Thinking About Multi-Channel

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thinking about multi-channel

This post is for anyone in customer leadership who needs to think clearly about their multi channel strategy.

Offering a multi channel service is now expected and technology solutions are plentiful. But what’s the thought process that drives success and avoids poor customer experience and disapointing internal ROI?

Beware Those Predictions!

The last few years have been awash with predictions on how multi-channel is bound to end up. Here’s a few of the more common ones. Versions of which you’ve no doubt encountered.

Queuing to speak is just so pre Gen Y. Text-based interaction now rules!

Traditional customer service = outmoded mindset. Real-time, social customer service is the future!

Live service is dead. Long live self-service!

The usual formula for this style of headline grabbing conclusion is a personal story suggesting how customer preferences are changing, mixed with a smattering of consumer research to ‘prove’ the prediction.

For added authenticity, some will claim the extra mile by letting you know they’ve made calls to important people in the industry. As some kind of divination booster!

This house style is now so widespread it’s become all too easy to lapse into an unquestioning state of acceptance. We’ve come to absorb these back and white absolutes without engaging any little ‘grey cells’. A faculty so rightly prized by that skilled scrutineer of human behaviour- Hercules Poirot.

Still Some Time Away From ‘One Agenda’

In fact, this is one of the early issues you have to face when trying to craft a decent multi-channel strategy. Whose prediction can be trusted? The more you read, the more confusing it becomes. Establishing a set of foundation stones you feel confident building a strategy on becomes a real frustration.

Here is an insider tip that may help you decode and make sense of this ragbag of predictions.

Have you noticed most of us commentators betray either a functional or generational bias? Bear this in mind when evaluating anything themed around “The Future Of Multi-Channel”.

For instance, customer needs look different if you are schooled in Marketing rather than a Customer Service or an e-commerce mindset. Glancing through all the material I’ve collected, I find it no co-incidence that research sponsored by those with a heritage in call centres find voice interactions still command an overwhelming majority of customer traffic. Whereas text based interaction is most commonly top of the leader board in Digital Marketing sponsored insight. And guess what the Social business pundits see as a dead cert?

Funny thing this prediction game! Equally it’s a ‘no shit Sherlock‘ moment to say that a twenty something blogger has a different generational propensity around communication preferences compared with a forty something commentator. And their advice to you will often betray that.

In fact those assumptions are more deeply ingrained than you might at first imagine. And it’s worth understanding why.

My take is that the generation of communication technology you grow up with remains instinctively core to you forever. For some it is letter writing. For others it is a real time text message. The form as such does not matter. What does matter is how you and your social network learnt to relate and endlessly discuss the business of life. Think teens and their 24×7 need to maintain a live feed into their social network. T’was ever thus!

In later life, the medium becomes as fondly remembered as the message.

That’s why a letter for a certain generation signifies respect. For others it smacks of officialdom. More than once I’ve heard how proud dads wonder why their kid never answers e-mail. Surely we are both online so what’s the problem? But the digital stallion has bolted: from Outlook to Hotmail to Messaging to Facebook. Maybe they are all text based. But they are also different countries culturally.

Managing Cultural Diversity

So where does all this get us?

I’m a long term fan of asking customers what they want around their communication preferences rather than guessing. Too many ‘new’ channels arrive under the pretext of delivering a cheaper solution and therefore have to be foisted on unwilling customers who kill the ROI by refusing to use them.

Since channel choice grows and seldom shrinks, a smarter way of prioritising customer needs is something else you need to source.

One tactic is to provide a communication preferences service. For instance, this can be offered when a new customer is on-boarded. Preferences are added to individual CRM customer records to function as an ongoing interaction business rule. Given that customer engagement is now recognised as a prime goal in digital strategy, surely it helps kick-start matters by engaging via preferred channels?

What Else Drives Channel Choice?

While we retain preferred ways of communicating, it’s also true that most of us can be persuaded to expand our channel choice based on circumstance. Let’s explore what can trigger such behaviour.

Here’s a discussion slide I often pull out during a typical BrainFood ‘Next Generation Customer Service Workshop‘. The original slides are here if you want to use them.


All the listed bullet points are worth thinking about as a way to help put you more vividly into your customers’ shoes. Obviously finding out directly from them is the ideal next step once you completed this act of creative imagination.

So to answer the question of what influences someone’s choice of communication channel, here are four contextual buckets.

The Task They Are Undertaking

The Situation They Find Themselves In

Their Communication Habits

Their Awareness Of Communications Options

And here’s the thought process around each.

