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Multi-channel management

Customers are using an ever-greater number of communication channels to make service enquiries. Companies that opt for multi-channel management can ensure that they can monitor all contacts while quickly providing their customers with a reliable answer, regardless of the communication channel and in line with the customer’s expectations for speed on the channel of choice. Providing consistent and fast answers across all communication channels contributes significantly toward a good customer experience, which today is paramount for a company’s business success. Below, we indicate which aspects of multi-channel management are the most important and what companies should consider when choosing omni-channel contact center software, in order to meet market demands for an ever-increasing variety of service channels.

1. Summary

2. Definition: What is multi-channel management?

Multi-channel management is a term which is used slightly differently within marketing, sales and customer service. In marketing, multi-channel management focuses on addressing potential customers by way of a wide variety of offline and online channels – from printed ads to online ads and newspaper advertising, to influence market awareness. Here, it is important to use the channels which are preferred by the respective target group. A well thought out channel mix increases the reach of marketing efforts. A detailed definition of this form of multi-channel management can be found at gruenderszene.

In sales, the same term means that products are sold through various sales channels, e.g. both in a store or at sales partners, as well as in an online store or by telephone. In multi-channel sales, it is important to select the right sales channels for the product and the target customer group so that sales can be optimized through the sales channel mix. For more in-depth analysis of the sales perspective, we recommend the article published at Springer Professional.

Finally, in customer service – the area of our focus – “multi-channel management” means reliably-answering service enquiries from different communication channels for instance; telephone, email, letter, fax and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, as well as messenger services such as Skype and WhatsApp. A multi-channel strategy defines which contact channels should be available to customers for service enquiries and how these should be prioritized. In addition, in customer service it must be ensured that the same information regarding a specific topic is consistently-communicated by service staff, wholly-independent of the selected communication channel. Finally, a decision must also be made as to whether service employees should generally manage all communication channels (i.e. “blended agents”) or, in-line with their capabilities, be deployed on individual communication channels. Service agents able to support several communication channels in a call center environment are known as multi-skilled agents. Multi-channel management also includes the criteria decisions made to assign individual enquiries to a service agent; for example by communication channel, by priority, by skill or by language (in the case of multilingual service centers). The complexity of implementing multi-channel management means that, in addition to a purely technical implementation via software solutions, service processes must also be very clearly defined.

Workflow Multi-Channel-Management

3. Multi-channel management in the digital age

Customer service is at the epicenter of businesses digital transformation. The number of potential communication channels to a company has significantly increased and at the same time as customers are contacting customer service more frequently. Very fast enquiry responses are expected in chat and social media channels and, to some extent, in email. Failure to satisfactorily answer these enquiries quickly can result in disappointing existing as well as future potential customers. The demand for good customer service and above all for response speed has hugely-increased with the growing digital communication options available. While answering emails within 24 hours was an industry best practice up until recently, Customer service barometer 2019, as reported in trade journal  Callcenter Profi and Bank Blog reports that some 20% of consumers now expect an answer within three hours.

Thanks to online chat and social media, customers’ expectations are increasingly moving in the direction of “real-time“,(i.e. an immediate response without delay). Using a proper multi-channel management service strategy, companies can meet this expectation and prioritize requests from specific contact channels whilst ensuring that no enquiry gets lost. Customers report that one of their biggest annoyances (as is often documented on social media and within desperate letters to the editors of daily newspapers or trade press) is that all too often, they fail to get consistent answers when contacting a company via different contact channels. The phone hotline says something different to what is relayed via a support email or from the social media team. In the digital age, this varied and sometimes contradictory information is publicly visible. At the very least, this mystifies customers but more than often it gives cause for extreme annoyance. A good customer experience can only be ensured if the customer is given the correct information across all contact channels. This is the only way to ensure customer centricity, rather than focusing on the specific features of the communication channel through which enquiries are addressed.

Ultimately, multi-channel management for customer service means “channel convergence”: the focus is not on the individual contact channel, but on the most efficient, personalized service process which is used equally for all contact channels according to the individual requirements.

4. Multi-channel management versus omni-channel management

In the customer-service industry, the terms multi-channel management and omni-channel management are sometimes poorly differentiated. Put simply, multi-channel management is the management of multiple contact channels, while omni-channel management refers to the orchestration of all available contact channels, to provide an integrated and coordinated experience for the customer and service personnel. The term omni-channel management is also used by technology vendors to indicate that a solution can “de facto” cover all contact channels, regardless of whether or not a company is already using all communication channels.
Even today, very few companies offer their customers every possible contact channel. For reasons of efficiency, companies typically limit themselves to the channels which are most in demand among their respective target customers. Phone and email still lead the pack in this respect, but according to  Servicebarometer 2019 Chat is also catching up fast, notching up a full 24% in the representative survey.

