Customer Experience, Switching Channels at the Contact CenterWhen I was in the outsourced call center business in the 1990s, we only needed to manage phone calls and the occasional written communication. Automatic Call Distributors (ACDs) could route phone calls efficiently and IVRs -- at the time a relatively new technology -- allowed customers to self-select options that would get them the right type of help more quickly. It was a simpler time.

Snapshot of a 20 Year Evolution

During my tenure, the industry had begun a vast transformation. Email and the Internet created a number of new vectors for customers to get in touch with a company to ask for help, order something or simply to complain. The communication channels essentially tripled overnight but the majority of customer traffic was still coming from the phone.

At that point 20 years ago, the call center began its change into the modern contact or customer care center. Customer service was no longer just about answering the phone. The focus shifted to managing customer interactions over a variety of media. The challenges of multi-channel interactions with a customer have only increased.

Now, customers have access to web solutions such as e-commerce, chat support and forums plus mobile apps, text messages and social media including Twitter and Facebook. It is expected that a company will interact with a customer one-on-one and in groups through all of these channels. Contact centers need to use all of these to help a customer get what they need all the while switching between these different channels seamlessly. Anything less and the customer walks away unsatisfied and probably not a customer any longer.

Contact centers also need to understand how to gently move a customer from the channel of their choice to one that is more appropriate for the customer and the company. A complaint launched in Twitter may not be resolvable in Twitter but how do you tell the customer that? They chose this channel, they think it’s right. The contact center has to change their minds without calling them “stupid.”

The Four Needs of Modern Contact Centers 

Modern contact centers need four things to make successful pivots in the multi-channel environment. They are:

  • Sophisticated CRM systems to track all customer interactions across all channels. For example, if the contact center can’t tell that a customer has already tried to get service from email and failed, then suggests that vector, they will only annoy a customer further.

    Similarly, if the customer suggests an IM and the contact center can’t support that, they have lost an opportunity to provide a resolution immediately. CRM implementations need to focus more on the customer interactions across channels and less on reporting metrics for management. Great metrics and lousy customer satisfaction equal a failing contact center. A key way to do that is to support all forms of customer communication including text messages.

  • Agents need training to understand the different modes of communication and the rules associated with them. They need to appreciate the temporal and privacy aspects of each type of communication. It can’t be assumed that agents know that naturally, even if they are younger members of the team.

  • Contact center personnel need to understand what motivates a customer to pivot from one channel to a more appropriate one. Appeals to company convenience will fall on deaf ears at best. It may not matter that a company wants the customer off a public channel like Twitter. Giving no reason other than “that’s our policy” will likely infuriate a customer and move them to an even more public and less controlled channel. Instead, appeal to their own interests such as their privacy or faster resolution.

  • Social media analytics to tease out customer problems from social media when they are not yet coming into the contact center. Contact centers are one of the primary ways that companies know when something has gone wrong. Increasing volume and longer queue times in the contact center signal an event such as a product failure. Much of that traffic is now on played out on social media before it hits the contact center. Not knowing what is happening in social media will cause the company to miss an important event or leave the contact center unprepared for a sudden onslaught.

Technology has created new opportunities for customer care; the ability to reach customers where they are, allowing customers to interact with the company how they are most comfortable, new self-help solutions; and driving more efficient offline interactions thereby reducing costly phone traffic. It has also generated new challenges for the contact center.

Mobile and socially enabled CRM systems help but, ultimately the human element is still the wild card. Agents need different training to deal with social media norms and to learn how to gently move customers from their preferred channel to the most appropriate channel.

Title image courtesy of Everett Collection (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Tom in With Employee Engagement, Don't Forget the Humans