In terms of ‘doing stuff’, humans display a common characteristic. The desire to find shortcuts. Like water finding the shortest route downhill.

Have you ever noticed how people will walk diagonally across a section of grass if it gets them round a corner faster? In spite of all the curb stones that signal you should be staying off the grass and remain on the pavement.

As if that was ever capable of policing people’s instinct!

This trait shows up in IVR queues. It’s an open secret with some brands that selecting their sales option gets you through faster as a transfer to customer service. Iterative customer behaviour uncovers the shortcut and then shares it on sites like gethuman.com

The moral of the tale is that customers will always game your traffic flow if it does not suit them. Equally, ATMs worked from the word go because they continue to offer a genuine shortcut to accessing cash.

So, have your customers discovered an equivalent? If so, can you upgrade it into a mainstream form of interaction?

Moving on. The perceived importance of the task to the customer also drives channel choice. Understanding why it’s important to customers is a key UX design factor.

For instance, if the task at hand is important to me, will I trust an unfamiliar channel? Email communication between organisations and their customers suffers a lingering reputation for being unreliable. That autobot response often creates the opposite intended impression. That no-one is really at home! In relation to a time critical enquiry this triggers a fear “When, if ever, will they actually respond? Might as well phone to be sure”.

At least with a phone call, you can convey importance through tone of voice, use of language, a direct appeal to the person listening. Even a demand to escalate the issue. We know Autobots and Avatars on the other hand don’t give a fig.

Someone I know extremely well just won’t buy online. Happy to use BBC iplayer all day long. But not the bit that requires credit cards and shopping carts. Even though their demographic suggests otherwise! It’s still a face to face world for them.

In another customer scenario, accuracy might make the communication an important one and thus influence choice of channel. Or expectation of a certain experience might be high on the list. Common sense says complaining via a self service routine is not as emotionally satisfying as telling it directly to a person.

So in summary the type of task and the importance it has to the customer influences which channels are chosen as most suitable. If you buy this analysis of behaviour, do you know what matters to your own customers in terms of communication priorities or ‘top tasks?’

By the way I recently listened to a great presentation from Gerry McGovern who has obviously thought long and hard about helping customers achieve what he calls their ‘top tasks’. He was demonstrating how the need to engineer online functionality to make those top tasks easy to do, is even more important when designing a mobile experience. Anyway, I found it facinating and practical advice. The presentation is a little under an hour, so here is a shorter take on his thinking from his web site “What Is Task Management?”. Well worth bookmarking for later.

The next set of reasons sit in the bucket called ‘Situation’. Does the choice of communication channel change if I’m at home, at the office or on the move? Should this consideration influence your multi-channel strategy? It’s worth an empathetic moment.

For instance, at home you might have better broadband speeds than in the office and so you try out the self help video clips on the You Tube channel. Anyway You Tube might be blocked as part of the social media lockdown at the office.

Or maybe you are travelling by road. Hopefully you not going to try and web chat and drive at the same time! But you might try ‘hands free’. Still it’s hard to concentrate on detailed information.

Maybe if this was discovered (as a qualifying question for mobile/cell numbers), then Customer Services or Sales might have developed a specially expedited workflow before you lose concentration or pop out of signal.

Try taking this idea a bit further. Being in a rush is a pretty common condition these days. So in recognistion, can you design two versions of service. One for ‘time to spare’ and one for ‘in a rush’? News services have long and short form versions of their product. Could this work in a service context?

Imagine something else. You might be trying to make contact during lunch break. Furiously multi-tasking via touchscreen as you wait in queue to pay for your lunch. By the way, delivering effective sales and service via smartphone is a whole new issue that will need a separate chapter in your strategy.

Finally, consider a customer’s communication options? Maybe out of signal range. Maybe their phone was stolen on holiday and are using a landline at the airport? Maybe they only have access to a desktop and Google search. In the good ol’ days we might dismiss that as their proble. If we are meant to be competing on service with every other brand in the known universe, is that still such a good idea?

Winding Down

OK that’s probably enough. Here is the second companion slide which suggests a few of those foundation stones we mentioned at the start as a practical way of moving forward.


The last point on the slide is a good one to end on. If you don’t let customers know you offer 24×7 twitter service or a shop online-collect instore service, how are they to know? In fact, effectively promoting service is the next part of the puzzle. In my view Customer Service Marketing is as important as Product Marketing. Which is why the topic of ‘Promoting Service‘ got it own separate post for you to read as soon as you are ready.

Thanks for listening!

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