Aligning with Your Customers' Preferred Channels

How do your customers want to be served? It sounds like an easy question to answer, but so often organizations get it wrong.

The evolution of support channels has been constant over the last 20 years. A shift from phone to email occurred in the early 2000s, which gave way to text messaging, social media, and online chat. Now with software-as-a-service (SaaS) and smart Internet of Things (IoT) devices becoming a major trend, we are seeing support embedded right within products. Any of these channels could be useful to your customers, meaning they could all be required, in some combination, to offer high-quality support services. Below are a few tips to help you determine which channels to use to provide the best customer experience.

Gather Customers' Preferences

The first step is understanding exactly which channels your customers prefer. There are many ways to do this, and it will depend greatly on your industry and your target demographics.

The simplest way of gaining these insights is just to ask. Using a survey, ask questions about the following:

  • Do they value in-person contacts?
  • What times do they expect to contact you?
  • Is self-help interesting to them?
  • Is your product business-critical, and do they need 24/7 live, immediate responses?
  • Do you have language requirements?

Questions such as these will lead you to understand how your customers prefer to be served. This approach is a helpful starting point but misses one key element: Each individual customer isn't likely to understand the breadth of what you can do.

As consumers, we have gotten so used to the stereotypical email/phone support channels that we consider them the only way to get support. Today, that simply isn't true. Your support services can provide so much more value to your customers. In the SaaS and IoT markets, for example, embedded support makes a lot of sense. Serving your customers exactly where they are in the moment when they're using your product is low effort for them and for your support agents. If you have a mobile app, the support channels for it might be different than if you focus on web experience or a physical product. Each of these service channels needs to be considered as part of your offering.

To accomplish this, use data to understand when your customers come to you and what types of questions they ask when they do. If you discover that your customers are often sitting directly in front of your product when they need help, you need to consider in-product support. If you notice that most of your support contacts come through your main web page, maybe a chat tool or knowledge base is more appropriate.

In fact, TSIA found that 71 percent of customers want self-service support. You need to study your customers' usage behaviors to better understand them. Data and trends can be found in your tools, CRM, ticket management tools, and many other places to allow you to make these decisions. Surveying is not enough.

Finally, if you have in-person support, another way to determine preferred channels is to train your support team to listen for feedback while they're speaking with your customers. Feedback is often missed because it can be as subtle as a sigh or a grumble on a phone call or an abundance of capital letters in an email. But if you notice frustration when the customer is always being directed to a knowledge article or having to fill out forms, paperwork, or put in manual effort, you can use this data to shape the channels you offer.

Choosing your customers' preferred channel is much more of an art than a science. You likely sell to multiple demographics and in multiple regions, with different types of technical and non-technical backgrounds. Each of those segments of customers might need different levels of service. The goal is to offer as many as you can in a cost-effective way by learning what each of these segments wants and combining that with the service levels you wish to provide to create engaging, low-effort experiences for customers throughout their customer journeys.

Set up Your Channels

Once you understand the types of support services your customers prefer, the hard work can begin. Structuring support channels requires careful consideration of things like the following:

  • Best use of technology to bridge customer experience and cost;
  • Staffing and scheduling (timezone, language, coverage hours);
  • Skill-set, both of whom you hire and of your customers;
  • Target markets; and
  • Required training.

Most support focuses only on existing customers with an existing problem, but this might only be a small segment of the people who need support. Consider potential customers. Inside your customer journey, you might have potential customers who seek out product details so they understand how they will be supported, the level of knowledge that is shared, or even things like the effort it takes to use your product. This might mean having publicly available support knowledge that both speaks to your existing customers and can help attract new customers through transparent support practices. This might alter how you set up your self-help channels.

If your customers want in-app or in-product support, you will require time from your development or other teams within your organization. This means gaining buy-in from those teams to dedicate time to building a supportable product.

If your customers prefer real-time channels, such as phone or chat, how do you staff these to meet response expectations and use your knowledge management to make answers easily available and efficient to convey to your customers?

All of these are examples of aligning your channels to your customers' preferences. Building your channel strategy is not set it and forget it. Success means working cross-functionally, understanding people, and thinking about the customer journey, whom you want to serve, and when you want to serve them.

Constantly Re-assess and Improve

Preferred channel alignment is not a one-off exercise. The channels and services you provide today do not necessarily reflect the channels and services you provide a year from now. A great example of this is automation. If your data indicates that a specific type of ticket or customer concern is very frequent and takes up a significant amount of effort from your support team without them adding significant value, such as a password reset ticket, you might add automation as a support channel to handle these use cases. Automation not only reduces the effort of your support teams but often provides faster resolution to your customers.

Another consideration as you analyze customer trends is high-context support. Over time, gather data on customer context, such as the following:

  • Where they are in the product;
  • Their customer profile;
  • The last few actions they performed; and
  • Previous tickets or concerns.

Using this intelligence and technologies like machine learning, you can often determine the likely cause of a particular error and provide the solution to customers immediately so they don't even need to contact support. And when they do, support should have that data available to assist them faster. Your product becomes the support channel!

The days of simply putting a phone number and an email address on your website are mostly gone. With the advancements in support technology, increasing customer demands, and the data that we collect about our customers, the expectations have increased. As support leaders, we always need to be thinking about the customer perspective and aligning to how they wish to be served.

Craig Stoss is a senior program manager and CX guru at PartnerHero, an outsourcing company.