The Omnichannel Journey

The Omnichannel Journey

/ Technology, Omnichannel, Strategic management
The Omnichannel Journey

Solutions providers offer insights on the omnichannel evolution and how it will impact your center.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the buzz was all about multichannel. Today, the word omnichannel has become omnipresent.

While many use the terms interchangeably, there is an important distinction between the two. The meaning of the root words holds the key: “Multi” is more than one, while “omni” means in all ways or places. Thus, while a multichannel approach may offer a variety of channels to communicate with customers, each channel may be managed on a separate system and lack insight into the customer’s activity on the other channels. With an omnichannel experience, the customer’s information, history and interaction activity is connected on the back end, providing the organization with a holistic view of the entire journey and a seamless, personalized experience for customers, even when switching channels.

While many organizations are currently providing multichannel customer service, few as yet have evolved their strategy and systems to deliver a true omnichannel customer experience. And yet, customers today expect personalized, consistent service no matter how they contact the company.

How can contact centers prepare for the transition from multichannel to omnichannel? We asked several industry solutions providers to share their insights in this Q&A panel. The advice they offer can help you to start your omnichannel journey off on the right foot.

What are the top challenges that contact centers face when transitioning to an omnichannel strategy?

Anna Convery:

One of the top challenges faced by customer experience leaders regarding omnichannel initiatives is the definition of what omnichannel means to their organization. Omnichannel is, in and of itself, not a metric of success—what it means in terms of delivering better, differentiated and efficient customer service is. Many organizations have invested heavily in customer service channels, and continue to refine and add more channels. The ability to stitch these channels together to get an omnichannel view and to enable customer service levels to be consistent and efficient across channels has been challenging.

The contact center has found itself front and center in the omnichannel push. First, because the contact center is often regarded as the center of excellence and the hub of wisdom for customer service transactions, and second, because the contact center is on the receiving end of the points of failure of other channels—your mobile channel doesn’t work, call the contact center; the website doesn’t work, call the contact center; you have no visibility into your claim, call the contact center! As such, this is both an opportunity for the contact center and a challenge.

Gaining visibility across channels and the domino effect of omnichannel activity is key… leveraging cross-channel activity and transaction analysis becomes vital. Ensuring that the customer receives a consistent, efficient and optimized service no matter which channel is very important: Remember, customers expect to be treated as individuals, not a series of individual transactions—so integration of disparate systems and automatically aggregating key customer data is foundational.

Finally, contact centers must enable and empower their agents to support the omnichannel strategy through training, streamlining systems and sharing critical data. This is especially important if the agent is responding to a customer with a broken transaction in another channel.

Madelyn Gengelbach:

There are a couple of challenges that contact centers have: one is technological and one is people. Regarding the technological challenge, does the contact center have the infrastructure today to move to an omnichannel strategy? The numbers would show that the answer is often no. Many contact centers now have disparate channels. Voice is most common and is routed by an ACD. Email is not being routed by the ACD. Chat is routed in yet another way. It’s difficult to monitor what is going on and also ensure maximum productivity. Here, the channels don’t play well or talk together easily.

The other challenge is a people challenge. There is this sense that there must be a really rapid acceleration of channels—it’s n+1: Add one channel, and then the next, and then the next, and so on. It’s this idea that there is an inexorable pull to adding channels. Sometimes you may have a shortage of agents who can handle another channel.

For instance, when I worked in a contact center there were agents who were extraordinarily gifted at handling people over the phone. But your dream agent for voice may not be your dream agent for chat. An agent’s written skills may not be as developed as his or her verbal skills. The fantastic voice agent may not be ready or suited for chat’s written and concurrent nature.

Michael Gregorio:

The contact center’s top challenges will be: product (technology), process and people.

Most of the products and applications used in contact centers today are largely obsolete because of their outdated programming models, lack of a native cloud and poor abilities in predicting customer journeys.

Contact center point solutions, such as IVR/ACD or consolidated agent desktops, address specific functionality very well. However, they typically do not provide integration points with other business applications, nor do they support interactions across the customer journey. Organizations that use these systems are often faced with multiple data-entry efforts and disconnected sets of customer data, making it difficult to report accurate information and enforce business process.

More important is the general fact that none of these types of systems speak to customer engagement across multiple channels. As organizations face a more connected, more distributed customer base, they must address the changing requirements of a new generation of interaction between contact center agents and consumers while maintaining a consistent brand experience.

