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Customers are using an ever greater number of communication channels to make service inquiries. Companies that opt for multi-channel-management ensure that they keep an eye on all inquiries while quickly providing customers with a reliable answer – regardless of the communication channel, and as quickly as customers expect on the channel they use. Providing consistent and fast answers across all communication channels decisively contributes to a good customer experience, which is becoming ever more important for a company’s business success. Below, we show which aspects of multi-channel-management are particularly important and what companies should consider when choosing contact center or omni-channel software in order to meet the market’s demands for an increasing variety of service channels over the long term.

1. Summary

2. Definition: What is multi-channel-management?

Multi-channel-management is a technical term used in 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 print ads to online ads and newsletter advertising to influencer marketing. Here, it is important to use the channels that are preferred by the respective target group. A well thought-out channel mix increases the reach of marketing efforts. A detailed explanation can e.g. be found at gruenderszene.

In sales, “multi-channel-management” 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 phone. In multi-channel sales, it is important to select the right sales channels for the product and the target group so that sales can be optimized through the sales channel mix. For more in-depth analysis, we recommend the article on multi-channel sales at Springer Professional.

Finally, in customer service – the area we intend to go into in greater detail here below – “multi-channel-management” means reliably answering service inquiries from very different communication channels such as telephone, email, letter, fax, social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, as well as messenger services such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. A multi-channel strategy defines which contact channels should be available to customers for service requests and how these are 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 (blended agents) or, in line with their abilities, should be deployed on individual communication channels. Service agents able to support several communication channels in a call center environment are known as multi-skill agents. Multi-channel-management also includes the decision on which criteria are used to assign individual inquiries to service agents – by communication channel, by priority, by skill, by language in the case of multilingual service centers, and much more. The multitude of questions in multi-channel-management makes it clear that, in addition to a purely technical implementation via software solutions, service processes must also be clearly defined.

Workflow Multi-Channel-Management

3. Multi-channel-management in the digital age

Customer service is finding itself in the middle of a digital transformation. The number of potential communication channels to a company has significantly increased at the same time as customers are contacting customer service more often. Quick inquiries are especially common via chat and social media channels, as well as via email. However, the failure to satisfactorily answer these inquiries equally fast can end up disappointing the expectations of existing as well as potential customers. The demand for good customer service – and above all for response speed – has increased proportionally with the digital communication options that are available. While answering emails within 24 hours was an industry best practice up until just a few years ago, 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 chat and social media, customers’ expectations are increasingly moving in the direction of “real-time“, i.e. an immediate response with no wait time. With multi-channel-management, companies can meet this expectation and prioritize requests from specific contact channels while simultaneously ensuring that no inquiry gets lost. Customers report that one of their biggest annoyances – as is often documented on blogs, Twitter or Facebook and in desperate letters to the editor in daily newspapers or the 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 than the customer adviser says via email or the social media team says. In the digital age, this asymmetrical information is plainly visible to everyone, especially on social media channels. At the least, this mystifies customers, and often it gives cause for extreme annoyance. A good customer experience can only be ensured if the customer is given correct information over 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 inquiries are addressed to the company.

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 that is used equally for all contact channels according to its 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 not sharply differentiated from one another, even if the terms suggest this. Put simply, multi-channel-management is the management of multiple contact channels, while omni-channel management refers to the management of all (currently available) contact channels – including the telephone. Still, very few companies actually offer their customers all contact channels. For reasons of efficiency, companies primarily limit themselves to the channels that are most in demand among the respective target group. Phone and email still lead the pack among the most frequently used channels in use today. However, according to Servicebarometer 2019 chat is also catching up strongly, notching up a full 24% in the representative survey. The term omni-channel management is used above all by technology manufacturers 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.

5. Software for multi-channel-management

There are numerous software solutions for multi-channel management – individual contact channels such as telephone or chat, email response-management systems that also process letters and faxes, special solutions for social media, and, at times, what was originally a telephony solution is made “multi-channel-capable” to enable it to process email as well. Different operating models – from on-site installation to SaaS models – and pricing – from various license models (“named user”, “concurrent user”, corporate licenses) to billing models based on request volumes – make it difficult to compare the individual solutions. Market overviews are published regularly in trade magazines such as TeleTalk.
Optimally, good multi-channel-management is supported by an omni or multi-channel-software platform that centralizes all communication channels on 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 complicates both sensible multi-channel-management as well as a cross-channel customer-experience strategy.
For example, a central omni-channel platform makes it much easier to understand what information the customer received and when he or she received it. Stand-alone solutions for individual contact channels – whether social media or chat – generally do not provide complete, cross-channel customer contact history. If this 360-degree view of the customer is missing, the customer is forced to re-write or repeat his or her concern in every new written inquiry or new call, especially if they choose another contact channel when making their next inquiry – resulting in a miserable customer experience that can be easily avoided with the help of multi-channel or omni-channel software.

