Smart Practice for #CustServ Channel Optimization: Less is More


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Recently my car battery died and I resigned myself to a few hours of inconvenience. I’d have to find a local repair shop, figure out how to jump my car to get it there (hello, neighbor!), wait for the replacement to be installed, and pick up the car.

So with a heavy sigh I Googled “car battery replacement” to start the process, and … wait … there’s an ad for AAA promoting a Car Battery Service. I’m a AAA member, but I didn’t know they provided such a service.

Anyway, to make a short story even shorter, I quickly learned about the service (nicely explained, good pricing, convenient), downloaded a mobile app, and requested the service. A few minutes later I got a call confirming the truck was on the way. The replacement was done in my garage in a few minutes.

Total time from start to finish: 57 minutes. Wow.

What I expected to be a major disruption to my day turned into a minor blip.

Mobile First? Not Necessarily

Lately CX and “digital transformation” proponents have been advocating “mobile first.” I respectfully disagree — this is putting the technology cart before the job-to-be-done horse. CXM should be about designing the end-to-end experience, taking into account how the customer chooses to communicate. While mobile apps are rising in popularity, it’s still just one of many interaction channels.

AAA, being a large and sophisticated organization, covered all the bases. The battery replacement service was available via phone, web, or mobile. They didn’t force me one way or another. To be honest, I tried the mobile app as an experiment because I was curious.

My wife recently had a flat tire at a very inconvenient time (same car, maybe time for a new one?) and called AAA. The truck appears in a few minutes, tire was fixed, and everyone made their flight. No mobile app, still impressive CX.

Channel Mix Strategy

So how should your customer service organizations optimize their channel mix? The short answer: It depends.

  • As already noted, it depends on what customers want to do. Trying to jam Boomers into a “mobile first” strategy just because it’s trendy is a recipe for defection.
  • It also depends on what your internal capabilities are. If you can’t support a channel well, you might be better off not offering it at all. How many channels does Amazon support?
  • Your ServTech platform (I adopted this term from the MarTech industry) matters too. Adding the hot new channel when it’s not supported by your current platform means another disconnected silo. Will it cause more problems than it solves?

In planning channel usage, contact center expert Bill Price advises thinking about urgency and severity. The more urgent and/or severe a situation, the more likely a customer will want to pick up the phone or, if they’re comfortable with it, use a real-time communication channel.

For example, I’m a loyal Rackspace customer in part because when I need immediate help, their chat support is awesome. But for less urgent problems, online forums are fine. With another tech provider, email-based support has worked well for less urgent and more complex problems.

What about online communities? I plan to cover this in more depth in another post. For now, I’ll just say, be very careful because it’s tricky. It’s easy to assume that customers will help each other, so you don’t have to invest precious agent resources. Call Deflection is great when it works, but what if it doesn’t and turns into Customer Defection? Ouch.

Less is More

What if you’re not AAA? And the odds are, you are not. In fact, the vast majority of service organizations are not like the elite brands that analysts and bloggers like to write about. They don’t have the latest and greatest ServTech platform, struggle to get funding, and don’t always have enough skilled reps.

After interviewing quite a number of customer service managers in recent weeks, one conclusion I’ve reached is that most service organizations would be wise to focus on a few channels they can support really well. Said another way, if you’re not answering the phones, put down that mobile app!

This “less is more” philosophy was put into sharp focus by a help desk manager I interviewed recently, who inherited an operation that provided multi-channel support via phone, email and the web. But none of them consistently. The solution, since most of the service requests were urgent, was to focus on the phone and staff it with highly trained reps that could provide real-time support. Other channels are being explored, but they will only be added when they can be offered with a high level of quality.

Three years ago, Forrester analyst Kate Leggett noted the rise of new channels, including SMS, click to call, screen sharing, virtual agents, and other digital channels. However, while she advised focusing on the channels desired by customers, Leggett also offered this sage advice:

When you add new channels to your mix, ensure that you follow maintenance best practices so that you can support your customers to the level that meets their expectations.

Do you know which channels your customers want? The level of support they expect? Your internal capabilities to meet those expectations? If not, then you’re not ready to deploy that shiny new service channel.

Be Omni-Smart

I’ve been writing about and researching multi- and omni-channel service for nearly 20 years. There’s no doubt in my mind that companies should head that direction, because as my AAA story illustrated, it can be magical when the end-to-end experience is well orchestrated.

That said, the vast majority of companies are not ready for omni-channel. Be smart, and only offer service channels that you can support with excellence.

Agree? Disagree? Please add your comments below.


  1. Hi Bob: many of the companies I work with are experimenting with omnichannel strategies and are trying things out for the first time. Some are unclear about what they should do, and they fully expect to iterate new approaches and refine things as they go along. While that may sound reckless to some people, especially those who say test! test! test!, I think it’s realistic – considering most companies can never be certain that they can support a channel with excellence. Or more importantly, that customers will perceive it that way.

    What distinguishes successful companies in omnichannel strategies is a commitment to the highest standards of customer service, and the intent that process experimentation must always be performed to serve customers, and not simply be undertaken to reduce expenses.

  2. Consistent with examples you cite, there’s a word I’ve seen used with increasing frequency over the past year or so: Optichannel. It’s not multi- or omni-, but the desired methods of support or communication, depending on the business and the customer’s situational needs and desires.

    Optichannel is getting increased attention in industries like financial services. Here are quotes from a 2015 blog by Meheriar Hasan in The Financial Brand: “It is time for financial institutions to respond to the changing behavior of consumers, delivering products, services and financial education through both physical and digital channels. Integrating and optimizing this channel delivery can bring value to the consumer as well as the banking organization.” and “Today’s consumers demand financial services to be available and delivered to them as seamlessly and ubiquitously as any transaction they complete with Amazon. And it’s not just about improving customer service … it’s about satisfying today’s hyper-connected consumer by delivering both service and sales through any channel the consumer chooses to use. The financial institution that fails to deliver sales, as well as service, through the platform of their consumers’ choice is doomed to stagnant growth”

    Many organizations have the ability, but not the foresight or discipline, to provide optichannel communication and support. Going forward, if they don’t at least react to changing customer needs in these areas, it will cost them.. And, per Kano, what feels novel today will likely be expected tomorrow.

  3. Andy, experimenting is a Good Thing. Especially with new channels. But before deploying in production (assuming the test is successful), the service organization should be ready to support it with excellence.

    What that means is a very good question. I would suggest that excellence should at least mean consistent with how other channels are supported. And that assumes they other channels are meeting some minimal level of customer satisfaction. Otherwise adding channels could make things worse.

    That’s why I say, “it all depends.” Sometimes organizations have to walk before they run. Omnichannel is running.

  4. Michael, I had not seen the term “optichannel” but I like it. It gets more to the issue at hand: optimizing channels.

    What is optimal? You said very well: “depending on the business and the customer’s situational needs and desires.”

    Service organizations are trying to find the “just right” system of channels that give the customers the experiences they want, while also delivering business value (right cost, customer loyalty, etc.).

    For smaller and less mature organization (i.e. the majority), it will be a whole lot easier to optimize if the channel mix is restricted. That’s a key point I’m trying to get across. The blogosphere is lit up with tales of omnichannel goodness, but the stories revolve around elite brands, not the “rank and file.”

    Running a small business myself, I’ve learned the hard way the importance of simplicity and executing well on a few things, not trying to be all things to all people. That’s the danger of drinking the omnichannel kool aid.


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