Brian Koma:

The No. 1 challenge when transitioning to an omnichannel strategy is the ability to identify a customer and a common interaction which that customer is having, and then connect the activity so that the organization can view the pathway, the customer’s journey and the success of that journey as the customer interacts with the brand.

The second challenge is that an omnichannel approach requires very different skill sets than a traditional call center. For instance, contact center staff that have been recruited for excellent telephone skills may not have the multitasking skills that are necessary for channels like chat, where you can have multiple sessions occurring simultaneously.

Contact center leaders also will have to consider where to find the right people to staff those channels. Do you have the right mix of skills in your center today or will you have to recruit new staff to handle these new channels? Do you ask for volunteers? We’ve seen several models in which contact centers have their existing staff self-identify whether they would be willing to take on some of these new components, as opposed to forcing them into it, because the skill sets are different.

Liz Osborn:

A key challenge is working with siloed applications. Organizations generally have different applications for chat, email, SMS—and they’re all cobbled together on top of a system that was originally built for voice. That makes it very difficult to deliver a seamless experience across channels.

Another challenge for larger organizations, in particular, is that different areas of the organization own different pieces of the customer experience. For example, in a large bank, one group may own checking accounts, another handles mortgages, while another owns credit cards—and each one has its own system. To the customer, it’s one account, but putting together the cross-channel customer experience creates a nightmare of complexity for the organization.

Keith Pearce:

The No. 1 challenge is gaining organizational consensus to be aligned to the customer, instead of to the business unit or the particular touchpoint that the business unit has brought to customers. The contact center is often left in an unenviable position when a department launches a channel that is customer-facing. Customers switch among channels an average of three to four times as they interact with a company throughout their customer journey—and they often end up in the contact center. Optimizing a touchpoint is great, but against the reality of the channel switching, you need the context of that channel interaction to be able to best serve the customer on the next channel.

It can be difficult to get the organization aligned on what the omnichannel approach is and who owns the customer experience. They will have to break down the silos of departmental touchpoints and channels that have been offered to customers to create a more holistic or omnichannel approach where, as customers move from channel to channel, the context of their interactions is passed along so they can get the best service action that they need.

Marilyn Saulnier:

First, there is much confusion between omnichannel and multichannel. Many think the terms are synonymous. There is actually a pretty significant difference between the two. Multichannel simply means you offer customers more than one access channel. Omnichannel channel takes it to another level by providing the customer with a seamless experience across all the channels supported. Omnichannel means a customer can contact you via multiple channels and the history of their contacts will be available; no need to start over again with each contact. Seamless. Easy.

Brad Snedeker:

The biggest challenge facing the business is defining what omnichannel means to their organization. True omnichannel ties together multichannel customer experiences. It’s meeting your customer wherever they interact with you and making that interaction a seamless, consistent experience. Once you understand what omnichannel means to your company, the next step is determining how that fits into your contact center and developing a strategy to integrate all channels within it. The most challenging of those channels being brick and mortar and tying that experience to other channels.

Another big challenge facing organizations is quality—actually gathering quality metrics within a process that’s aligned to the business strategy. Integrating quality evaluations, surveys, customer service scores, etc., and unifying those evaluations across all channels (calls, emails, chats, social).

What are the critical first steps that contact center leaders should focus on now?

Madelyn Gengelbach:

Identifying and prioritizing which channels to focus on is a critical first step. You don’t want to add channels unless you are ready to add the channel. Here’s an analogy, it’s spring so everyone is planting. But you don’t want to add a new garden unless you are prepared to take care of it. And you’ve got to continue to take great care of your current garden. Contact center leaders must take care of what they have and make it as good as it can be.

Yes, critical research shows that consumers want more channels, but they first want people to resolve their issues and also value their time. Contact centers must find the balance between what your customers want and what you are able to provide. Organizations should not be afraid to reach out and talk to their customers. Customers crave a good experience and are often willing to take an active role in their own customer experience.

After hearing the customer’s side you also need to ask yourself, “Where are we technologically?” Do you have technology or personnel barriers that make it hard to add channels? Take an honest look and inventory before you add channels. Before you add that garden.

Liz Osborn:

First steps will depend on the maturity of the organization and where it is in the omnichannel journey.

