sophisticated and will look for a live person to help them in case they get frustrated over a new device.

    Call centers are taking more strides in providing customer service with “human touch”. It’s more efficient because you interact with people who can provide the right answers. In a matter of minutes, you get what you need. So when push comes to shove, customers want real connection with others to get the best possible customer care.


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