Taming the Multichannel Monster

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According to ancient Greek legend, as one of his 12 labors to atone for the murders of his wife and children, Hercules was sent to kill the loathsome Hydra, a fierce, serpent-like beast with many heads. Hydra was not so easily overcome, though. As Hercules battled one head, the others closed in with their sharp fangs and deadly venom. To further complicate matters, for each head that Hercules lopped off, two new ones grew back in its place. 

For contact center operators today, attempting to control all of the ways in which customer inquiries can enter the contact center can seem like battling a hydra. The ever-growing collection of incoming voice calls to live agents, voice calls handled through interactive voice response (IVR) systems, email, text messages, Web chat sessions, faxes, Web forms, letters, and more can quickly become an unmanageable monster if not handled properly.

“It’s an awful lot of stuff to manage,” says Ryan Hollenbeck, senior vice president of marketing at Verint Witness Actionable Solutions, a recording and analytics solutions provider.

Furthermore, the more channels you make available, the more you open yourself to problems, some would argue. Anna Convery, chief marketing officer at customer intelligence solutions vendor ClickFox, says the potential for a domino effect definitely looms. “If something is wrong with the Web site, it will lead to more calls, for example,” she explains.

Because issues with one channel are likely to affect how a customer uses another channel, the multichannel monster is likely to rear its ugly head many times. And, to make matters worse, managing a multichannel strategy is often hindered by organizational, technological, and design issues that either position each channel in isolation or pit the various channels against one another.

But just as Hercules had his nephew Iolaus to help him ultimately defeat his hydra, many tools are available to help contact center managers and operators take charge of their multichannel offerings.

Keep Calm

The first tool to have at the ready is perspective. As you consider all of the ways customers could contact your company, know that their first choice is still the telephone, and that is likely to stay true for many years. In fact, research firm ContactBabel reported late last year that more than 90 percent of customer interactions still take place via the phone. 

Broken down, phone calls to a live agent take place 83.8 percent of the time, and phone calls to a self-service IVR take place 6.5 percent of the time. Of all the other channels, only email has seen any significant penetration, making up about 8 percent of all customer contacts. The other channels all came in at less than 1 percent: letter, 0.5 percent; fax, 0.4 percent; text chat/instant message, 0.3 percent; text message, 0.2 percent; and Web collaboration/page pushing, 0.1 percent, according to ContactBabel’s research.

But that doesn’t mean contact centers should forgo the other channels and stick to the phone exclusively. If current trends are any indication, contact center managers will have no choice but to expand into other areas.

Research from Convergys suggests that the phone’s popularity is on the decline; by 2010, Web chat will make up 7 percent of all customer interactions, and both email and Web self-service usage will more than double.

And even though the number of voice interactions is expected to rise—to 196 billion in 2010, up from 173 billion in 2007—the phone’s position of dominance will shrink to about 75 percent of all interactions. “We’ll see an increase in the total number of interactions, but voice will represent less of a percentage of them,” predicts Ryan Pellet, vice president of global consulting services at Convergys. 

Adding to that, preference for self-service has doubled within the past four years, according to Pellet. “Fifty-five percent of customers would choose self-service over waiting for a live agent,” he says. “They’re definitely willing to accept a non-live channel.”

That trend, he adds, is being driven largely by the Millennials (those born after 1976, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey), many of whom are now in the workforce and spending money. “Automated channels are becoming more prevalent as the Millennials enter the market,” Pellet states, noting that this generation is 43 percent more likely than other age groups to engage companies through automated channels.

The Millennials, also called the Internet Generation, Echo Boomers, Nexters, Generation Y, the Nintendo Generation, and the Digital Generation, are the first generation to grow up entirely surrounded by digital media. Everything in their lives is global, connected, and open for business 24/7. They expect customer care that can be accessed on the go, at any time. They favor the speed and flexibility of customer care through mobile applications, the Web, email, texting, automated phone systems, live online chats, instant messaging, and more.

