Third-Party Channels Are Next Frontier of the Customer Service Journey

Customer service and support leaders have long been challenged to optimize channel resolution pathways to provide customers with a low-effort experience. Industry pressures have complicated these efforts, with new innovations in live and self-service expanding channel offerings and providing customers with greater choice in resolution.

While much of the focus has been on this internal channel optimization, service leaders have to begin accounting for a growing shift in customer engagement that will have a long-term impact on the service journey: third-party channel usage.

Third-party channels like YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, Pinterest, and TikTok have been around for some time, offering peer-to-peer information sharing with limited value. However, as platforms have expanded and offered improved quality of content delivery, and as digital-native Millennial and Gen Z creators have grown in expertise, the level of quality and trust in information and support provided in these channels has grown exponentially. In fact, 58 percent of younger customers (Millennials and Gen Z) indicated they trust third-party information sources as much as company-provided information. This is often the case because they find the information less biased than on company-owned channels.

These platforms provide simple, digestible content for solving complex issues. Content creators are providing product reviews, video clips, and photo journeys explaining how to use products or fix service-related issues.

With the "Right to Repair" movement expanding and challenging organizations' ability to keep certain IP behind company walls, making it easier for customers to access and share previously protected information. For example, household appliances or technology outages can be diagnosed and often solved through a video clip on an expert YouTube channel.

This content is searchable and becoming a part of younger generations' service journey: 66 percent of Millennials and 56 percent of Gen Z B2B customers report using a third-party source prior to engaging official service channels. This trend serves both as an opportunity and a challenge for service organizations.

Service organizations have long grappled with customers entering costly, live channels and containing customers in self-service, often from a lack of clarity and relatability in content that third-party channels provide. Third-party channels also, theoretically, help reduce live inbound volume by keeping customers outside of live channels, thus freeing up agents for complex customer issues.

The challenge for service leaders arises when customers start their resolution journey in these channels but cannot resolve the issue. The blurred lines of channels means that customers perceive third-party channels inclusive in their overall channel journey rather than separating the two experiences; therefore, a high-effort experience in third-party channels will lead to an overall high-effort experience in the overall channel journey when resolved in company-owned channels.

Customer resolution failure in third-party channels can arise from both outdated and/or uncontextualized information sharing as well as the rare, albeit real, maliciously false information sharing. These customers will often flow through to live channels with reps faced with customers in greater distress than those starting in company-owned channels.

A further challenge for service leaders is the loss in opportunity to help customers get more value out of their products/services or to instill confidence in product choice on company-owned channels, both live and self-service. Gartner research has identified that customers who received these value-enhancing activities have significant impact to the business; customers who receive some form of value enhancement are more likely to repurchase, recommend to others, and/or purchase more product/services than those who did not receive value enhancement. With the lack of direct contact with customers in both live and digital channels, service leaders will feel greater pressure to identify opportunities for identifying at-risk customers or providing other customers with engagement that encourages long-term growth and loyalty.

Service leaders can no longer ignore the impact of third parties on their customer journeys and must begin to create a long-term plan for approaching third-party channels by taking the following steps:

  • Identify sources of information about products and service in third-party channels. Manual and technology-assisted reviews will help in surfacing information available to customers outside of official channels. Review these resources for quality and determine the impact on the customer journey.
  • Gather customer natural language. Natural language in these channels can be leveraged to optimize company-owned self-service channels and result in improved search engine optimization, prioritizing official channels in the search journey.
  • Update internal knowledge management to keep reps informed of third-party channel information. Live channel reps will bear the burden of engaging with customers who have had a high-effort or poor experience in a third-party channel in the upstream of the journey. Keep them informed and train them on baggage-handling skills for managing the experience.
  • Partner with internal stakeholders (e.g. legal, communications, marketing, product, and sales). Evaluate the opportunities and/or risks of integrating third-party content into company-owned channels or directly linking to third-party content.

If customer service and support leaders can keep these steps in mind, they will be well on their way to integrating third-party channels into the overall customer journey and cultivating a seamless experience for them.

Jason Barberio is a senior principal, advisory, in Gartner's Customer Service & Support practice.