Customer Channel Preferences Are Evolving

For the past five years, I have been doing an annual survey on customer support channel preferences. The survey asks, "When you need support for a product, which of the following support channels do you use?" Participants are given a list of support channels, and for each one they indicate whether it is a preferred channel or a channel they occasionally use, seldom use, or never use. Results of previous surveys showed stark differences by age and geography, so this year we paid for responses to guarantee a balance of data across age demographics and geographies.

The other change to the survey this year was the channels we asked respondents to rate. Over the past year I have seen large B2B technology firms introduce digital chat, via SMS text, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc., due to customer demand, particularly in specific countries. We added multiple digital channels to the survey to capture information about how preferences for these channels of support are evolving.

So far I have only looked at preliminary results by region and haven't started digging into the results by country. I wanted to share some of the initial findings with you, as many companies are looking at expanding their support channel options this year and are not sure where to start. While I will be publishing the full results on later in the year, for now I will share four main findings: the dominance of Google searching, propensity for self-service, channel promiscuity by younger customers, and hot spots for digital chat.

The Dominance of Google

One finding that has been consistent in the survey each year is the fact that Google search has the highest percentage of votes as a preferred channel, regardless of the demographic. Here are the results from this year's survey:

Figure 1: Google as a Preferred Channel

Source: TSIA 2020 Channel Preference Study

Regardless of region or age, Google has the highest rating as a preferred channel in the survey. For the majority of the public across the globe, when they encounter a product problem, their first choice is a quick Google search. We can't change that behavior, but we can leverage it. Is your self-service content indexed by Google so you are showing up in search results? According to my 2019 Knowledge Management Survey, for 50 percent of tech companies, the answer is no. Google indexing doesn't mean the content is open to the public; it can still be behind a firewall with a login required, but you should at least have your content show up in search results to help build visibility and reliance on your self-service website.

Propensity for Self-Service

I've heard Baby Boomers referred to as the "self-service generation," because the advent of do-it-yourself big box stores proliferated during their hey days. I've also heard companies say that Millennials were the drivers of self-service. A member recently told me that he felt customers in Asia Pacific were less inclined to use self-service than their North American counterparts. But according to my survey data, the propensity for self-service knows no age or geography.

On average, 71 percent respondents said self-service was either a preferred or occasionally used channel, and this is consistent across demographics: 60 percent of Baby Boomers, 72 percent of Gen X, and 77 percent of both Millennials and Gen Z. This is also consistent across geographies, including 71 percent of respondents from APAC.

You can't blame lack of self-service adoption on preferences of any customers. Customers don't use self-service because of a lack of marketing (they don't know it exists), poor or unusable self-service features, a lack of content, and/or a lack of strong search capabilities.

Channel Promiscuity by Younger Customers

I don't mean to be provocative by using the term "promiscuity," but it seemed the most accurate term. Of the 20 channels listed in the survey, Baby Boomers only have two channels that the largest percentage of respondents said were preferred channels (Google and email). For Gen X, there were thjree. Millennials indicated that nine channels were preferred. And for Gen Z, a surprising 13 of the 20 channels were indicated as a preferred channel, including traditional channels (email and phone).

For those who say youngest customers only want to communicate via text, chat, or social, that doesn't seem to be the case. Gen Z customers leverage all channels available, and probably identify which channel is most appropriate depending on the type of issue and their previous support experience with each provider. This puts enormous pressure on technology firms to be sure as they add channels that every interaction is written to customer history. Support techs should have a highly consumable view of previous interactions across all channels. Unfortunately, I continue to see many companies adding channels one at a time, with data siloed in different systems, with little or nothing written into CRM for some channels, and no single consolidated multichannel or omnichannel view of the customer.

As younger customers reach out to technology providers using all channels available, creating intelligent agent desktops that offer a consolidated cross-channel view will become even more important than in the past.

Hot Spots for Digital Chat

No surprise, the largest percentage of Baby Boomers say they never use digital channels like SMS text or WhatsApp for support. But clearly the tide is turning on these channels for younger customers. By comparison, 40 percent of Millennials and 46 percent of Gen Z say that WhatsApp is a preferred channel. And my expectations on regional preferences for digital chat were also true: 61 percent of respondents from South America said WhatsApp was a preferred channel, and 58 percent of APAC respondents said SMS Text was a preferred or occasionally used channel.

This gives validity to the stories I am hearing from TSIA members who say, "If you aren't offering WhatsApp for your customers in Brazil, you aren't serving them." I also hear this about WeChat in China. As a result, local offices in Brazil and China are creating home-grown interfaces to interact with customers in these regions via WhatsApp and WeChat, but typically the interactions are not captured in account history so they aren&'t part of the 360-degree view of the customer. We are seeing some firms investing heavily in creating an agent interface that can interact with customers using any digital app; in fact, we recently gave TSIA STAR Awards to Dell EMC and HP Enterprise, partially based on their advanced digital chat capabilities.

I suspect that when I dig into the country-specific data, I will find that some country-specific digital chat tools, like KakaoTalk in Korea and LINE in Japan, will be preferred channels as well.

So here is my advice to all of you: If you haven't surveyed your customers about channel preferences recently, you need to. If you have legacy thinking that customers only want to call you, you are wrong. Or if you are hearing this from customers, it is because you have trained them to call you with years of phone-centric support agreements or you are asking Baby Boomers about channel preferences, not the Millennials or Gen Z workers who are more likely the system administrators working with support.

So in 2020, do some research on channel preferences for your customers. And create a roadmap to add other channels over the next one to three years. There are a growing number of vendors including digital channels in their support platforms out of the box, from ServiceNow's Customer Support Management (CSM) platform, to LogMeIn's Bold360 platform including chat, remote control, co-browse, digital chat, and chat bots.

My final piece of advice: If you want to introduce digital chat, please don't build it yourself. You will end up doing a separate project to bring in each digital application, instead of enabling them all at the same time.

John Ragsdale is vice president of technology research at the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA). He has spent more than 25 years in the customer service industry, as a technical and call center manager, in marketing and product management roles for knowledge management and CRM vendors, and as an analyst for Forrester Research and now TSIA.