5. Software for multi-channel management

There are many various software solutions being offered as multi-channel management. From supporting individual contact channels such as telephone or chat, email response-management systems but also processing letters and faxes, special solutions for social media, and sometimes, what was originally a pure telephony solution is suddenly made “multi-channel-capable” by enabling it to process email as well. Different operating configurations – from an on-site installation to SaaS– and pricing with various licensing models (i.e. “named user”, “concurrent user”, “corporate license”) to billing models based on request volumes – make it difficult to compare each individual solution. Market overviews for these are however published regularly in trade magazines such as TeleTalk.
 
Optimally, good multi-channel management is supported by an omni/multi-channel software platform which centralizes all communication channels within one interface. This significantly reduces the complexity of managing the different communication channels. At the same time, service managers obtain a significantly higher level of transparency. In the study „Customer Experience Benchmarking Report 2019“, Dimension Data also emphasizes the fact that many companies are still falling into the trap of creating information silos with stand-alone solutions for individual communication channels. This jeopardizes delivering a sensible multi-channel management strategy and an effective cross-channel customer-experience.
 
A centralized omni-channel platform makes it much easier to understand what the customer said and what information they received and when they received it. However, stand-alone solutions for individual contact channels – whether social media or chat, generally do not provide a complete, cross-channel customer contact history. If this 360-degree view of the customer is missing, the customer is often forced to repeat details of their issue in every follow-up enquiry, this is especially true if they switch contact channels. It’s no surprise that this results in a miserable customer experience which can be avoided with the help of the right multi-channel/omni-channel software.
 

An omni-channel system also makes it easy for a customer service representative to switch the contact channel within the service process, e.g. when data protection considerations require the representative to switch from open social media communication to “one-to-one” communication via email. In addition, the software solution should be able to depict various processes and routing options so that service managers can focus on strategic multi-channel management without needing to wonder about what each respective solution is capable of. Leading enterprise solutions such as ReplyOne can be flexibly-adapted to support any required processes within a company.

6. What is Artificial Intelligence capable of within the framework of multi-channel management?

Regardless of the industry or sector, artificial intelligence is one of the most important automation technologies in the digital age. Artificial intelligence holds enormous market potential – in their November 2019 study, market researchers Allied Market Research estimate that the enterprise market for AI will grow from $4.68 billion in 2018 with average annual growth of 35.4% to $53.06 billion by 2026. One of the main drivers for this is harnessing AI to improve customer service. No wonder then that many technology providers are entering this market (including many who come from a general AI background and therefore lack familiarity with the specific processes and requirements within contact centers). As a result, it is often difficult for service managers to distinguish between unrealistic claims and the real concrete automation potential which can be quickly implemented.
 
“The exaggerated notion doing the rounds in public discussion today is that of synthetic super-intelligence (that can do everything better than humans!), but of course is more science fiction than reality,” explains management consultant Deloitte in their artificial intelligence study. The consequence of this is expensive and sub-optimal investments in immature technology and stand-alone solutions which are “nice to look at” in a demo but are virtually unusable in day-to-day operations. Figuratively-speaking, AI has only just entered kindergarten. These solutions cannot currently be fully-integrated into the system architecture, nor can they accurately depict the usual processes within a contact center.
 

In addition, not all “intelligent” customer service solutions are actually based on artificial intelligence. With the enormous growth in computing power in recent years, software scripts have made it possible to perform automated processes, as well as complex searches in fractions of a second. Many automation tools, including a whole range of chatbots in customer service, are based on this principle. The quality of the results depends largely on how many keywords and scenarios the developers have pre-populated and how much computing power is available. Such solutions are not really sustainable since they do not “learn”.

Indeed, precise parameters as well as targeted training are both required in order for artificial intelligence to really provide desired results. In plain English, this means that AI must “go to school” to achieve good results. This applies specifically to the customer service environment.

Contact centers are a microcosm in companies with highly-specialized in-house processes and requirements, thus service managers should seek dedicated solutions for contact centers with integrated AI, instead of trying to laboriously adapt a more generic AI engine to their own service processes. It is important for the software provider to be familiar with and understand the processes and requirements in the contact center, since this is the only way that AI can significantly boost productivity. This can entail e.g. pre-qualification and appropriate answer modules, intelligent routing, minimizing clicks for service staff, as well as via automated reconciliation with the CRM system.
 

