To be effective, a cross-channel contact center must possess two vital capabilities: Common incident tracking, reporting and histories across all channels; and use of a common knowledge base across all channels.

Executive summary

Customers communicate with you in a variety of ways. They call. They send email.
They visit your Web site. So, naturally, you try to manage each of these communications
channels as effectively as possible.

But it has now become critical to manage these channels collectively. That’s
because customers are bouncing between phone, email and the Web with greater
fluidity than ever. They send you emails about problems that they’ve already
discussed with you by phone. They visit your Web site to double-check information
they got from you on the phone. So your company has to be able to communicate
across all channels in a common manner.

To be effective, a cross-channel contact center must possess two vital capabilities:

1. Common incident tracking, reporting and histories across all channels
2. Use of a common knowledge base across all channels

The business impact of this unified approach is substantial. Unified contact
centers deliver competitively superior service at dramatically reduced cost.
That’s because each channel becomes more efficient and, over time, more and
more customer interactions are driven to the least expensive and most scalable
channel: the Web.

multichannel contact centers also provide companies with clearer insights
into their customers’ top concerns. These insights are enormously helpful for
improving customer care, driving the development of successful products and
services, and formulating high-impact marketing strategies.

Fragmented communications, on the other hand, create problems. Service reps
get blindsided by calls from frustrated customers. They repeatedly answer redundant
questions. They can’t easily add new knowledge items to the Web site. Worst
of all, companies with “stovepipe” call centers, email and Web self-service
communications channels can’t adequately understand or address customers’ top
service issues.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to make the transition from call center to
contact center. Many companies have already done so and are now enjoying the
benefits. Their success offers tangible proof that multichannel contact centers
deliver superior service at a substantially lower cost-per-interaction.

Why “Stovepipe” Communication Channels are Bad for Business

People communicate through multiple channels. We talk on the phone. We visit
each other. We send each other greeting cards. To get the news, we also use
different channels¾newspapers, radio, TV, the Web¾depending on our needs and
preferences at the moment. Businesses, too, use a variety of channels to effectively
deliver marketing messages to their customers.

Similarly, customers use different channels at different times. They use the
phone. They use email. They use the Web. They use chat.

Unfortunately, at most companies, these communications channels are separate
“stovepipes.” The phone channel is managed by a call center platform. The email
channel is managed with an email management system. The Web channel is managed
with a content management system. Chat, if provided at all, is managed by a
chat system.

Any interaction with a customer on one channel is therefore completely divorced
from any other interaction with that same customer on any other channel. When
customer service representatives (CSRs) are on the phone with a customer, they
have no idea what that customer’s emails looked like. The information that a
customer gets in an email may not exactly match the information on the company’s
Web site. Each channel is isolated from the others¾to the detriment of both
the company and its customers.

Here are some specific problems that companies and their customers experience
every day because of stovepipe communications channels:

The “Didn’t you see my email?” syndrome

A customer with a problem takes the time to carefully describe that problem
in an email message. The next day the customer gets a helpful reply. The customer
at this point is happy.

But the customer has one little follow-up question and now decides to pick
up the phone to get a quick answer. Here’s where things take a turn for the
worse. The CSR taking the call can’t see the original email exchange. So instead
of just asking a follow-up question, the customer has to explain the whole situation
all over again. In some cases, the information the customer gets from the CSR
on the phone may actually contradict what was contained in the original email

Customer impact: Annoyed. Quickly goes from having a high opinion
about the company to a lower one.

Company impact: CSR spends 15 minutes on a call that should have
taken only three.

The “That’s not what it said on your Web site!” syndrome 1) In this case,
the customer’s first attempt to resolve his or her problem takes place on the
company Web site. The customer finds some apparently relevant content, but it
either doesn’t work or is unclear to the customer. So the customer calls the
company for clarification.

The CSR, it turns out, has more up-to-date and accurate information than the
Web site-and so is able to help the customer effectively. The call just takes
a little longer because the customer has already absorbed the older, less helpful
information from the site. The customer probably expresses this confusion during
the call.

Customer impact: Some confusion and aggravation. Will never fully
trust the accuracy of any company Web site content again.

Company impact: Will always have to service the customer via
costly phone calls rather than the substantially less expensive Web channel.

