Omni Channel Now It's a Reality - but Still Harder Than it Sounds
One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on many businesses is that lock downs and restrictions changed the availability of certain channels e.g. retail outlets, and simultaneously changed customer behaviour. Digital, chat and other forms of messaging experienced sudden increases in use and at the same time some organisations had to find different work for retail staff and handle increased digital and chat support. For example, one insurance business has changed the role of retail staff so that they now form the core of their messaging team. This is a win-win. Handling messages can fill gaps between the variable demand of walk-up traffic in retail and it enables a company to maintain a retail workforce and presence. This kind of omni-channel model creates flexibility for an organisation.
We first identified this potential back in 2015 with a paper that we called “the five myths of omni channel”. Seeing these recent developments made us go back to that paper and revisit those five myths which were barriers to successful omni channel strategies. The barriers were that:
Each channel needs dedicated and specialist skills
All channels are created equal for all processes
Processes in each channel are different
Customers should control channel choice
Omni-channel solutions are more expensive
The reason for investigating these ideas is that in many organisations, channels seem to have grown up separately and organically. A common strategy has been to trial a new mechanism like chat or social media in a dedicated team. These teams then gradually expand and takes on a life of their own. Often channels are owned in different places in an organisation, and they have grown up in different systems and platforms. Thus, in many organisations we have seen the creation of channel silos. Each of the channels has its own staff, processes and way of working and while the organisation may claim it is now delivering an Omni-channel experience, we think they merely have “lots of channels”. The changes forced by the dramatic need for work from home and the rise of apps and digital have created a more urgent need to bring channels together. This paper explores five barriers to that and how they can be overcome.
Barrier 1: Each channel needs dedicated and specialised skills
As chat expanded fast in a major Australian business, the GM of the contact centres only hired staff with good typing and writing skills. In that operation each of the channels had separate teams and there was no cross-skilling between them. However, the very same centre recognised that customers are jumping around between channels, starting working in one and completing it in another.
They had Omni-channel customers and a channel silo operating model. Unfortunately, this channel silo approach is a recipe for a poor customer experience, and it is often very inefficient. In one recent client we saw the chat team creating long waits for chats, while the main call centre had spare capacity. The channel silo approach meant that people could not move between roles to meet the demand and there was no mechanism to manage cross channel demand.
With good design it is possible for staff to work across channels. This doesn’t necessarily mean fully blended operation in which an agent takes a chat one minute, then replies to an email and then takes a call. It’s very hard for staff to switch behaviours to do that. However, it is certainly possible for someone to spend a set period of time in each function and be available as a contingency for other functions. That provides the benefits of flexibility and lets people get into the right “mental” work mode. This model can produce dramatic benefits such as removing email backlogs and helping protect call centre and chat service levels. However, it needs consistency of management and process tools as we’ll describe.
Barrier 2. All channels are created equal for all processes
The other impact of dedicated channel teams is that they tend to want to keep the work in their channel. Many email teams embark on lengthy dialogues with their customer that are very ineffective. The worst we observed was 26 email exchanges over 6 weeks that still didn't sort the problem.
It can be very hard to sort complex issues via email or chat because they are more “serial” than the flow of a conversation.
Not only do complex issues not get resolved, but the end-to-end duration is days rather than minutes. In many email and chat teams no one calls the customer. It is almost as if staff become addicted to their own channel. On the flip side, we’ve observed call teams who can’t or won’t email anything to their customers and been in branches who have no process for email or phone follow up. Our observation is that few organisations have designed processes to span channels. Processes tend to be designed solely in one channel.
It takes conscious design within channels to bring them together and create Omni-channel processes. That can be as simple as sending an email or SMS at the end of a call or recognising when to talk to a customer in a chat/message or email scenario. Working this way can deliver over 25% reduction in process times and higher rates of resolution by creating these cross-channel processes. In one example, an email team went from a backlog of 1000 emails (three days’ work) to a one-hour response time, because the new processes converted the complex emails to calls that were more efficient and of course the customers got faster answers and fulfilment, so they were delighted.