“We’re definitely seeing continued interest in self-help, especially in the younger population,” Convery agrees. Millennials, she adds, are “absolutely all about texting and instant messaging. They want access to the Web, and they’re using their mobile phones for everything.”

Jack Aaronson, president of the Aaronson Group, a multichannel strategy and design firm, also expects to see a greater emphasis on Web chat and click-to-call links on corporate Web sites, especially on the sales side for big-ticket items.

“People are used to a sales associate in the store whose job it is to hold their hands through those purchases,” he says. “It goes a long way toward treating customers the way they want to be treated.”

And, if you’re going to have these features available, they need to be 24/7, Aaronson states. “Web chat is not going to work from just 9 to 5, because most people are shopping online at night.”

Companies employing a multichannel strategy also need to look to the future, according to Phillip Hunter, vice president of the Voice Interaction Group at SpeechCycle. “How do my customers reach out to me today? Do they go to my Web site, send an email, call, send snail mail, or follow me on Twitter?” he asks.

Once those questions are answered, the more pressing one must follow: “How will they [reach out] tomorrow? You need to look ahead at least six to 24 months because you can’t just do one thing for today, for the here and now,” Hunter continues.

Being armed with that information can also help companies determine the types of channels they offer their customers. “Depending on the problem they’re trying to resolve, some things might be more suited to one channel than another,” says Deborah Dahl, president of speech and language consultancy Conversational Technologies and chairperson of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Multimodal Interface Working Group. “For something that’s not time-critical, I might be better off sending an email.” 

Dahl says that individual contact choices could simply be a reflection of what companies make available to their customers. “It’s a matter not only of individual preferences, but of what they are provided with,” she says.

Analyze Everything

Regardless of which channels customers choose and why, the one fact that can’t be denied is the need for contact centers to keep track of what’s going on across all of the channels. Therefore, perhaps the most important tool in keeping the multichannel monster in check is the right recording, audio mining, and analytics suite. Putting such applications in place does not have to be an immense challenge.

“Calls to the contact center are recorded, and a percentage of those [recordings] are monitored and reviewed for quality assurance,” Verint’s Hollenbeck says. “You can do all that in Web chat and email as well.”

The secret, he and others say, lies in the ability to do complete desktop and screen captures.

“When doing voice recording, you can add data capture to that,” Hollenbeck says. “Then once you set up the recordings, you can replay an email, Web chat, or phone call to review it. You can set them all up to flag certain words or phrases so that you hear or see just what you want.”

With recordings and data logs in place, the solutions can deliver the same customer intelligence, reveal the same industry trends, and determine which topics are being discussed during the interactions, just like speech-only solutions. Businesses can find out which customers are calling, emailing, chatting, or visiting a store, and how many of the inquiries are related to problems, basic customer service issues, or sales.

Useful data might not be available for every channel, but what you get will undoubtedly be helpful in putting together a clearer picture of what’s going on in your contact center.

If done right, the same analytics solutions can also reveal how the customer thinks, how the customer acts, and what the customer says, regardless of how the interaction comes into the contact center, Convergys’ Pellet explains.

Along with that, one of the keys to making for a better user experience is the ability to recognize repeat contacts. Customers will contact companies many times throughout the life cycles of their business relationships, so differentiating between repeat calls for the same issue and new contacts goes a long way toward building brand loyalty.

“You have to get all the contact points coordinated for each customer,” Dahl says. “People get really mad if they have to repeat themselves, so if an agent can know that the customer already sent an email about [the subject of his call] and can respond accordingly, it’s a big win.”

That applies just as much to outbound contacts as it does to those coming into the contact center. In both cases, analytics are the key to tracking user patterns and to tell what kind of response your corporate message is getting from customers. As a retailer, for example, you need to know who’s using which channels and why. Then when you reach out to your customers through those channels, it’s key to know if the message is being heard. 

Without it, “how do you know when they move between channels, when they open an email, or read a blog post?” SpeechCycle’s Hunter asks.