The endless repetitive phone calls syndrome

Companies with conventional “stovepipe” call centers have great difficulty
developing effective self-service content for their Web sites. When call center
representatives encounter a new support issue, they have no fast and easy way
to capture that issue and publish it as a knowledge item on the Web. So instead
of answering questions only once on the phone and then having them answered
automatically in the future with relevant online knowledge items, “stovepipe”
call centers answer the same questions over and over.

Customer impact: Often can’t find answers to their questions on the Web site.
Gets into the habit of picking up the phone and calling every time a question
arises¾even in cases when the information is, in fact, on the Web site.

Company impact: Call center inundated with constant repetitive questions that
could be answered via the Web. Unnecessarily high call center overhead.

These are just a few examples of how typical “stovepipe” communication channels
adversely impact customer service operations. There are many others. The overall
negative business impact of these problems can be classified into three areas:

1.Individual incidents take much more time and effort to resolve.
2. The long-term cost-efficiency of customer service is severely impaired.
3. Inconsistent information can be provided by each channel.
4. Customers are more frequently annoyed, angered and confused.

“Stovepipe” channels also deprive companies of insight into the issues that
most concern their customers. It’s difficult if not impossible to get that insight
if you can’t look at communications activity across all of your customer service
communications channels.

When use of the Internet was minimal, these problems weren’t critical. But
the number of customers using the Internet continues to grow, and those customers
are using email, the Web and chat with increasing frequency. Their expectations
about what you can do for them via these channels is growing as well. That’s
why it’s now so dangerous to allow phone, email, and the Web to remain artificially

From Call Center to Contact Center

So what does a true multichannel contact center look like? The first thing
to understand is that multichannel contact centers look a lot like existing
call centers. The point of creating a contact center with unified communication
channels is not to disrupt current operations or unnecessarily force companies
to re-engineer service processes. CSRs still take phone calls. They reply to
emails. They escalate calls and emails as required. They launch chats with customers
who visit the company Web site. And Web managers still maintain appropriate
controls over site content.

The difference is that, in a multichannel contact center, these “stovepipe”
processes are unified with each other in order to ensure superlative customer
service and optimum operational efficiency. This unification takes place on
two levels:

1. Common incident tracking, reporting and histories
2. Common knowledge base authoring and access

These cross-channel commonalities have proven to be invaluable to both the
companies that have implemented them and the customers they serve.

Common incidents

Most companies do a pretty good job of managing call center incidents using
conventional trouble-ticket applications. These applications ensure that customers
who call more than once about the same incident are handled correctly. They’re
also useful for monitoring open incidents so that customers don’t “fall through
the cracks.”

Email management applications are somewhat less widely deployed. Many companies
therefore have no way to track the progress of a customer email through reply
and resolution. This lack of accountability tends to result in slow response
times and missed commitment.

Even fewer companies use a common system for call center trouble-tickets and
email management. This results in problems such as those described in the previous

In a multichannel contact center, on the other hand, all phone, email, and
chat events are handled by a common system. If customers log in to the self-service
area of the company Web site, their online information searches can be tracked
in this same system as well. So, regardless of which “touch point” a customer
uses, every service-related interaction is logged into a single database. The
result is one single view of all interactions with a customer in one place regardless
of how the customer touched the company.

It sounds so simple and logical that it’s surprising more companies don’t do
it. But many companies implemented their call center systems before anyone ever
even heard of email management software. So those legacy systems have tended
to remain in place while email, Web and/or chat management were added as separate

An effective multichannel incident management system actually integrates events
on three distinct levels: incident tracking, incident reporting, and customer
incident histories.

Common incident tracking

In a multichannel contact center, incidents are assigned a common tracking
record regardless of how they originate. Each time the customer calls or sends
a message about that incident, it is logged into this common record. CSRs therefore
have access to all information relating to the incident even if the customer
moves between channels.

This ensures that CSRs always have all the information they need to resolve
customer issues. It also ensures that a trouble ticket opened in one channel
doesn’t remain open after it has been successfully closed via another channel.
Customers and CSRs can thus move freely from channel to channel without jeopardizing
the integrity of service processes.

