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Why multichannel customer service is the new mandate

Companies have to serve customers where they are. Multichannel customer service is the new mandate for business.

Weather disruptions turn normally placid airline customers into insurgents faster than they can tweet their indignation. Considering, up-to-the-minute action updates from corporations are crucial, along with multiple channels for direct, timely customer service.

It can be tricky to be responsive while monitoring real-time customer sentiment. The runaway proliferation of ways to communicate means customers are defecting from call centers and email messages to use public chat platforms and private corporate apps.

Social media channels have become a critical outlet for customer service and for accommodating customers who are less prone to pick up the phone to reach a company's contact center. But digital channels like social media can deliver information fast and furious, and they aren't as high-touch as call centers. Companies still have work to do to incorporate social into their portfolio of customer service options without neglecting other, more high-touch avenues.

Social as the canary in the coalmine

For JetBlue Airways, social media alerts can be a canary in a coalmine for operations issues -- weather-related or otherwise. They draw attention to stranded flyers, angry travelers and customer service issues.

On social channels, agents handle multiple interactions simultaneously. Although initial wait times may be longer due to the volume of Facebook or Twitter posts, once a problem is identified, a call center agent can usually take action more quickly and with greater privacy than an online chat can.

The runaway proliferation of ways to communicate means customers are defecting from call centers to use public chat platforms.

"While we can assist individual customers via social [media], it's obviously not an ideal channel for individual assistance," said Morgan Johnston, the airline's social media strategist." The social team's staffing is significantly smaller than our call center staffing," he added. "We also use the channel to point at alternate resources … such as self-service options on Jetblue.com or additional information."

Companies are on guard for real-time ranting from angry customers via social media. And while customer service is key, so is feedback. Real-time social media responses should be handled carefully -- doing too much can be viewed as astroturfing, while doing too little might lead to a posse complaining about bad customer service or inattention -- such as the YouTube video "United Breaks Guitars," which pilloried the airline after a customer's guitar was damaged. The video received 13 million views.

"Generally customers turn to social media when they have time on their hands and access to tech, but only email or call if there's a specific need," said Laurie Meacham, who directs JetBlue's customer commitment team.

"Because of this, we can often forecast call volume or emails based on the weather outlook and marketing calendar." Customer expectations don't always align with the ways in which companies use these channels -- when an angry Facebook request for a refund gets no response, for example. Some companies note on their social media platforms that customers shouldn't expect service complaints to be answered and counsel them to call or email directly, but customers want to be able to voice complaints from wherever they are.

JetBlue and QVC Network were among early adopters of Voice over Internet Protocol telephony to scale up call center capacity and let remote workers handle inbound calls from their homes. Now, providers such as LiveOps are hosting "virtual" multichannel customer interactions across voice, email, chat, social media and SMS with similar flexibility.

The customer at the forefront

What's keeping some organizations behind the eight-ball is the failure to consider messaging from a customer viewpoint, said Corinne Sklar, chief marketing officer at Bluewolf Inc., a San Francisco-based company that consults on integrating data and CRM systems like Salesforce.com with contact center operations.

"Nowadays, if you work in a call center you need a complete view of the customer -- marketing, sales, social -- and all the interactions," she said. "There are applications that turn your call center into an engagement hub. These organizations are saying you can't just hire more people and reduce call times. It's time to make a change."

Some concerns about these new channels are demographic-based: Younger customers prefer to use a "do-it-yourself" approach to customer service by searching user forums. But this approach may not involve direct contact with the company, making it more difficult to identify and remedy questions.

Customized apps deliver yet another channel to communicate with customers. A survey by IBM Social Business indicated 34% of respondents have or will cut their use of SMS, and 31% have or will reduce voice calling as traffic moves to new channels – such as mobile applications -- and as innovative companies move communications and their services closer to the customer.

Car dealers are now using online appointment calendars, some of which will deliver cars for a test-drive instead of requiring customers to go to the dealership. Virgin Atlantic is testing Google Glass at Heathrow Airport lounges as a way to deliver data to its staff, including information about each passenger's destination and drink or food preferences.

Even brick-and-mortar retailers are trying to link online and in-person purchases using personalization from vendors, including Sailthru, which reported a 25% increase in interaction. Segmentation, analytics and reporting are bundled together to yield faster, deeper insights into actions across multiple channels. Encouraging in-person shoppers to interact online is appealing to retailers like Staples, Apple, Nordstrom, and products such as Quirky. Surveys, promotions and incentives can drive just the right level of involvement.

Organizations increasingly have to take a 360-degree look and manage brand communication and service or support, which means talking to customers with the right message and tone, said Matt Anchin, senior vice president of global communications at Monster Worldwide.

"We're in the midst of a change. The rules essentially change when the conversation is public," he said.

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