If the organization is just beginning and is taking baby steps, they can start by documenting the needs and the wants of their customers and the business, as well as any compliance requirements. For example, for voice calls, customers’ needs may include the hours of operation, speed of answer, max hold times, etc. Then, what are their wants? They want to get their questions answered, they want the agent to be friendly, they don’t to waste their time. You can document all of the needs and wants at a basic level.

Next, focus on building basic access to cross-channel information. For instance, CRM integration—using screen pops to deliver customer information to the agent desktop as a call arrives. This technology has been around for decades, yet statistics show that only about half of contact centers offer that today. Another basic step is to ensure that your IVR application has the ability to collect the data that customers input and transfer that information to the agent. This is another capability that has been around for a long time, but the statistics are even worse here—only about 30% to 40% of contact centers are doing that today.

More sophisticated organizations can begin to look at the overall customer journey—defining the the customer experience and all of the touchpoints from end to end.

Keith Pearce:

There are technology implications, as well as organizational ones, but the questions that we see more and more from contact center leaders are: How do we view our customers’ journeys and understand the interactions that they have across those journeys? How do we start to organize ourselves around the customer experience instead of being organized by business unit? The contact center has an opportunity to move up significantly in strategic value if they can lead that discussion.

The reasons why customers interact with companies can be isolated into four or five customer journeys (which will vary by industry): When they buy, when they’re being onboarded, when they need help, and when they’re at end of contract. If contact centers begin to take a customer journey-centric approach, then it’s not about who owns what—the focus shifts to how you manage the interaction points. For instance, during account signup, what are the interaction points that customers are likely to invoke to get service? The contact center evolves from handling complaints and resolving problems to a journey manager approach—and the frontline agents become journey manager specialists in a particular step in the journey. They’re not handling everything that a customer might call about; they’re finely attuned to the account signup journey, for instance, and everything that entails.

For us, that’s the future of the contact center—moving from a cost to a strategic asset to a key component for delivering on the promise of journey management and bringing innovation to the contact center. Until now, innovation in the contact center has focused on getting better yield out of people and keeping customers in self-service because it’s cheaper. It has been about the company and not the customer.

Marilyn Saulnier:

Assess your contact center’s current performance. Are you consistently meeting your service level and customer experience objectives on your current channels? Identify and address any gaps you have before jumping into the deep end. The last thing you want is more channels to provide poor service and risk losing customers and damaging your brand reputation.

It is a major leap from a fairly traditional contact center to an omnichannel center with blended and simultaneous interactions. Everything changes. Make sure that you understand the changes and make the necessary adjustments to your organizational structure, agent skillset requirements, quality program, metrics and reporting, and forecasting and scheduling methodology. It’s 80% planning and 20% execution.

How can organizations identify—and prioritize—which channels to focus on?

Anna Convery:

With any initiative that involves your customers, it’s important to listen proactively to get ahead of what your customer base desires and how they want to communicate with you. Not all channels are created equal and some are much better suited to some transactions or customer profiles than others. Routinely evaluate what your customers are saying, analyze trends of your existing channels and pay attention to the market. My customer service experience at my bank is not evaluated against another bank, rather, it is evaluated against my personal experience with my wireless provider, or my last online retail experience.

The most important part of having an omnichannel strategy is to give your customer the right choices for the transactions at hand… and make sure it works! Make doing business with you effortless, but keep intelligence at the forefront. Always have the ability to understand what is taking place across all channels… Transactions are the heartbeat of your enterprise, so you’ve got to monitor the pulse to keep all channels in an optimal state.

Michael Gregorio:

Many organizations believe they need to engage in all channels for the “ultimate omnichannel experience,” and that’s just not the case. It’s about quality over quantity—focusing on the customer relationship rather than the actual channel is key.

There is also an added dimension of—and complexity of—growing channels. Many organizations are scrambling to accommodate them all. Yet, a recent Forrester survey (“Q1 2015 U.S. Top 50 Brands Social Web Track”) found that just 0.22% of the top brands’ Facebook fans interact on that channel. On Twitter, Pinterest and Google+, that interaction rate is below 0.05% and falling fast.

To break through this noise, an organization needs to identify and prioritize where to orchestrate engagement across channels, including the fusion of inbound and outbound communication. For example, customers rarely use just one channel to complete an interaction, and many end up in the contact center. The majority of inbound calls to the contact center come from customers who first attempted to resolve an issue on a company’s website, while many callers are still on the company’s website as they are speaking to an agent.

