'Autonomous' consumers require multichannel service strategy

Consumers increasingly turning to multiple channels to get service or product they want and companies need to meet them across these channels, says BT exec, who adds social media need not be top priority.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Customer "autonomy" is the new trend as consumers eschew traditional brand engagement and are now "supercharged" by their Web-enabled mobile devices to emerge independent, well informed, and connected across multiple channels to get the product or information they want.

As such, companies will need to formulate a multichannel service strategy to meet their needs, urged Nicola Millard, a customer experience futurologist at BT Global Services.

Social media, though, need not be an immediate priority as it is only a secondary response channel and may bring more hassle to the company if they "do it wrong", said Millard, who looks into long-term trends for the company.

Speaking at a briefing session here Wednesday, she added that customer autonomy was challenging existing customer relationship strategies of both companies and public sector organizations.

Defining the autonomous consumer
According to a joint survey by BT and Avaya, released today, 79 percent of consumers polled indicated they planned their purchases and carried out their own product research before buying even though they might be "time-starved".

Millard further noted that 54 percent preferred self-service shopping options as "no one tries to sell [them] anything", while 64 percent utilized social media more than 2 to 3 times a week.

Additionally, consumers with smartphones such as Apple's iPhone or Android-based devices were also "supercharged" by the information available in their hands, the study showed. For instance, 81 percent of consumers with smartphones would use online reviews to check on product quality compared to 68 percent for those without a smartphone.

The study was carried out by Davies Hickman Partners in December 2011, and 2,500 online consumers from countries including Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, and Singapore were polled.

Multichannel response strategy needed
Some 65 percent of respondents said they continually changed how they would contact an organization. This could be a store visit, on the Web site or via a phone call, as consumers perceived certain channels to be more suited for specific purposes. The Internet was favored for research, while face-to-face contact was preferred for more complex tasks, Millard shared.

With these findings in mind, the futurologist suggested companies took a clear-eyed look into their organizations' call center operations and determined which channels they were strong in, while developing strengths on emerging communication platforms such as Web chats, social media and instant messaging.

This did not mean companies should jump on every communication bandwagon immediately, she added.

Social media, in particular, should not be rushed into as it was merely a secondary response channel. "Consumers only turn to social media to complain when companies don't return their e-mail or calls," Millard said.

She also pointed out social initiatives tended to be driven by a company's marketing team, but these employees often panicked when negative comments were posted on these platforms and would remove these comments or disable the comment function in response.

This, she said, was a mistake as people would only move from Facebook to Twitter, for example, to air their grievances and the brand would receive double the negative attention for mismanaging social communications.

Calling for "networked experts"
The rise of Web and social communications does not mean the role of call centers is diminishing, though, the BT executive said. There is still a need for call centers for "complex, emotional" issues users are not able to resolve on their own or require a human touch.

The challenge, rather, is to identify the right expert needed to field customers' query across the multiple channels, Millard noted. Such "networked experts", which are usually business executives in the back-office, have the expertise and knowledge but are seldom empowered to answer customers' questions, she noted.

"The ideal situation is to empower all employees to be able to answer customers' questions," she said, but admitted she had yet to figure out how to do so efficiently.

Lee Chong Win, director of contact center solutions for Asia-Pacific at Avaya, pointed out that the technology is already available for call center operators to pool customer details and past conversation history into a central access point.

Hence, regardless of the channel by which consumers choose to get in touch with the company, call center staff will be able to pull out the relevant information to meet their needs without having to check back with the customers on past call details, he said.

This challenge needs to be overcome as the current level of customer frustration has reached an all-time high as many companies fail to correctly implement technology to handle customer engagement, an earlier report noted.

Lee also reiterated Millard's point, suggesting enterprises extend their collaboration roadmaps into the callcenter space as this would enable business executives to provide the needed expertise when support is requested.

He believed within the next 18 months, most call centers would have trained their call center staff to be able to handle seamless channeling of customers' queries to the right expert and with the necessary context on hand.

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