The nature of customer service is changing quickly. We’re relying on e-commerce, delivery, and pickup solutions more than ever before. People want to shop on their mobile phones, check product availability and their order statuses online, ask questions on social media, find answers to technical problems online or via chat, and call or e-mail businesses whenever it’s convenient.
Companies like Amazon and Apple have set the customer service bar incredibly high — to the point where customers now expect the same level of excellent service from every business they deal with.
It puts a lot of pressure on small- and medium-sized businesses, who now are expected to offer seamless, stellar customer support across many different channels.
And the stakes are high. 89% of customers will defect to your competition after experiencing poor customer service.
You might think that you can’t compete. But you can.
A study from the Harvard Business Review concludes that reducing customer effort is the most important thing you can do to build customer loyalty. That means whatever you can do to make customer service easier will be worthwhile.
This post will be your guide to understanding:
- Types of customer support channels
- The support channels best suited for your business
- How to make the best of your customer support channels
Let’s dive in.
Understanding single channel, multi-channel, and omnichannel customer support
A customer support channel is simply the platform that you use to communicate with your customers.
Single channel customer support is pretty straightforward. It’s where most businesses start: with a single option for customers to contact the business if they have a problem or question. Often that means phone or e-mail support. However, as your business grows, you will probably find that you outgrow a single channel fairly quickly.
For example, if you create a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram presence, you will likely have customers reaching out for support on those platforms. Soon, you will find many of them searching for an e-mail address, a phone number, or asking if you have online FAQs. At this point, you’ll have to naturally branch out into multi-channel customer support.
With multi-channel support, you’re now interacting with customers in more places. The upside is that you are meeting your buyers where they are, with more opportunities to help them out. You are saving them time and eliminating the need to search for customer support contacts — contacting your brand becomes less effort-intensive. You can respond more quickly.
However, there are several main drawbacks and challenges to multi-channel customer support. The first is maintaining consistent branding and messaging across your different platforms. If none of your channels are connected, or if there’s no coordinated customer service strategy, you run the risk of annoying or even alienating customers who have to repeat their problems to a different person if they switch from a tweet to a phone call or e-mail. Customers could receive different answers from different people, causing frustration and confusion.
And then there is the risk that something will fall through the cracks. A DM or e-mail could easily be lost or forgotten — along with your customer and their repeat business. So while multi-channel customer support, like single-channel support, has its advantages, you will soon find that it’s not sufficient.
So what’s the big deal with omnichannel support?
Omnichannel customer service is
“A strategy that organizations use to improve their user experience and drive better relationships with their audience across points of contact. Rather than working in parallel, communication channels and their supporting resources are designed and orchestrated to cooperate. Omnichannel implies integration and orchestration of channels such that the experience of engaging across all the channels someone chooses to use is as, or even more, efficient or pleasant than using single channels in isolation.” (Wikipedia)
The difference matters. Customers involved in an omnichannel experience spent 4% more in-store and 10% more online.
You may think that to be omnichannel, you need a strategy to support all possible channels. But that’s a common misconception (and impossible for most organizations).
Instead, meet your customers at the touch points that matter most to your customers.
Here’s where you’ll want to look to get started.
The most popular customer support channels
These channels are the basics, the bare minimum. They are the most popular support channels and the ones that customers will go to first, expecting you to have a presence there.
Since the late 1980s, customer service phone lines are nearly ubiquitous — and expected.
There are drawbacks, however. Phone support is time- and labor-intensive. Hold times can sometimes be excruciatingly long. And if your customers are located across the globe, it can be tough to synchronize communication across time zones.
When customers call, they expect an immediate (synchronous) response — but not every issue requires that kind of immediacy.
So depending on your business, you might skip it or offer phone support only to higher-level service tiers, for example. That leads us to…
Along with phone support, e-mail is another non-negotiable. It’s been a mainstay of customer service since the 1990s. It’s become second nature for customers to think that they will be able to reach organizations through e-mail.
It’s an excellent first support channel to set up for many small and growing businesses.
Customers can send an email to a company’s contact (or fill out a contact form, which uses the same mechanism), expect a response within a few hours up to a day or so.
