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        Keith Dawson's Analyst Perspectives

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        Optimizing Customer Communication Channels

        For quite a few years now, two trends have put the contact center on a collision course. First, the technology used to handle customer inquiries has been evolving quickly, moving organizations farther and farther away from the traditional mode of primarily answering voice calls. At the same time, consumers have become much more demanding. There’s no doubt that customers are more likely to use quality of service as a gauge for whether they should continue doing business with an organization. They’re more willing to bolt for a competitor if they have a bad experience. In short, they want more of everything, and contact centers have been trying to accommodate these expectations.

        The pandemic accelerated these trends. Without face-to-face interactions in stores, and without agents sitting in physical call centers, businesses tried to meet customer demand by rolling out new channels for messaging, video, in-app communication and self-service. And while that might look good from the point of view of the customer’s choices, it leaves contact centers in a tight spot: How many channels can a center realistically deploy and support? How can it possibly optimize the environment when offering the customer unlimited choices? The costs are too great to sustain continuous channel growth.

        At Ventana Research, we believe that by 2024, a large majority of customer interactions will have moved away from voice, migrating to digital channels as the first option for many consumers. VR_2022_CX_Assertion_2_Square-pngYou can see this in how people engage with self-service now: Customers are much more likely to use automated systems first, escalating to agents after doing their own prep work. Perhaps a better way to say this would be to assert that by 2024, interactions will be mixed – combinations of digital and voice, in lots of different flavors.

        Contact centers are being forced to reassess operations because of increasing costs and the need to do more to develop high-quality interactions that move the needle on customer retention and acquisition, rather than just processing interactions for speed and quantity. When consumers are motivated, empowered and fickle, quality carries more weight than speed in an interaction.

        So the question of channel choice – whether to offer a consumer free run of whichever channel they like, or a more limited menu of options – becomes a matter of real concern. Clearly, consumers are driving the growth of the digital channel world, again due largely to the mobile devices that put all communication channels shoulder to shoulder. In centers today, much of the debate about new technology and operations revolves around how deeply to embrace the digital channel world, and a lot of people see digital versus voice as a binary choice. But it is not an either/or proposition, as the industry is coming to realize that voice is effectively now one of many digital channels, albeit one with a unique history and special needs.

        At the same time, contact center operations are becoming more integrated with other departments that also touch the customer experience, particularly sales and marketing teams. If you want all of an organization’s CX stakeholders pulling in the same direction, making cost-conscious decisions about technology, it helps to have someone accountable for the outcomes: people like chief customer officers, who for the first time are charged with making sure all the customer-facing efforts are in sync, with common goals and metrics. Because not all of these folks come from contact centers, they sometimes look at the channel landscape and ask, quite reasonably, why the organization is making the channel decisions it’s been making, and how it can be more reasonable about creating sensible interaction pathways that work for both the company and the customer.

        Customers make their contact channel selections based on a combination of factors, including urgency, availability, convenience and location. They also often factor in two other criteria: One is a desire for shortcuts, i.e., is there a method that will get them to the front of the line, like using a QR code instead of a voice call, or chatting inside a mobile app rather than waiting on hold. The other factor is how “wronged” they feel, which affects how impatient they can be and whether they’ll use public forums like social media, or send out a barrage of contacts across multiple channels trying to get someone’s attention.

        When considering the mix of channels to offer, organizations are rooted in addressing demand, so contact centers generally start with the basics: voice, email and chat. Those represent the bulk of all interactions.

        There are also competitive reasons to deploy a particular channel. Customer-facing brands are keen on in-app messaging, for example, because they can use it to control a great deal of the context of the interaction. Organizations can control the specific information that reaches the consumer, and ensure continuity of experience along the way because the app knows who you are even if you leave and come back to the interaction later.

        Some channels are clearly better suited to certain types of interactions than others, depending on the nature of the inquiry. For informational interactions, chat or SMS often work best, especially in “one-and-done” inquiries.

        Businesses should be very careful to balance the desires of the customer against the goals of the contact center. Remember that more choices don’t necessarily mean better choices. It’s likely that the customer doesn’t care deeply about the channel choice, instead paying more attention to the ultimate outcome. The best way for an organization to make sure the channel selection doesn’t matter is to make sure it has the outcome under control.

        More specifically, the business will be trying to balance the cost of service against the value gained. So the organization should offer customers choices, but reasonable ones, with reasonable expectations associated with them.

        The goals of the contact center are generally speed, accuracy, volume and cost control, not in that order. So to balance the customer’s desires, an organization has to have a set of clearly defined pathways in and out, leading to specific information or results, that the consumer is educated and trained to work with. Organizations should tell customers explicitly that if they want something specific, they can make it happen best by taking a certain pathway or following certain steps.

        What is likely to happen in coming years is that centers will spend more time on the design process, likely in conjunction with marketing and sales teams, designing the kinds of interactions that make the most sense across a whole new range of possible contingencies. They will look at customer journeys across a longer spread of time, from pre-sale to offboarding, and will come up with a series of interaction pathways that span multiple channels and are optimized for cost, speed and accuracy, depending on the situation. That is the best way to balance cost control with the advance of technology and the evolving demands of mercurial customers.

        Regards,

        Keith Dawson

        Authors:

        Keith Dawson
        Director of Research, Customer Experience

        Keith Dawson leads the software research and advisory in the Customer Experience (CX) expertise at Ventana Research, now part of ISG, covering applications that facilitate engagement to optimize customer-facing processes. His coverage areas include agent management, contact center, customer experience management, field service, intelligent self-service, voice of the customer and related software to support customer experiences.

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