In the „Customer Experience Benchmarking Report 2019“ study, Dimension Data currently assumes an average of seven service channels. Consequently, contact centers – especially when it comes to automation via AI – do not need stand-alone solutions for individual channels, but rather a flexible omni-channel platform that automates a wide range of communication channels and can achieve a good customer experience across all of them.

7. Seven tips for selecting multi-channel/omni-channel software for customer service

  • Future-proof with real omni-channel management
    Make sure that the multi-channel or omni-channel software can handle all important service channels within one platform. Your selection should be based on what is currently needed at your company and which additional channels will emerge over the next 6-12 months. A future-proof and investment-safe system is one that is based on an open architecture and can in principle also integrate new channels. Given the rapid pace of digital development, the emergence of entirely new channels as service channels cannot be ruled out, some of which we may be currently entirely unaware of today.

 

  • Open interfaces 
    When choosing an omni-channel system, you should ensure that the software solution features open interfaces and so can be easily integrated into important corporate systems such as CRM or ERP software. This avoids situations in which a company must maintain two or more systems in parallel. In addition, it enables other solutions for contact centers to be easily connected, e.g. ACD (Automatic Call Distribution), knowledge management, translation tools or a revision-proof archive system. Connecting an omni-channel system should benefit all service channels. As a result, companies can simultaneously break down information silos, analyze data in a targeted manner and use the results to optimize their service strategy.
 
  • Process flexibility

    Beware if the prospective software solution forces certain service processes upon you, and whether you can easily map your individual processes to it. The more flexibility you have when defining the processes, the more customized your customer experience strategy can be. A professional multi-channel or omni-channel system at minimum should offer a choice of routing options, automatically extract information from enquiries and compare it with the CRM system, as well as being able to write information back and it should include query options within the workflow.

  • Scalability and multi-client capability
    Check if the software solution can keep pace with your company’s growth. Great-looking software has limited value if only a few service employees can simultaneously work on the system. A solution that can easily be scaled up to several thousand employees gives you long-term investment security, without having to seek a new system after a few years. Ensuring that your multi-channel or omni-channel system is multi-client capable means you can also easily manage customer service for several corporate brands via one installation. For example, the same solution can be used in-house as well as via a partner company, that may be providing outsource support for your customers in another region

  • User-friendliness
    It is highly-recommended to have a single and unified central user interface to manage all your service channels. If this is based on a familiar, and tried and tested interface such as an office mail program (as is the case with ReplyOne), it significantly simplifies training for your service staff (a well-structured omni-channel system, should take no more than 4 hours training, with the majority of the time spent stepping through specific use cases). In addition, a user-friendly interface, combined with good performance will ensure a high level of acceptance among customer service representatives and recording both written correspondence and telephone calls on a central screen ensures the reliable and uniform documentation of all customer communications.

  • AI for hybrid customer service   
    Make sure that the AI technology of the multi-channel or omni-channel system enables “hybrid” customer service, where routine enquiries can be handled automatically by the AI while more complex enquiries are answered by qualified service employees (supported by the AI to providing the best answers quickly and consistently). In respect of the latter, solutions such as ReplyOne support service employees by automatically routing quality-checked answer suggestions or providing access to text documents in knowledge management. The more accurate the suggestions, the greater the employees’ overall work efficiency will be, regardless of the communication channel. An omni-channel solution which intelligently combines man and machine will result in cost reduction across all service channels, without compromising the customer experience.

  • References
    When choosing a system, contact center managers should pay particular attention to which companies are already using the solution and what key enterprise systems it has been integrated with. Most professional providers should be willing to arrange discussions with, or even organize a visit to, a reference customer. This enables contact center managers to see a solution “live”, in action and compare it to their own expectations. Particularly in the case of AI-based multi-channel or omni-channel systems, you should enquire whether the proposed solution is already generally-available and fully-supported and has been successfully implemented, as opposed to being a potential technology which the company would like to implement together with you (service customers generally do not appreciate being used as “guinea pigs in a technology experiment!). References or user reports are a good indicator that the solution does not have to be painstakingly developed and adapted at your expense, but rather that it can deliver the desired ROI within a reasonable and acceptable period of time.

8. Conclusion: What comprises good multi-channel management?

The goal of multi-channel management is to enable the delivery of an exemplary Customer Experience, on all service channels. AI-based omni-channel software solutions for customer service significantly facilitate multi-channel management and the implementation of an individualized customer service strategy. They increase transparency and offer cost-cutting potential while simultaneously improving the customer experience across all communication channels.

If you would like to find out how companies implement sophisticated multi-channel customer service management using ReplyOne, please do read one of our user reports.

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