CUSTOMER SERVICE: Multichannel service strategies

Hiring and training the best reps for multiple selling channels

Phone calls. E-mails. Online text chats. Faxes. Handwritten letters. Call centers as we know them are turning into customer contact centers.

Technology, such as software that enables customer service reps (CSRs) to conduct face-to-face interactions with up to five customers at once, will help, but that alone won’t turn your order-takers and CSRs into multichannel masters. There are still critical employee issues you must consider before launching a major online service initiative or investing in systems meant to enable your front-line workers to multitask.

For one, you must consider employee skill sets. Not every customer contact employee should be actively engaged in every aspect of customer contact. Reps who are wonderful with customers on the phone are not necessarily adept at writing. The pressure to immediately respond to e-mails and text chat adds another layer of difficulty. And although telephone reps are often asked to multitask (keying in mail orders between calls, for example), switching back and forth between media requires plenty of time for shifting gears stylistically and physically.

Good service requires personal attention to each customer. And providing personal attention to several people simultaneously is harder than software providers might have you believe. It takes dedicated managerial focus to keep reps sufficiently upbeat and motivated to create a positive customer experience when they’re holding just one customer conversation at a time. Imagine how tough it is to motivate reps who are pressured to conduct multiple interactions at once.

You must also keep your CSRs and order-takers informed on any offers your company is promoting through any medium. It’s bad enough when traditional reps don’t get copies of the new catalog before their customers do; it’s even worse if they don’t have immediate access to whatever you’re putting online or if they don’t know how the Internet works. Keep this in mind if most of your reps don’t have access to the Web.

You also have to consider what your customers expect from you in terms of service. Some customer segments demand speed or price as their highest priority; others want information and assistance; some seek out service provided with a certain style and grace. Online chat may provide speed, and it may also support low prices. Grace, however, is likely to be in short supply.

Easing the transition

But competitive pressures dictate that you can’t afford to be behind the times. Here are a few practical considerations to help make the transition to multichannel life easier for your employees and your customers.

– Plan to pay multichannel reps more. You might have to pay $2-$5 more per hour for multichannel reps, depending on the region and the unemployment rate. In addition to a higher rate of pay, budget for paying up to 15% more payroll hours (which include breaks and the like) in comparison to worked hours. The more complex the function, the more downtime is required for training, organizing, and resting.

– Consider separating talkers and writers. Put plenty of thought into whether the same employees should even be considered for both verbal and writing assignments, or whether you’ll need two separate pools, two separate hiring processes, and two separate staffs of phone reps and Internet reps.

– Use skill testing in hiring. If your organization’s hiring methodology errs on the side of the “any warm body” syndrome, it’s time to change your way of thinking. In the multichannel arena, skill testing is more critical than ever. So when you’re hiring a CSR, set up a common customer service scenario and ask the candidates to role-play it with you verbally. Then ask them to write an e-mail to handle the situation. Evaluate both the verbal and written communications for contextual meaning, tone, accuracy, and grammar.

– Go easy at first. If you’re planning to go multichannel, assume that you can schedule new employees for only a limited range of tasks at first. Once a representative is certified or has demonstrated mastery in the performance of a specific role, such as telephone order entry and customer service, you can move him or her onto other tasks – say, answering e-mail – and then to functioning in full multichannel mode.

– Set up or enhance a quality assurance (QA) program. Add to your quality assurance staff, methods, and samples, because the more complex the role and responsibility, the more likely it is that something will slip through the cracks. If you aren’t already sampling correspondence for completeness and tone as well as for accuracy, build it in to your QA program. Accuracy, after all, is not enough; there are nuances in e-mail and chat communication that will take experience and coaching to learn. For instance, if your company receives an e-mail asking “How can I cancel my order?” you certainly don’t want the CSR to respond with straight instructions on cancellation procedures! You need to identify the tone of the e-mail and find out why the customer wants to cancel.

– Employ multichannel managers. Make sure that at least some of your supervisors are skillful multichannel communicators. Not only is it important to provide a model for how to manage the day (as well as for the individual customer interactions), but supervisors who don’t understand the stress and complication of multifunctioning tend to be unrealistic and therefore ineffective at managing it.

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