The term omnichannel first entered business parlance in the early 2000s. It was used to describe the integration of all physical and digital channels through which customers contacted a company so that customers could enjoy a unified experience, because everyone on every communication channel throughout the company would know exactly what the customer needed, as well as the topics that the customer had already discussed with the company.
Initially, the goal of omnichannel was to bring together digital and physical retail channels for purposes of more effective and unified selling to customers. This was needed because in the early days of commercial websites, companies actually split into two separate business selling units—one online and one brick and mortar. When customers needed to exchange an item they had purchased online, they often found that the nearest retail store couldn't process the exchange—because the online retail and the brick and mortar retail systems were separate.
Today, most retailers have eliminated this confusion in their retail channels—but online customer service and call centers lag behind.
For example, customers can make a phone call directly to a call center, engage in online chat, or use a self-service portal that gives them access to a knowledge base, which hopefully gives them the ability to solve their own issue. But often, if a customer switches between these modes of communication, they'll have to repeat their name, phone number, account number and issue.
This repetition can frustrate customers, make them feel like a company isn't listening to them, or worse, feel like the company is making them do all the work. An omnichannel approach to the call center, and to customer service in general, can help alleviate the bad feelings.
Here are three steps that companies can take to achieve a stronger omnichannel presence and make customers happier:
1. Consider using AI for help with frequently-encountered issues
In the not so distant past, if you were a call center, this meant getting customers off the phone as soon as possible—even if issues weren't solved. But the goal today must be getting customers in and out of calls quickly, with their issue completely resolved.
"One good example is a customer problem that is likely to result in a merchandise return," said J.C. Ramey, CEO of DeviceBits, which provides conversational digital agents and interactive content for customer self service. "Companies can use AI (artificial intelligence) on all of their customer service channels to see which types of customer calls or questions ultimately lead to a part replacement and the generation of an RMA (return material authorization). If AI software lets the agent know that a return situation is likely unfolding, the agent can simply tell the customer that a new part is on the way and do the RMA. This saves both the agent and the customer frustration, and the issue is solved." Once the RMA is issued and the call is closed, the system can also immediately a central database that all telephone and online chat channels also access, so everyone has a 360-degree view of the action that has been taken.
2. Develop better customer frustration detection
Documentation of previous conversations with agents from any channel, or even with salespeople from a brick and mortar store can all be pulled into a single database. This helps the agent, who can use this information to fully understand the customer's pain points, issues, and everything the customer has been through during the servicing of a request. At the same time, the call center can utilize AI systems that analyze customer and agent voice inflections in real time. These systems can detect when voices start to rise or when signs of anger begin to manifest in a conversation. At these points, the system can flag a supervisor, who can intervene, if needed.
3. Make sure automated systems function well
Overly complicated automated phone trees and online self-service, or FAQs that don't actually provide the answers customers are looking for won't score high in customer satisfaction surveys. They also won't contribute much content to the universal knowledge database that omnichannel requires. For this reason, companies should monitor the effectiveness of their automated customer service channels, detecting signs of frustration like high abandon rates. The more that automated service channels are fine-tuned to respond to customers, the more they will be able to contribute meaningful content that the call center and other customer service channels can utilize.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.