Convery agrees, but says the right analytics solutions can do so much more for a business in a multichannel environment. “One of the biggest challenges with multichannel is getting a comprehensive picture,” she says. “As a customer, I am one person, but to the business, I am seen as one series of interactions. If you look at all the interaction points, data is being collected in logs that can link together all the touch points customers go through with a unique ID and profile...to determine what they actually do, what they were trying to do, and whether they were successful or not.”

That, Verint’s Hollenbeck says, can be  key to surviving in a tough economy. “If customers are having repeated problems, analytics can tell that, too,” he states. “You can then use that information to fix what’s wrong and potentially save the company a lot of money.” 

Or, at the very least, it should enable the company to retain valuable customers. “If I’m a great customer in the stores, and then I go shopping online, I shouldn’t be treated [badly],” Aaronson argues. “For the company to really understand me as a customer and how valuable I am, analytics is essential, no matter the channel.”

Work Better

Yet despite all of the benefits a multichannel strategy can provide, companies continue to maintain siloed operations. In so doing, they set themselves up to lose the battle. They have built brick-and-mortar stores, interactive kiosks, Web sites, sophisticated IVRs, and contact centers with all sorts of capabilities, but each of them is located, operated, and managed independently, evaluated with different measures of success, and rarely able to communicate or share information with the other channels.

By keeping channels separate, companies might be incurring additional, unnecessary costs because many components could likely be reused across channels. That is where a services-oriented architecture can help. In this architecture, applications are broken down into individual components that can be shared across platforms and application layers, and all applications become part of a much larger domain in which each application depends on the others to function properly. When coupled with Voice over Internet Protocol and unified communications (UC), this enables greater technology integration, and thus simplifies the IT landscape. 

“You need to maintain a unified communications environment,” Hollenbeck says. “You could do it without UC, but it would be really complicated. It’s much simpler to deploy the end game and sync up all your customer interactions.”

And, from there, the same workforce optimization and other labor-related issues can be applied. “Once you do deeper dives into each channel, you can assess your team,” SpeechCycle’s Hunter suggests. “Do I have the right people in place already, or do I need to bring in additional team members to handle each channel?”

Convery says such moves need to occur from the top levels of a company. “Make sure the organization is ready for it. When you have multiple channels, a lot more interdependencies are required among groups within the organization,” she states. “You may want to hire a vice president of customer experiences to pull together all these things.”

Among other things, that person can then decide whether agents should be cross-trained. “Am I going to have the same agents respond to phone, email, and chat, or have separate agents to respond to each?” Hollenbeck asks. “Do I need to join up the two departments, or should I have one organization for online contacts and a separate one for the call center?”

The answer depends on the specific person and her abilities. “Not everyone with a good phone manner can write well, or vice versa,” Hollenbeck says. “And for companies with a growing online presence, it may be very effective to have a dedicated staff just for that. It also depends on how the agents are trained and what they can handle.”

Training for multichannel agents should provide the skills to handle both inbound and outbound contacts, multiple call types (whether sales, service, tech support, or collections), and multiple technologies (including the Web, email, phone, text messaging, and live chat). 

But at the same time, operators need to approach each channel differently. “How you respond to someone with an email is different than over the phone,” Aaronson explains. “You need to empower operators to handle each conversation individually rather than sticking to a script. It can never be about just reading a script or playing a standard recording.”

A problem, he notes, is that “it can be a nightmare on training because it’s difficult to ask one person to master all that.”  

Having different agents working different tiers can alleviate that burden. “One person should be able to handle basic service requests across all domains, and then you can always dig deeper with a level-two agent,” Aaronson advises.

So if they’re ever going to tame their multichannel monsters, businesses must shift their strategic perspectives and give their agents the freedom to respond to all channels accordingly. Each channel needs to support, communicate with, and share information with the other channels if the organization as a whole is ever going to be able to respond appropriately to customers at any time or any place.

Why Go Multichannel?

• Roughly half of the 6.75 billion people on the planet now use cell phones;

• 90 percent of all cell phones are connected to mobile networks that support both voice and data transmission simultaneously; and

• 70 percent of all cell phones natively support Web applications.

Source: Convergys

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