It might have been a big waste of time and money.

A new study by CX Act, a customer experience improvement firm, shows the most frequently used and most effective customer touch point is personal contact by phone. The study (registration required), which updates a study the company originally conducted for the White House in 1980, concludes:

While companies can’t ignore the need to offer a multichannel strategy and digital channels are likely to grow in importance (especially since younger consumers are more likely to use digital touch points), what matters NOW for creating an optimal customer contact experience is providing a phone or in-person customer interaction that delivers on the brand promise."

Who Says?

Jim Stone

CX Act has been around more than 40 years. But until less than a month ago, it was known as TARP Worldwide. In late February, the Rosslyn, Va.-based company rebranded and shook up its leadership team by hiring Jim Stone, former chief research and innovation officer at Maritz Research, as its first Chief Customer Officer (CCO).

Founded in 1971, CX Act boasts that it "pioneered the science of quantifying and managing the customer experience and applying that knowledge to help clients realize bottom-line results."

It markets itself as a champion of measurement and guidance to help clients improve customer service performance, customer value and what it calls "The Profit of Customer Experience.” 

Stone told CMSWire the company conducted the Touchpoint Study to determine the most important customer contact levers, as well as get a better understanding of the current state of contact handling by interaction method and industry. He said the study, which reflects responses from more than 3,000 respondents, sheds light on what drives loyalty and word-of-mouth — both online and offline.

A Matter of Heart

Long before there was digital anything, French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty noted, "We know not through our intellect but through our experience."

And maybe that simple but profound observation that Merleau-Ponty made in 1945 underscores the findings of the CX Act study. Because when it's all said and done, for all the attention brands pay to their digital touch points — like social media, email and online chat — when it comes to engaging customers and providing customer service, customers still prefer offline methods and the most personal touch points, like phone conversations and face-to-face interaction, Stone explained.

"Truthfully, I'm not surprised. We still very much like that personal touch," he said. "I've heard people say Twitter is the new 800-number. But that's just not true. The fact is, many of our customer service issues are driven by an emotional component, and when we have an emotional issue, we want human contact. We want empathy and understanding."

For the Record …

Just to set the record straight, customer service, by most definitions, is a subset of CX — a broad area that focuses on the design, implementation and management of interactions that happen across the entire customer journey. This includes the interactions that take place as customers discover, evaluate, buy, access, use, get support, reengage and leave. 

Study Highlights

The study found customers are looking for a personalized two-way dialogue to solve their questions and problems "in an efficient and effective manner" in a way that strengthens their emotional attachment to the brand.

CX Act Touchpoint Chart

What industries generate the most customer complaints? Telecom companies (TV, cable and Internet providers) and banks are the two highest, followed by credit card issuers, restaurants, wireless providers, auto, home and life insurance companies, retailers, hotels, health insurers and automotive service providers.

Learning Opportunities

Overall, customers identified the phone as the most effective channel for resolving issues, with little difference by industry. When asked why they prefer to contact a company by phone they noted that they:

  • Prefer speaking to a person (42 percent)
  • Like being able to explain the situation with more detail (28 percent)
  • Like being able to ask questions (26 percent)
  • Get a faster response (26 percent)

More than half of customers (52 percent) said they make their initial contact with a company by phone. About 23 percent use email or a web form, 17 percent contact the company in person and only 1 percent use social media or a mobile app. Of course, the study found, this varies by industry: customers are more likely to make a personal visit to a businesses with a strong local presence (like a supermarket or bank) and use email for those with a strong digital presence (think airlines and on-line retailers). 

Customers who are very satisfied with how their initial contact was handled are more than four times more likely to continue to buy the product/ service than those who were dissatisfied with contact handling.  And effective contact handling also impacts word-of-mouth: People with complaints are more likely to share their experiences with others (69 percent to 53 percent).

Effective contact handling on the first interaction results in more loyal customers, less negative word-of-mouth and more positive word-of-mouth, Stone stressed.

But what if the problem persists after that initial contact?

  • Most customers who used the phone the first time (86 percent) will use it again
  • Four out of 10 who initially contact a company by a channel other than phone will pick up the phone if subsequent contacts are needed

What It Means 

"It's a tricky time for businesses," Stone acknowledged. While most customers will still use traditional contact methods, a minority of the vocal ones will turn to social media — "so businesses can't ignore that channel." He noted: 

More than half of the customers tell someone about their contact experience, but the vast majority (85 percent) do it in-person. Only 22 percent turn to social media; a significant percentage to be sure, but further proof that the digital age has not yet replaced direct communication as our primary means of sharing experiences — or getting help."

One of the most important things a business can do is to be truly omnichannel. Stay abreast of the latest digital technologies, but don't ignore the traditional forms of customer contact — and make sure your customer contact center agents are as well trained as possible. 

CX Act has found that frontline customer service agents usually know what to do, but often are lacking on knowing how to deliver the personalized interaction that delivers on the brand promise and provides the optimal customer experience.

Those companies that excel in satisfying contactors allocate appropriate resources to ensure that the frontline employees delivering the service through the most important contact channel — phone — are adequately trained and supported to provide a highly engaged interaction that delivers on the brand promise. These companies will be rewarded with increased satisfaction, loyalty and positive word-of mouth that reinforces positive brand image."

Title image by Northfoto / Shutterstock.