Common incident reporting Common service records enable companies to document
and analyze activity across all channels. This integrated reporting is essential
for a wide range of management decisions. For example, a CSR who is very good
at resolving phone calls may be slow with emails. Cross-channel reporting quickly
highlights this disparity so that it can be addressed. Or, a report may reveal
that customers frequently make phone calls immediately after viewing a specific
Web knowledge item. This would indicate a content problem requiring management

In fact, by tracking the areas of Web content that customers most commonly
visit — and tracking the frequency with which they then either launch an
email or leave the site with their question answered — companies have been
able to make appropriate adjustments to site content in order to maximize the
percentage of customers who find the answers they need on the Web without any
human intervention at all. This significantly reduces costs while providing
customers with the information they need on a 24/7 basis.

Cross-channel reports also provide high-value feedback for customer-driven
product development, sales, marketing and branding strategies. Data generated
across all channels is far richer and more useful than any single channel by

Common customer incident histories

multichannel contact centers give companies an integrated view of every customer’s
service history. This is extremely useful for providing personal service. For
example, consider a customer who has always used email to address a chronic
set of difficulties over the past two years. One day, that customer picks up
the phone to resolve a problem. In a “stovepipe” call center, the CSR would
pop up the customer’s service record and see a blank slate¾thus leading the
CSR to falsely conclude that this is a satisfied, low-maintenance customer.
That erroneous assumption could easily lead to big problem early in the call.

In a multichannel contact center, on the other hand, the CSR would immediately
see a long history of often-emotional email messages. With this information,
the CSR will do a much better job of handling the present situation appropriately.

multichannel customer histories are also much more useful for up-selling and
cross-selling than the incomplete histories provided by single-channel systems.

Common knowledge base authoring and access

The other key aspect of multichannel integration is the use of a common knowledge
base. This integration is essential for ensuring that all service-related information
is complete and accurate and that it is used to maximum effect across all channels.

Common knowledge access In a multichannel contact center, a common set of
knowledge items are used by CSRs for answering questions on the phone, for replying
to emails, and for expediting chat sessions¾as well as for self-service content
on the Web. This way, the information that customers receive is consistent regardless
of how they interact with the company. It also means that information only has
to be managed and maintained on one place, rather than three or four.

Of course, some of the knowledge items that internal CSRs require may not be
appropriate for publication on the Web. So there may be some “filtering” of
the content specifically used in each channel. But the superset of knowledge
items from which all channels draw is a common one.

Use of a common knowledge base brings particular efficiencies to the email
channel. Many companies enable customers to email service requests from their
Web sites using Web-based forms. In conventional environments, these emails
have to be handled manually. But with an integrated knowledge base, this manual
work can be avoided in two ways. First, the form can be “scanned” to determine
if any existing knowledge items might answer the question. By directing the
customer to those items, the need for a manual reply can be pre-empted. If the
customer still sends the email, the CSR may be able to pinpoint an appropriate
knowledge item. The CSR can then simply click on that item to send it to the
customer¾eliminating the time it takes to type a “one-off” response.

Internal use of the knowledge bases by contact center personnel themselves
has also proven to be very effective.

With such a knowledge base, trainees and/or external contractors can quickly
become capable of answering customers’ most common questions. Using the Web,
the knowledge base can be easily accessed by service staffers working from home
or on the road.

Common knowledge authoring

One of the biggest obstacles to the effective use of the Web as a self-service
channel is the creation of timely, accurate and complete content. Companies
can spend weeks trying to get their subject-matter experts to develop appropriate
content. But much of this content is soon out-of-date. At the same time, new
information becomes important to customers¾but never makes it to the Web site.

multichannel contact centers directly address this critical knowledge management
issue by making the creation of new knowledge items an “organic” component of
the service call process. When a CSR answers a customer question that doesn’t
already exist in the knowledge base, they automatically author a new potential
knowledge item. That item can then be quickly reviewed and/or edited by a content
manager who can instantly add it to the knowledge base.

This integrated approach provides two powerful benefits.

The time and effort required to create content is cut by 90 percent. With the
process described above, knowledge items are created as problems are solved.
Little or no additional action is required on the part of the CSR. So content
creation doesn’t become a huge ordeal — which means it actually gets done!

