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Customer Strategist Journal
Innovative strategies for building more profitable customer relationships. Published quarterly online and in print.
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The Multichannel Challenge

Get Social or Get Out of the Way

Social media has forced a paradigm shift in the way companies relate to customers. Interaction is a must; one-way messages are increasingly ignored. That's why B2C-based social CRM could be considered the Internet's next killer app. Social CRM is all about delivering customer delight while monetizing the channel as part of an integrated customer strategy. The ultimate 21st century business harnesses the power of social networks and online communities, blogs and forums, and micromedia to improve service delivery and sales results, build customer engagement, gather customer intelligence, and share information.

In fact, the Internet economy requires traditional outbound sales and marketing techniques to merge with an intimate one-to-one customer relationship. Customers today are researching the products and services they're interested in online; they're reading reviews and comments, getting opinions from their networks. Customers are no longer at the beginning of the purchase cycle when they reach out to a provider, visit a dealer, click to chat, or call an agent; they're near the close.

The next big thing can extend the last big thing The 2000s were about breaking down internal walls and connecting with the customer. This included integrating and redesigning front-office processes using CRM tools and strategies to build customer relationships and, as a result, improve business performance. The 2010s will be about breaking down external walls. That means integrating and redesigning front-office processes to focus on customer business outcomes, while monetizing external data generated through social interaction, typically outside the control of the company.

Doing so requires a multichannel interaction strategy that harnesses information and opportunities and customers' preferred points of contact. A multichannel customer interaction strategy is essential today not only to increase customer satisfaction and business results, but also to help manage and balance the costs associated with the many customer touchpoints. According to Forrester Research, a contact center interaction with a live agent costs organizations $9 on average; click-to-call interactions follow closely at $7.75 per contact, and click-to-chat averages about $5 per interaction. However, email costs only $2.50 per contact, virtual agents cost $1, and self-service costs a mere 10 cents per interaction. Additionally, according to the Technology Services Industry Association, in 2007 about 90 percent of customer issues were handled by phone and email. Today more than 50 percent of issues are coming through Internet and online channels.

These changes signal one thing: As customers are increasing their use of multiple channels—often in tandem—for business interactions, companies must evolve their customer care and sales channels to take an equally multichannel approach.

How to drive brand through multichannel support There are four key elements to improving customer engagement through the multichannel customer experience. The first is quality agents. Organizations should hire the highest quality agents to deliver the best customer experiences. Southwest Airlines, for example, hires people who like to smile because they're naturally friendlier and more engaging than people who don't. You may be able to train for basic politeness, but you can't train people to be truly customer centric; hence the axiom "hire for attitude, train for skill." Additionally, this evolving breed of customer associates needs to leverage newly acquired troves of customer data around attributes, attitudes, and behaviors to engage their customers in a needs discussion, thus earning the right to offer remedies.

The second one is social CRM and online self-service. Companies need to monitor, listen, and interact with their customers through social media. This includes such activities as tracking mentions of brands, products, and competitors; hosting Twitter and Facebook pages, online communities, and blogs; encouraging ratings and reviews, ideas, and the posting of user-generated content; responding quickly to issues and suggestions; and using the information learned online to improve products, services, processes, and other aspects of the customer experience. Additionally, routing customers to a company's Web properties and host communities for self-service can improve customer collaboration, encourage crowdservice, and improve service delivery and customer engagement.

Companies from Dell to Mountain Dew to Starbucks are getting unfettered insight into customers' needs, preferences, concerns, and ideas and are using that information to increase loyalty and sales. They're doing this by following through on the input that benefits the most customers while benefiting the organization. They're making improvements to current products or processes, introducing new ones, and eliminating those that no longer make sense. And by sharing those outcomes with their customers, they create a virtuous cycle of interaction, empowerment, and engagement.

Third is what I'll call an integrated answer engine, or knowledgebase. Businesses should have a central data hub that hosts all the information customers need when looking to make a purchase or solve a problem. This should include not only company-produced information, but also useful community knowledge and answers that can help a company provide better support and self-service. A growing number of customers like to self-serve online; some customers also enjoy adding their input or offering assistance in online communities. Access to a central knowledgebase that integrates data from all relevant sources can help to improve first contact resolution and customer satisfaction, as well as lower service costs.

One company benefitting from this approach is a large North American bank that launched an "instant answer virtual agent" for Web self-service on its general public website and its transactional banking site. There are more than 200 answers in the database that can be accessed by questions worded in 1,000 different ways. Since deploying the virtual agent the bank has reduced email volume by 20 percent, and delivers "the one right answer" to about 95 percent of questions customers ask online. Additionally, reports from system data provide vital insight into how the bank's various groups (e.g. mortgages, credit cards) can tailor their website content to better meet customer needs.

Fourth is online support. Agents can do more than just answer phones to assist customers and close sales. Businesses should resolve issues, drive sales, and improve support across all channels—from click-to-call and online chat to mobile and email. One leading high-tech company knows this firsthand. Its contact center associates handle 23,000 chats and 10,000 emails per month for customer care, technical support, and sales across products. The multichannel approach has improved orders per contact by about 15 percent and has increased first-call resolution by more than 20 percent; online chat abandonment averages less than 1 percent on a 4 percent goal. In addition, the company has exceeded its issue resolution goals by 16 percent and its customer satisfaction results by 18 percent.

Thinking differently

Organizations are facing the instant and public exposure of bad service via social media, the rapid growth of multiple interaction channels, and pressure to increase sales while reducing service costs. The result is a new paradigm: the need to deliver the right service over the right channel at the right time all the time.

A multichannel customer interaction strategy can help to facilitate this paradigm. Organizations need to offer dynamic online customer interactions via chat, voice calls, email, SMS, company-branded social communities, and intelligent self-service. They must adopt click-to-call or chat to convert visitors into customers, to intercept visitors before they abandon, and to maximize upsell and cross-sell. Business should focus on boosting customer retention and loyalty by reducing wait times and improving resolution times. Finally, they must offer this improved customer experience while reducing costs and optimizing business results by increasing agent productivity, using self-service and online communities to prevent call deflection, and harnessing online analytics and voice of the customer insight.