Demystifying Customer Service Channels: How to Choose the Best Ones for Your Business

The word channels once meant something very simple. When I was a kid, it literally referred to the four television channels in existence: ABC, CBS, NBC and, of course, PBS — home of Mister Rogers and Sesame Street.

Today, in the business world at least, the word channels has a daunting mystique. It refers to the many ways you can reach and interact with customers, from the phone to live chat to fax. (Whoops, showing my age again.)

Earlier this year, Forrester reported that retailers are starting to reap the rewards of omnichannel commerce. But this shift extends way beyond sticking stuff in a cart. Consumers expect a consistent experience across channels, whether they’re making a purchase or trying to track down a missing package. It’s all “customer experience,” and today, it’s happening across channels.

In fact, Aberdeen reports that companies with “well-defined omnichannel customer experience management programs achieve a 91 percent higher year-over-year increase in customer retention rate” and a 3.4 percent increase in customer lifetime value. But if you’re the one tasked with choosing exactly which customer service channels to invest in, and how they’ll work together, it’s not as easy as the pundits and analysts make it sound.

The legacy of customer service channels

For most companies, phone support is table stakes, even as they try to dissuade customers from using it. Staffing phone support lines is expensive, particularly if you have round-the-clock support, and it’s hard to scale a phone support organization for busier customer service times. 

Email has an advantage over phone support in that it enables asynchronous messaging. In other words, a customer can send a message but doesn’t have to wait on tenterhooks for a reply. But it can take a while to resolve an issue this way, particularly if there’s a lot of back and forth or if the customer needs to speak with multiple agents over time.

Fast like phone support but convenient for customers who prefer a messaging format, live chat has grown quickly as a customer service channel. Chatbots can be AI-enabled or use a decision-tree system, but either way, they’re an excellent way for brands to scale up automated support for common questions and low-hanging fruit. 

This is important in an age when more than half of consumers expect to get a response to a customer service inquiry within an hour — even on a weekend. By 2020, it’s predicted that 25 percent of customer service operations will use chatbots or other virtual assistants. When done well, they have broad consumer approval, and they can be instrumental in streamlining customer service operations. However, live chat is not asynchronous, as the session ends if the customer or agent leaves the conversation, limiting its convenience for consumers who have to remain in the session until their issue is resolved.

Enter messaging for a more intuitive experience

Every company is different, and every audience has its own needs and preferences. Still, as you start to formulate a plan for your customer service channels, it’s helpful to look toward the trends defining the biggest group of shoppers out there. Today, according to this report by Microsoft, 63 percent of millennials start their customer service interactions online, 43 percent prefer to contact customer service organizations from a mobile device, and 79 percent are actually more willing to buy from brands that have a mobile customer service portal.

Increasingly, in-app messaging is becoming a more popular way for brands to connect with customers. It takes place right within your app. It’s highly conversational and engaging. And it’s familiar to customers, who are used to messaging with SMS, social media, and other platforms every day.

In Helpshift’s State of Customer Service Automation 2019 report, we found that 83% of customers would make messaging their primary means of contacting customer support if they could be guaranteed an immediate response. It’s just how people today prefer to communicate. You may not be ready to ditch your phone support yet, and email might still be a wise channel for your brand, too. But if you’re not offering easy mobile options like in-app messaging as part of your customer service offering, you’re missing a huge opportunity.

What type of tickets do you typically see?

One way to decide which channel to prioritize is to examine what types of tickets you most frequently see. For instance, if customers typically contact you to ask common questions that are easily answered by your knowledge base, you can leverage a chatbot to reference it and deliver relevant articles based on a customer query. Using this setup as a first point of contact makes a lot of sense and can even deflect a big chunk of issues, saving time for your agents. 

If, on the other hand, your customer service organization sees a higher-than-normal volume of urgent or unique issues on a regular basis, you will probably need more human agents available upfront to attend to them.

However, it’s not enough to simply weigh the benefits of one customer service channel over another, because most customer service organizations use multiple channels to communicate with customers. Ideally, you use a combination of customer service channels that work together smoothly, regardless of the ticket type. Almost more important than which customer service channels you offer is whether your customer service channels integrate with each other, and that’s where a lot of companies fail at omnichannel

How customer service channels work together

If a customer can’t get an issue resolved over live chat and has to start all over again with email, that’s not a good experience. It’s frustrating for the customer and doesn’t help a company gather accurate customer service data, either. So it’s not enough to have a multi-channel approach that offers options. Just as customers get frustrated if they can’t reach a company on the platform they’re most comfortable with, they also get frustrated if their customer service attempts reach a dead end and force them to start anew on another channel. 

Helpshift’s report also found that the highest CSAT scores come from customer service solutions using a combination of agents and bots. Typically, what this looks like is that bots handle initial interactions, and agents take over when it becomes the optimal route. This combination enables more efficient issue resolution and a seamless experience for customers.

Bottom line: no matter which customer service channels you offer, make sure they work together, with a customer support platform that allows your team to manage every channel from within one integrated software.

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