Knowledge items are driven by customers’ real concerns, not the guesswork of
internal content authors. When you guess what’s important to customers, you
only have a limited chance of being right. When your content is driven by actual
customer queries, you can achieve online self-service rates of 90 percent and
higher. That’s because the overwhelming majority of customers’ questions revolve
around a very narrow set of issues. If your knowledge base consistently addresses
those issues, your site will act as an extraordinarily effective self-service

It’s important to note that superficial integration of “stovepipe” channel
management applications can’t provide the full benefits of a true multichannel
contact center. Such integration provides only limited channel links: sharing
of customer records, the ability to launch one application from within another,
etc. This is not the same as having a true common knowledge base and true common
incident management. In fact, integration projects often require major effort
and expenditure while providing only a fraction of the benefits delivered by
a truly unified contact center platform.

Actually, the transition from call center to multichannel contact center should
not be an arduous or disruptive process. On the contrary, it should reduce the
aggravation and effort associated with critical tasks such as handling phone
calls, replying to email, developing Web content and generating reports. By
simply removing the walls that have historically separated customer service
functions, the multichannel contact center opens up a world of possibilities
for both customer service teams and the business as a whole.

Five Reasons Why Every Company Should Transform Their Call Center into a multichannel
Contact Center Today

As attractive as the benefits of a multichannel contact center are¾and as
painless as deployment can be¾managers still need compelling reasons to move
ahead with such an initiative. After all, there are plenty of needs competing
for limited corporate resources.

Fortunately, there are at least five compelling reasons why every company should
make the transition to a true multichannel contact center today.

Reason No. 1: Significantly improved customer satisfaction

multichannel contact centers resolve customers’ problems faster and provide
them with consistent answers regardless of which communication channel they
use. That makes them happier. This improved customer satisfaction has a direct
impact on revenues and profitability. Superior service helps you retain customers,
which is more profitable than capturing new ones. Superior service also helps
you out-sell the competition¾especially in markets where there aren’t many other
competitive differentiators. Superior customer service also means that your
company doesn’t have to compete on price alone. That premium pricing can have
a substantial impact on profitability.

Reason No. 2: Substantially lower operating costs

multichannel contact centers are far less expensive to run than separate customer
service “stovepipes.” Calls get resolved faster because CSRs have more complete
information about each customer and each incident. At the same time, multichannel
contact centers drive a larger percentage of customer interactions away from
the phone towards less expensive channels. If customers can get prompt, personalized
service via email, they’ll have less reason to call. And if you take advantage
of the superior knowledge authoring capabilities of the multichannel contact
center, even more customers will find answers to their questions by themselves
on the Web¾where the cost-per-incident approaches zero.

Reason No. 3: Superior insight into customers’ wants and needs

Companies that implement multichannel customer service know more about their
customers than those that don’t. They can track on a weekly or even daily basis
what customers are asking about by phone, email, the Web and chat. They can
respond to that information with better products and more effective marketing
campaigns. They can also use that information to further improve service quality
and reduce costs. If you can immediately notice that your customers are suddenly
asking about something they heard about your company in the news media, for
example, you can quickly respond with relevant Web content, an email broadcast,
or advertisements. The sooner you can pick up on any such trend in customer
queries, the better.

Reason No. 4: The market requires it

Even if your business strategy doesn’t necessarily call for customer service
that’s competitively superior, unification of your customer service channels
is still a must. That’s because multichannel contact centers will soon become
the norm in just about every market. According to a recent Forrester Research
study, 80 percent of companies have made multichannel contact centers a strategic
priority. As more companies create such contact centers, customer expectations
will rise. So you’ll need to do it just to keep up. Otherwise, your customers
will take their business elsewhere.

Reason No. 5: It’s very do-able

multichannel customer service requires some new thinking about how customer
communications are managed and how knowledge bases can be most effectively leveraged.
But it doesn’t require a major IT infrastructure overhaul and it doesn’t require
exorbitant software licensing fees. That’s because today’s application hosting
providers enable you to acquire all the functionality you need for your multichannel
contact center via the Internet. Instead of deploying a complex customer service
application in your own data center, you can get all the incident management
and reporting capabilities you need right on your PCs using nothing more than
your Web browser. Your hosting service provider manages all the software and
underlying server infrastructure for you. You just customize your screens, reports
and content to meet your individual business requirements.

* * *

Giga Information Group recently declared: “It is essential that companies
communicate across organizational boundaries to develop a plan for supporting
their customers across channels with intelligence information that recognizes
individual customers and offers consistent levels of support.” The time to develop
that plan is now. And it’s time to implement that plan as well.

© 2003 RightNow Technologies, Inc.