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From the KANA-sponsored Forrester report

So many channels, so little time. That might be the consumer’s lament, if he or she could voice one. A new report from Forrester finds that customers are feeling free to switch between channels of communication and companies will just have to learn how to adapt.

This study's title provides a summary of its intentions: “Your Customers Are Demanding Omni-Channel Communications. What Are You Doing About It?” Commissioned by customer service/customer experience vendor KANA Software, it found that, 75 percent of the time, customers will move to another communication channel if they are unsatisfied with an earlier contact method. As a result, operational costs for serving these customers are increasing, with 42 percent of agents having to manage inquiries via voice, chat, email or social media.

Time Saved is the Best Service

In fact, it’s not just that customers want to be able to switch channels. They want to be able to switch channels and continue the same conversation with the brand.

Customers are also very wary of their time. Seventy-one percent say valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide good service. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they are prepared to drop an online purchase if they can’t find a quick answer to an important question.

And channels just keep growing. Several that are growing in popularity -- virtual agents, screen sharing, SMS and click-to-call among them -- were barely in use a few years ago. Two-thirds of the study’s respondents use web self-service, 43 percent employ online chat/instant messaging, and about a third utilize online communities. Customers’ usage of phone-based customer service has not decreased, even as text-based and social channels have increased.

“This fundamental shift,” the report said, is making it “increasingly difficult to deliver customer experiences in-line with customer expectations.” This is a key reason that only 38 percent of companies reviewed by Forrester earned an “excellent” or a “good” rating in the research firm’s customer experience index rating, which measures the ease, usefulness and enjoyment of doing business with the company. Nearly two-thirds were rated as “OK” or “very poor.”

The Importance of Agents

Managing all of those channels, integrated with back-end systems, is still not as transparent and easy for agents or administrators as it could be. Forrester found that a third of the surveyed companies lack access to such basic information as “where is my order?” Forty percent still do not have an easy method for collaboration with one another or with subject matter experts to resolve problems.

This Forrester report echoes other studies, which point out that customer service will be a major factor in a customer’s overall experience and the two need to be aligned. Sixty percent of respondents cited in this study said the strategic goals of service and experience were well aligned at their company.

In this alignment, then, agents become major drivers of good customer experience, helping to deliver good customer satisfaction scores that result in loyal customers. The study pointed out the obvious fact that agents with the necessary information at hand and the ability to resolve questions or issues quickly are essential to maintaining happy customers.

The Next Questions

As companies assess how to handle customers across many channels, however, some questions should be asked to move the conversation forward.

Each communication channel is different by nature, so how does the customer experience/customer service conveyed through a given channel differ from others? Should companies emphasize customer self-service over agent-based service, or even get out of real-time agent-based service altogether? One certainly finds it harder and harder to locate the phone number for a live person on websites -- how is that approach faring?

KANA says companies should not “ignore any channel.” But if a few key channels are handled well for customer service -- say, phone, email and live chat -- does a company need to support other channels? These are just some of the questions that new studies of the omni-channel universe might begin to ask.