Just because it’s organizationally easier to manage channels separately doesn’t mean it’s right. 

Online is a channel but it does not stand in isolation. It needs to be managed in the context of other channels such as phone and face-to-face. Online we have various elements such as mobile, social and traditional websites. Everything needs to be managed together.

To do this, it’s better to manage the task rather than the channel. What are customers trying to do? How does each channel support these tasks? How can channels be complimentary to each other? Is a task started on one channel but completed on another? For example, a patient may come out of a doctor’s office and quickly checkup a diagnosis on their mobile phone, but then do much deeper research on their computer when they get home.

When you look at online from a cost perspective it would seem that everything should go there. In 2011, the US Technology Services Industry Association found that typical investment per task completion was 6 cent for the Web, US$ 162 for the phone and US$ 797 for a face-to-face visit.

Socitm, a professional association for the UK public sector, found that in 2010 a typical council (municipality) task cost 30 pence for online, £4 for the phone and £9 for face-to-face. Therefore, it would seem like a no-brainer to move everything online. Of course, we know it’s not as simple as that.

Online is self-service and self-service is best for high frequency, high simplicity tasks. It is least effective for low frequency, highly complex tasks. So, it’s very effective to give people an online option to choose their seat on an airline. But it is less effective to allow someone to go online and interpret the results of their spinal cord x-ray.

Self-service doesn’t work for everything. Management is about figuring out which tasks are best for self-service, which are most suitable for face-to-face, which tasks are mobile, etc. If you bring the wrong tasks into the wrong channel you create clutter and waste. And, of course, it may be that the first couple of steps for a task occur in one channel but that the task is completed on another. So, we need unified management around the task, not any particular channel.

Even when you identify the right tasks for online and really focus on optimizing online for these tasks, channel shift will not always be black and white. For example, in October 2008, South Tyneside Council had 2,202 telephone calls connected with waste and recycling but only 203 web visits for these tasks. They worked hard to simply their website and by April 2009 they had 3,902 web visits and 1,946 telephone calls. So, telephone calls had slightly dropped but web visits had grown dramatically. The simplified online task had expanded the demand.

A bank we worked with found that as they simplified their website, the number of phone calls dropped but the length of time per call increased. In fact, the nature of the calls changed from simple support requests to ones about the products and services the bank offered.

The modern world is a giant, deeply interlinked network. We must avoid managing channels in isolation and rather focus on customer's tasks.