The art of the possible: Omni-channel helplines
Whether you work in one or simply engage with them on a regular basis, helplines and other forms of contact centre services are a modern way of life.
Yet those in operation today are far removed from their humbler switchboard origins, as new technology raises customer expectations and opens up exciting new opportunities.
So what’s the difference between a ‘multi-channel’ and an ‘omni-channel’ helpline, and why does it matter so much to customers and the agencies which serve them?
A brief history of call centres
To understand contact centres today, it helps to know a little about where they’ve come from and what drives them.
It was in the 1960s that the first contact centres emerged, made possible by the advent of Automatic Call Distributor technology (ACD).
This meant that calls could be filtered and assigned to available agents based on an algorithm, reducing the need for human operators and creating a much more flexible system.
At first, call centres were found in the offices of major telephone companies, handling operator enquiries such as problems with connections.
By the 1970s and 1980s, advances in ACD technology meant that call centres began to go mainstream. Large business adopted them primarily for sales purposes: agents would contact customers to offer products and services, rather than take inbound calls themselves.
But all that was about to change.
Outbound to inbound
In 1985, British Telecom introduced freephone 0800 numbers. That created new possibilities for call centres: they became places to which customers turned for help or advice.
Up until then, most calls had been outbound. Now inbound calls were most definitely on the rise.
Of course, call centres continued to make sales – leading to complaints from customers!
In the United States, the Telephone Consumer Act was introduced in 1991 to restrict the hours that call centres could operate and limit the use of automatic dialling and messaging. In the UK, the Telephone Preference Service was introduced in 1999 allowing customers to opt out of receiving marketing calls, and further legislation was passed in the coming years.
But at the same time, when it came to inbound queries, contact centres were dialling it up a notch and branching out into new channels – in particular, the internet.
Contact centres today
In recent years, technology has provided us with ever more ways to contact companies, whether it’s in response to marketing, to make a complaint, book a service, find out information, or make an order and pay for it.
Contact centres today have long since diversified from telephones and now encompass all channels: social media, email, the internet, text messages, live chat, to name just a few.
They utilise modern software and AI technology to improve the answers they provide.
Customers expect, and usually receive, a more responsive service – even when it’s actually robots not humans who are responding – and are quick to take to social media if they are dissatisfied.
But, as Joe Rabah, managing director for EMEA at RMG Networks, says: “Yes, most modern contact centres are truly multi-channel. Most of them, however, are not omni-channel — yet.”
Multi-channel vs omni-channel
To state that there’s a world of difference between multi-channel and omni-channel might sound overblown.
However, this isn’t just marketing-speak. There really is a huge gulf between the two – and many businesses are failing to recognise it and take action to improve their provision.
Multi-channel involves operating two or more channels independently from one another. If a customer makes a social media post and then follows it up with a phone call, the agent answering the call has no record of the post.
This creates “silos of interaction histories and information” leading to a poor customer service experience and frustration for everyone involved. It’s also costly and inefficient for businesses, as it takes longer to resolve the issue.
Omni-channel centres, on the other hand, are built around one single queue into which all interactions made through any channel are routed.
Instead of silos, businesses now have full sight of the entire interaction history with each individual customer – including any attempts to self-serve before making official contact. They can apply business logic to ensure that all queries and issues are handled correctly.
Cue empowered customer service agents, satisfied customers and efficiency savings for businesses!
How is customer experience changing for Millennials?
As we all know, we live in an age when good customer experience is one of the crucial components in winning brand loyalty – indeed, some say it will be the key brand differentiator in 2020.
In part, this is due to the rise of the Millennial generation: digital natives with enough technical savvy to shop around online for the best deals and latest products.
Although Millennials were once deemed to have little brand loyalty, newer research shows that’s by no means the whole story. Rather, brands need to work harder to win over this digital native generation.
They have to earn their trust through hyper-transparency, using technological advances such as blockchain.
It’s also down to market segmentation: targeted marketing that speaks to what subsets of Millennials really care about.
Take the Henrys, for example – the High Earning, Not Rich Yet group that brands really want to win over for their large disposable incomes and future wealth potential.
They prize, among other things, entire experiences rather than mere products – and expect brands to provide these for them.
They also value excellent digital browsing, one-day delivery, and, of course, round-the-clock omni-channel customer service.
How does customer experience change in each sector?
If you’re reading this and thinking that good customer experience is only important for the Henrys of this world, and that they’re not your target audience, think again!
Ever heard the phrase ‘a joined-up approach’? Of course you have. And this is what all customers deserve, and what an omni-channel provision offers: a seamless, interactive experience.
Here’s a quick look at customer experience issues in three key sectors, and how an omni-channel approach can help your organisation achieve its aims.
When it comes to charity fundraising, building brand loyalty is key. All charities want to convert their occasional givers into long-term donor relationships; providing an excellent customer service is crucial to achieving this.
For charities which provide services to users, an excellent customer experience can literally save lives. A good experience encourages clients in crisis – for example dealing with addiction, mental health issues or debt – to trust the helpline and the advisers on the other end, take the support offered, and return for more help.
Omni-channel helplines also mean that crucial information presented by a client does not get stuck in a silo. Instead, advisers can build up a full and accurate picture so they can offer the very best support possible to all clients, even those in a very volatile state.
Councils are also adapting to new technology, with the Government Digital Service rolling out more than 1,750 services. Younger citizens in particular are increasingly choosing Facebook and Twitter as their preferred communications channels.
However, the GDS recognises that these channels are only useful if they’re built on a solid basis: a great customer experience.
Chatbots are leading the way. They are programmed to engage with customers, answer questions where possible, and refer to an advisor where not. The interface between humans and bots should be as seamless as possible.
Tests suggest that one voice-activated pilot chatbot, Monika, could answer 70-80% of queries about council tax. This extends the hours that people can contact their council, improving their customer experience; and also saves money for cash-strapped local authorities.
In the private sector, customisation is king. While Millennials may prefer personalised messages from brands, they don’t want to be bombarded with marketing.
Instead, they appreciate targeted notifications, for example, that an item they viewed is now on sale, or that they’ve forgotten to check out goods in an online shopping basket.
An omni-channel approach is also bringing online and bricks-and-mortar shopping experiences closer together. Customers can use apps to get up-to-date product information, so their high street shopping trips are not in vain. Vouchers, store cards and payment options are all usable across all shopping channels.
While new technology is enabling these advances, the challenge for brands is to keep messaging coherent across all channels.
Omni-channel approaches: vital for charities
Every sector relies on providing a good customer experience: indeed, one in three customers say they’ll give up on a brand they love after just one bad interaction.
However, it’s in the charity sector where this is most critical. It’s here, on the front line, that clients are at their most vulnerable and most in need of seamless, customised support, not silo thinking.
Paradoxically, perhaps, advances in technology behind the scenes are boosting the human support that charities can offer.
An omni-channel approach, therefore, makes the seemingly enormous task of supporting those in crisis become far more possible.