An omni-channel system also makes it much easier for a customer service representative to change 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 fully concentrate on strategic multi-channel-management without needing to wonder about what the respective solution is capable of in the first place. Leading enterprise solutions such as ReplyOne can be flexibly adapted to 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 key 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: harnessing AI to improve customer service. No wonder then that many technology providers are entering this market, including many who come from a more general AI environment and are not familiar with the specific processes and requirements in contact centers. However, it is often difficult for service managers to distinguish between unrealistic claims and concrete automation potential that can be quickly implemented.
“The exaggerated notion doing the rounds in public discussion of synthetic superintelligence that can do everything better than humans is more science fiction than reality,” explain management consultants in an artificial intelligence study by Deloitte. The consequence: expensive, bad investments in immature technology studies and stand-alone solutions that are nice to look at in a demo but that are virtually unusable in day-to-day operations. In a figurative sense, AI has only just entered kindergarten. The solutions cannot be integrated into the system architecture, nor do they depict the usual processes in 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 anticipated 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 language, this means that AI always has to “go to school” to achieve good results. This applies all the more in the customer service environment.

Contact centers are a microcosm in companies with highly-specialized in-house processes and requirements, thus service managers should specifically look for special solutions for contact centers with integrated AI, instead of having to laboriously adapt an 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 that can achieve a good customer experience across all contact channels.

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

  • Future-proof thanks to real omni-channel management
    Make sure that the multi-channel or omni-channel software can depict all important service channels on one platform. Your selection should be based on what is actually currently needed within your company and which additional channels will emerge in the company over the next 6-12 months. A future-proof, investment-safe system is one that is based on an open architecture and that 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, channels which we are currently entirely unaware of.

  • Open interfaces 
    When choosing an omni-channel system, you should ensure that the software solution features open interfaces and can be integrated into important corporate systems such as e.g. CRM or ERP systems. This avoids situations in which account managers maintain two or more systems in parallel. In addition, it enables special 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 benefits all service channels, not just one. As a result, you can simultaneously break down information silos, analyze data in a targeted manner and use the result to optimize your service strategy.

  • Process flexibility

    Pay attention to whether the software imposes certain service processes on you, and whether you’re able to map your individual processes in the software. The more flexibility you have when defining the processes, the more customized you can implement your customer experience strategy as part of your multi-channel-management. A professional multi-channel or omni-channel-system should e.g. have different routing options, automatically extract information from queries and compare it with the CRM system, as well as be able to write back information, include query options in the workflow, and much more.

  • Scalability and multi-client capability
    Check if the software solution can keep pace with your company’s growth. Great software is useless to you if only a few service employees can simultaneously work on the system. But a solution that can easily be scaled up to several thousand employees gives you long-term investment security, with no need to look for a new system in 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.

  • User-friendliness
    For the user interface, a central interface for all channels is recommended. If this is based on a familiar, learned interface such as an office mail program, as is the case with ReplyOne, this significantly simplifies training for the service staff. A user-friendly interface with good system performance ensures a high level of acceptance among customer service representatives. Recording both written correspondence and telephone calls on a central screen ensures the consistent and uniform documentation of customer communication. In a well-structured omni-channel system, training time for employees should be no more than 4 hours, with the majority of the training spent stepping through specific use cases.

  • AI for hybrid customer service   
    Make sure that the AI technology of the multi-channel or omni-channel system enables “hybrid” customer service, in which routine inquiries are handled automatically by the AI, while complex inquiries are answered by qualified service employees who are supported by the AI as best as possible when providing answers. Solutions such as ReplyOne support service employees e.g. by automatically routing quality-checked answer suggestions or providing access to text documents in knowledge management. The more accurate the suggestions, the higher the employees’ eventual work efficiency – regardless of the chosen communication channel. An omni-channel solution that intelligently combines man and machine means you can simultaneously achieve cost reduction potential for all service channels without compromising the customer experience.

  • References
    When choosing a system, contact center managers should take a very close look at which companies are already using the solution and which additional systems have been integrated with it. Professional providers are also willing to arrange discussions or even a visit to a reference customer. This enables contact center managers to compare their expectations and see the solution live in action. Particularly in the case of AI-based multi-channel or omni-channel systems, you should inquire whether the touted solution is actually available and is successfully being used, or whether the solution is still merely a potential technology that the company would like to implement together with you. References or user reports are a strong 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 short period of time – ideally within one year.

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

The goal of multi-channel management is to ensure a very good 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, read one of our user reports.


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