This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to customer experience management best practices, technologies

Cross-channel communication CEM support: A work in progress

Industry experts say companies need to step up plans for cross-channel customer service or risk damaging customer experience management strategies.

By 2008, Robert Leach, the chief information officer at AAA Western and Central New York, knew the auto club needed to improve its communications. He launched a customer experience management (CEM) plan based on cross-channel communication support so customers could move from channel to channel as needed -- without a drop in service.

“Quite frankly, our members are comfortable with the channels that they pick,” Leach said. 

He also predicted it would take years, and he was right on the money. The auto club is on schedule to complete integration as well as add video channels by 2015.

This seven-year timetable actually puts AAA Western and Central New York well ahead of the game.  Many companies haven’t even launched a cross-channel plan program, in part because the money isn’t there, but also because these efforts are highly complex and typically call for big changes to technologies and processes.

Cross-channel communication is crucial 

Analysts warn that companies need a cross-channel plan because it is becoming more and more significant to overall customer experience management strategies. These days, one bad customer service experience can make or break a customer relationship.

If a company can’t deliver quality service, “it erodes their brand, especially if it is easy for customers to defect,” said Kate Leggett, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

With true cross-channel support, customers are able to contact a company and shift channels, perhaps starting with a Web chat and moving to a phone call, and receive consistent service.

However, many companies support multiple channels as if each were its own fiefdom. Most people can relate to the frustrating experience of moving from customer rep to customer rep -- even on the same channel -- and with each switch, the customer must start from square one, as if all of his information and the history of the service issue had not yet been discussed.

“You can phone, you can email, you can send a rude message through social media, but for a lot of companies [these communications] arrive at different places, to different people, and in some cases, some are handled by an outsourcer; others internally,” said Richard Snow, a vice president and research director at Ventana Research.

“So, this is a huge challenge,” Snow added. “The communications are happening, but there’s little integration.”

Robert Frost, senior director of global client relations at software company Acronis Inc., agreed that offering fully integrated customer service is a daunting task. “I would agree that keeping track of the full customer experience is very difficult,” Frost said. “An email or chat, you have the script. But if it’s phone, it’s up to the front line. You have to count on them to document it. That’s a real challenge.”

Cross-channel communication starts with culture change

Providing seamless support requires significant technology and process improvements on the back end. Many contact centers are not yet able to make cross-channel support a top priority because they are so focused on putting out fires and installing more basic technologies. To provide consistent service, companies need to improve not only methods of tracking and routing customer communications from different sources, but also creating and maintaining customer records that pull data from multiple sources.  

When Forrester asked 300 companies which upgrades they are planning for their contact centers in the next 12 months, only 10% of the respondents said they plan to invest in multichannel support. More companies will be investing in workforce optimization, with 37% of respondents indicating this is where their contact center dollars will go. Companies will also be spending to upgrade their interactive voice response (IVR) systems (32%) and computer telephony integration (27%).

Paul Stockford, president and founder of Saddletree Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., said cross-channel support is not yet a reality for many companies because they don’t have the culture to support it. Business units function as silos instead of sharing customer information. What is more, many companies have traditionally not spent money on leading-edge technologies for the contact center.

“There is a top layer of companies, the cream of the crop, that are trying to make cross-channel happen,” Stockford said. “But for most contact centers, this is not going to be invested in any time soon.”

Short of true integration, companies can take steps to improve existing service in the near term, analysts said.

“They can take a big step back and look at how well they are measuring up to their benchmarks for customer service,” Forrester’s Leggett said. “Look at your pain points and come up with actionable projects that you can do in the next 12 months.”

“These are not necessarily technology investments,” Leggett added. “It could be agent training. Have a good look at yourself and figure out how you can do it better.”

Acronis, for example, is identifying key points in the customer service process where the company can guide customers to a more satisfactory experience. For example, a customer may pose a question by email, which has an up-to-three-day response time. Even when the company comes in well ahead of that goal and responds within 24 hours, customers may still feel that takes too long. Yet they stick with email because they are comfortable with it, Acronis’ Frost said.

So the company now has a “last chance to chat!” pop-up that it uses for customers using email to give them the option of getting a problem resolved in real time through chat instead of sticking with email.

“We are trying to convince people to go to the channel that will likely make them happier,” Frost said.

Also, the company is working on a new feature that will pop up a red flag with a customer service phone number when a customer is about to send an email that has been designated as a highest-severity problem. This will be a reminder that there are quicker ways to get the problem solved.

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