Understanding your audience is one thing; knowing where customers will engage at multiple steps in the journey is another critical part of an omnichannel strategy.

Brian Koma:

First, make an inventory of the channels that you’re using today across the organization. We often see “disconnected listening” in organizations. The contact center may be handling telephone, while a technical support team within the organization may be using chat that you didn’t know about, and another area has suddenly decided that they’re going to allow customers to text them.

Then identify how you are listening and interacting with your customers across all of those channels. This gives you an opportunity to determine who’s doing what, how they’re doing it and how it intersects with what you’re doing within the contact center. Are there some best practices that you can pick up from other groups in the organization? How do we identify a customer in each one of those channels? Are other groups interacting with customers on things that the contact center is already doing? Are we duplicating efforts and increasing our expenses or causing confusion for customers about how they want to interact with us?

Next, very simply ask your customers what their preferences are for interacting with your company in some sort of descending order. Be sure to honor those preferences as you move forward. Many companies forget to ask, so getting your customers to identify how they like to do this is an important point and can save you a lot of time. Then you can start looking at how to connect the dots and bring some of those touchpoints together.

Liz Osborn:

Creating a customer journey map will allow you to view the entire customer journey—from the first time they hear about you through evaluation of the product, sales and post support, and all the touchpoints that a customer would use for each of those.

Perform a gap analysis: Create a two-dimensional graph by plotting your customer journey along one axis and, along the other axis, how important that channel is to that customer at that point in time. By looking at and rating the channels, you may find that there some channels your customers are using, but which are not that important to them.

I recommend surveying your customers to find out what their preferences are, as well. There is a lot of great benchmark data available that will give you additional insights into general consumer preferences. For instance, Dimension Data publishes a benchmark survey every year. They offer a free summary that provides quite a bit of data about consumer channel preferences by age. You can put all of that information together—the general preferences along with the specifics for your customer—to identify and prioritize the channels.

Keith Pearce:

Look at the entire customer journey and think through the interactions that customers are most likely to need at each step. In some cases, it might be that proactive notification becomes a key channel that contact centers can use at a certain part of the journey, rather than a traditional voice interaction. For example, at account renewal, proactively reach out to customers with an SMS or an outbound call instead of waiting to save a customer when they sign off of an account.

When you look at interactions in a journey context, you can start to be very intelligent about how you manage and prioritize them. Oftentimes, when the phone call comes to the contact center, it’s too late: A customer has had a billing issue, there has been an error in their account sign-up and their name is misspelled, or they’ve just come out of an IVR where they have tried unsuccessfully to enter their account information several times. That call lands on a contact center agent who has a very small chance of making it a good interaction.

In a journey-centric approach, customers would receive a proactive phone call or notification before they realize there is a problem. For example, “We apologize for a billing issue that occurred. Can you arrange a time to talk to us so we can sort it out?” And then the contact center agent can provide a credit to turn those negative experiences into wow moments that build loyalty. That’s the journey promise.

Marilyn Saulnier:

Survey your customers. Ask your QA team for input. Conduct agent focus group sessions. They know more about your customers than anyone in the company. Pilot new channels to validate your strategic assumptions and make necessary adjustments before rolling out.

How can the customer’s experience through multiple channels be tracked and measured?

Anna Convery:

An omnichannel strategy poses a myriad of different challenges when it comes to knowing what to track and why. Global enterprises are spending billions of dollars on analytics solutions. The “Big Data Revolution” has opened up a world where businesses can measure anything they wish, but what is the point of collecting data if it is difficult to organize and you don’t understand how you’re going to use it?

To truly know what is going on within each channel, it really involves many data points, including right down into the activity and transactions that take place on the desktop—your customers interacting with your agents and technology and vice versa. Having intelligence collected from desktop activities can help deliver a broad set of data that can be used to expose key areas of improvement, pinpoint “gold standard” behaviors that are resulting in increased revenue per transaction and trends over time that can give context into the customer journey and result in positive customer experience.

Susan Hash

Susan Hash

Susan Hash served as Editorial Director of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and the Pipeline blog from 2009-2021. She is a veteran business journalist with over 30 years of specialized experience writing about customer care and contact centers.
Twitter: @susanhash

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