Barrier 3: Proceses in each channel are different:
In contrast one of the logical implications of customers expecting an "Omni-channel experience", is their
expectation that processes will be consistent.
Sales is an area where we have seen ludicrous differences. Customers can get one price on the web and then a different price if they talk to someone, or a third when they walk into a store. Of course we understand that the costs of an internet sale may be lower and it’s an inducement to use the digital channel. However, customers still find it stupid and annoying. We’ve also seen massive differences in service processes. The web digital channel may need just one ID and password while the call centre asks for 3 or 4 pieces of ID. Customers just don’t get it.
We use our Best Practice Procedures (BPPs) concept to design consistent processes across channels. The BPP process is an agile process using customer centric design to create customer friendly processes quickly. These BPPs iron out the differences between channels and as we’ll discuss below, also enable processes that cross channels. After implementation, our clients have gained major increases in customer satisfaction, while reducing workload. Omni channel processes can produce those double wins and staff also get greater satisfaction from sorting problems in sensible ways.
Barrier 4. The customer has to control the channel choice Our 2014 book, Your Customer Rules!, promotes “choice” as one of seven key needs of customers so we’re all in favour of giving customers choices. However, customers don’t have perfect information particularly on which channel will be most effective. They often don’t know that it’s quicker and easier to do things a certain way unless you tell them. Some organisations seem to be interpreting customer driven Omni-channel to mean “we’ll let the customer choose”, regardless of the implications. That can be a recipe for poor experiences and inefficiency.
Even with automated tools like chat bots, it’s important that customers know what they can’t do in the bot rather than to try and fail repeatedly. Most customers are extremely grateful to be told that completing a process in another channel may be more effective. They love being given informed choices particularly where the benefits are explained. This is far better than leaving them in a channel that will deliver a frustrating or ineffective experience.
Another feature of Best Practice Procedures, is that they can build in these channel choices and create processes that span channels. For example, agents can be given tools and processes to link customers to self-service or apps or even show them how an alternative channel works. This is a classic “guided” channel choice that saves the customer and company time. Customers are more satisfied when they are shown these choices if it is done in a way that respects their time. For example, call centre staff can show customers how to use an app. They help the customer have an Omni-channel experience and become omni channel guides. So, it is important for the business to know which channel is best and to help customers work that out.
Barrier 5: Omni channel costs more
An emerging myth is that Omni-channel strategies cost more. Our evidence suggests that badly structured Omni-channel cost more, however, we’ve shown that done the right way, they save a great deal of money. So many of the first four myths we have covered produce these extra costs such as - channel teams that are in silos and sub scale process steps duplicated across channels e.g. repeating identification as customers cross channels - using the wrong channel for the wrong process - letting the customer choose an inappropriate channel - not educating customers on other potential channels for future use. If organisations just add more staff and more silos as they add channels, then this will cost more. However, if they start to blend work and exploit the benefits of each channel then this should be cheaper and more effective.
Design of processes that span and exploit channels can help lower costs. The channels also need to be managed in a consistent and integrated way. The technology can help by, for example, enabling blending of different types of work. This may also need multi-channel “operations framework” that ensures the teams and work are managed in an integrated way. This can include a well structured daily huddle in which operations management decide where staff will work today, (again there is more flexibility if staff span channels). Over the day, an effective real time management process deploys staff to the channel of greatest need. Using this framework some organisations have eliminated the need for dedicated channel teams as the framework exploits variable channel demand through the day. In one example, a real time function managed calls, email, web-chat and social media and raised the service levels of all four whilst reducing staff. So true Omni-channel operations should be cheaper to run.
The latest trends around channel use and customers expectation of use of varied channels has made it even more important to design omni-channel ways of working. Technology vendors claim that their solutions provide all the answers and they can be a great help. However, the problems and solutions described here show that process design, skill structures and management are also critical. We are happy to share our experiences with you in more detail and explain how these solutions work. Please call us 03 9499 3550 and we’d be pleased to talk these ideas through, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.