But e-mail also has some drawbacks. It’s good for asynchronous communications; for example, walking a customer through a longer or more complicated but standardized process. But it’s not so good for customers needing more hand-holding and immediate feedback.
According to Forrester Research, 41% of customers expect to receive a response to their e-mails within six hours — but only 36% of all companies meet those expectations, and 14% never respond at all. So there’s definite room to delight your customers through your email support.
Despite the availability of other customer support channels, email remains tremendously popular. Roughly 80% of marketers have reported an increase in email engagement over the past 12 months. (HubSpot)
3. Social Media
If your business has a social media presence, your customers will expect to be able to reach you there, if not through DMs, then through public posts.
This is especially true in B2C industries with lots of followers. Social media is now one of the big 3 customer support channels behind e-mail and phone for B2C businesses.
And expectations are especially high. 32% of customers expect a response within 30 minutes and 42% expect a response within 60 minutes.
Among survey respondents who have ever attempted to contact a brand, product, or company through social media for customer support, 57% expect the same response time at night and on weekends as during normal business hours.
But there’s a huge gap between what customers expect and what companies are actually providing or able to provide. (More on this in the next section on optimizing your support channels.
Chat support, if you can provide it, is important. 44% of online buyers say that having questions answered by a live person while in the middle of a transaction is one of the most important features a business can offer.
Chat reduces cart abandonment, improves conversions, and is a key driver of customer satisfaction. However, you can’t simply install an app and call it a day.
Live chat success requires a commitment to continuously improving chat invitations, as well as monitoring staffing and customer experience.
But the results are worth it: 41% of the customers choose live chat over other support channels, and the satisfaction rate achieved through this channel is a whopping 92%.
5. Self-service knowledge base
Sometimes the best customer service requires no contact at all.
As much as 74% of customers prefer to solve their issues on their own whenever possible. 90% of respondents to a recent survey expected organizations to offer a self-service online portal, and 65% had a more favorable view of companies that offered a mobile-responsive one.
There are many benefits to this. Your customer service team can be more productive. A knowledge base cuts down on common and repetitive requests, freeing your team to help customers with more complicated issues. Also, it’s available 24/7, even when your representatives aren’t. Definitely a way to make your customers happy!
If your product is not complicated or technical enough to require a full knowledge base, an FAQ section may be perfect. FAQs could also be an excellent starting point while you develop a more comprehensive knowledge base.
6. Customer forums
Don’t forget the collaborative power of your customers, especially if your product is technical or complicated in any way.
A customer forum is a virtual community where users can find the latest company news and product documentation, get support, and discuss topics of interest. They can even share success stories. The important thing is to help your customers achieve their end goal.
Depending on your business, you can create different types of forums. You could have a free customer community on Facebook, a professional discussion group on LinkedIn, or a software user support group on substack.com.
While other support channels can help your customers find answers, they can also be a drain on your resources, especially when you’re answering the same questions over and over again.
That’s where customer forums come in. You can address the most common questions in one thread or conversation. Users can then simply search for their issue and find solutions in your previous responses. As time goes on, more and more members will jump in to help others. You can even promote your most dedicated users to admins to help manage the discussions.
Another big advantage of forum boards is that they are constantly updated. You can create new topics and solutions in real time with little effort.
Finally, forums are a valuable source of ongoing customer feedback. Your business can, and should, use this feedback to continually improve.
10 Tips to optimize your customer support channels for your business
1. Learn about your target audience and their channel preferences
You need to understand your customer’s unique expectations.
How? It’s not a guessing game and you don’t need a crystal ball.
Instead, simply survey them. All you need is two questions: Where do you hang out most online and how would you most like to be able to reach us with problems or questions?
Customers in certain industries may expect a response within an hour. Other industries might be perfectly happy with a 24-hour turnaround. Find out for sure.
2. Define omnichannel for your organization
Remember, you don’t need to be everywhere. Survey your customers to see which channels make the most sense for them and for you. Keep in mind the type and scale of your business and the bandwidth of your customer support team.
Depending on your organization’s size and your team, you may not be able to provide seamless service over all the possible channels. And that’s okay. Focus on the most important ones.
3. Optimize everything for mobile
Mobile drove nearly 50% of all holiday sales in 2020.
Ignore it at your peril.
Make sure that your website, knowledge base, forum, chat, email, and even phone are optimized for mobile:
- Clearly display a customer service contact button on your mobile website or app.
- Make sure that your FAQs, documentation, and self-support videos are mobile-friendly.
- Use an easy contact service such as dial-for-support or live-chat-for-support specifically designed for mobile devices. Give customers an easy way to reach you without leaving your homepage.
- Make sure customer service links are single-click sensitive.
- Build a real-time tracking system for all your mobile inquiries.
4. Achieve a seamless multi-channel integration for consistency in customer service
59% of customers surveyed by Microsoft say they have used three or more channels to get customer service questions answered.
But businesses frequently fail to track these conversations across channels. Communication is siloed and team members don’t know what is happening on other platforms. A true omnichannel strategy would integrate all these conversations.
The solution? An omnichannel knowledge base that can be accessed by all agents.
If a customer calls in and your agent notes the Facebook message they submitted a few hours ago, it will leave a lasting impression. It’s a memorable way to show that you are listening and that you care.
5. Build personalization into your customer support
There are many ways to add personalization into your customer interactions. Here are just a few:
- Use your customer’s names while addressing them.
- Track their preferences and make recommendations they’ll be expected to like.
- Remember important dates like birthdays, holidays, and membership anniversaries, and make special offers.
- Use guidelines for tone and style but allow for flexibility and for your agents’ personalities to shine through.
6. Automate common and repeatable tasks
This is another area where you can get creative. These are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Create personalized auto responders, but be sure to write them as real, conversational e-mails and revisit them regularly to make sure that they stay up to date.
- Create workflows and scripts that direct customers to relevant sections of FAQs, knowledge bases, or customer forum discussions.
- Use chat bots to respond to social media messages when your staff is not in the office and let customers know when they should expect a response.
- Create canned emails/email templates to use for repetitive inquiries or issues.
7. Set up SLA policies
Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are used to set customer expectations and keep service providers accountable for delivering on their promises. With Hiver, you can easily set up help desk SLAs and ensure timely, efficient customer service.
Your goals should be transparency and efficiency. You can choose the type of emails you want to set up SLAs for and then configure your violation conditions. Easily configure multiple rules to set priorities and constantly improve your customer service.
8. Use analytics to measure and improve your customer support performance
The key to optimizing any customer service channel is using accurate, real-time data that provides clear insights into how your customer service team is performing, identifying areas of improvement, and fixing them.
You’ll especially want to see how many conversations have taken place, how quickly your team is responding, and the average time your team takes to resolve an issue.
With Hiver, you can view multiple types of reports with a single click without leaving Gmail. You can also choose to analyze these reports in detail for more crystal clear insights.
9. Leverage customer feedback
Use customer surveys to collect and measure customer feedback.
Customers are most likely to give accurate feedback and satisfaction ratings when they are collected proactively and immediately. With quantifiable data, you’ll know how well your team is performing and where there is room for improvement
See all your customer satisfaction feedback in their own words — in real-time. It’s valuable and powerful information that allows you to act quickly. In addition, visual reports allow you to track and compare individual team member’s performance to see who is doing well, who can improve, and appropriate training opportunities.
10. Hire the right agents
A study by Cornell University states that an average call center experiences a yearly turnover rate of about 33 percent.
The costs of constant hiring can be astronomical. So focus on finding the right people from the start, those who will be motivated to delight customers and want to stick around and grow with you.
Seek out those who genuinely enjoy interacting with people. Look for reps who are flexible, quick-thinking, patient, loyal, and quick learners.
To find your perfect team members, get clear on who you want from the start. Then use scenarios and role plays to find empathetic problem solvers and good listeners. Make sure they understand the difference between sales and service and are passionate about service. Also keep an open mind when hiring, especially when it comes to older or non-traditional workers.
Start today — optimize your omnichannel customer support
Providing top-notch customer support is an ongoing journey. You won’t achieve any of your goals overnight, but with the right priorities and focus you can quickly start seeing the impact on your customer satisfaction scores.
By following the steps in this guide, you’ll improve your omnichannel customer service, save money, and reduce churn.
Above all, make life easier for your customers. They will be excited to be part of your community, reward you with loyalty, and tell all their friends about you.