Why Channel Switching Is a Good Thing

Channel switching gets a bad rap in customer service.

If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to situations where a customer starts an interaction with a company in one channel and the interaction moves to another channel.

The customer sometimes initiates this. For instance, a customer might email a company with a question and then call a day later when she does not get a response.

At other times, companies cause the channel switch. The classic example happens when a customer tweets at a company and the company replies saying, "Can you email your information to service@acme.com and we'll look into it?"

Both of these examples seem bad, and they are. But there are definitely times when channel switching is terrific. 

Customer using a smart phone to contact customer service.

A Good Channel Switching Example

I've become a fan of the ride sharing app, Lyft. 

Using Lyft requires a lot of channel switching, though I'd argue it enhances the experience. Here's an example from a recent business trip where I used Lyft to get from a client's office to the airport:

  1. App: I booked a ride on Lyft using the app and then tracked my driver.
  2. Text: Lyft texted to inform me my driver, Benjamin, was near.
  3. In-Person: This is the ride itself. Keep in mind in-person is a channel. 
  4. App: I used the app to give Benjamin a rating and a tip after I arrived.

This one experience used three channels (app, text, and in-person) and switched channels three times. What made it terrific was every channel switch was seamless and felt natural. 

The truth is we often seamlessly switch channels when interacting with companies. 

You might use OpenTable to book a restaurant reservation and then visit the restaurant in-person to dine. Or you might call a customer service department for assistance and the rep sends you a helpful follow-up email.

You probably don't give channel switching a second thought when it works well. 


Where Channel Switching Goes Wrong

Companies like Lyft succeed because they make channel switching seamless and natural. Many companies do not.

I recently decided to close an account with a local credit union. You would have thought I was requesting the most unusual transaction in history. Here's that experience:

  1. Website: searched for instructions or necessary forms (couldn't find any).
  2. Phone: Called for assistance. Was told to visit a branch.
  3. In-Person: Visited the branch to close the account. Was told it would take a day to process.
  4. Phone: Employee from branch made a follow-up call to verify account closed.

Like my Lyft experience, this credit union experience featured three channels (website, phone, and in-person) and three channel switches.

It was not a good experience because the channel switches felt forced and unnatural. It still doesn't make sense why I couldn't close my account online, given I could do just about everything else on the credit union's website.

The one positive part of the experience was the branch employee who made a follow-up call. She was technically switching channels, but that part was fine because it felt like a continuation of the conversation.

And that's the key. Good channel switching is seamless and natural. Bad channel switching just feels like the company doesn't have its act together.


Master the Moments of Truth

Jeannie Walters is the CEO of 360Connext. She's an expert in identifying and optimizing key moments in a customer's journey.

Walters suggests companies should think about a customer's real life rather than design touch points around a process. She gives a great example from retail clothing stores.

"Nordstrom and other retailers determined how customers like to order clothes online, but wanted the choice to return or exchange them at a store. Once these retailers saw the need for seamless channel switching, they were able to make returning via any channel easier. Now customers have the choice of returning by sending back with a pre-paid label, going to a store, or even calling a special phone line."

You can do something similar. 

  • Experience your products or service like a customer would.
  • Contact your customer service department, just like a customer might. 
  • Talk to real customers and gather their feedback.

The goal is to find pinch points that harm the experience and find a way to make them seamless and natural for your customers.

Why Customers Don't Care About Channels

Chances are, you’ve spent a lot of time worrying about customer service channels.

Multi-channel was the big buzzword for awhile. Now, it’s omni-channel. The questions remain the same:

  • Which channels should your company use to serve customers?
  • How should you manage, staff, and train for various channels?
  • Which department owns each channel? (Marketing? PR? Customer service?)

Unfortunately, your customers don’t care.

Customers care about something much simpler, yet much more difficult to achieve. They want a seamless experience.

How Omni-channel Fails

Omni-channel experiences end up in service failures when there isn’t a seamless handoff from one channel to the next. 

You may have heard agitated customers ask:

  • Why do I have to DM my information when I Tweet a complaint?
  • Why do I have to remember my confirmation number?
  • Why don’t you already know what the last employee told me?
  • Why can I do some transactions online, but not others?
  • Why do I have to give you the same information I just entered into the IVR?

The list goes on.

Behind the scenes, these questions arise for a variety of reasons. 

  • Technology used to manage different channels might not be integrated.
  • Different departments might manage different channels.
  • Companies might be blind to their customers’ journey


How Customers Think

Customers don’t think in terms of channels. They think in terms of convenience.

A great example is to look at how you communicate with your own friends. Chances are, you seamlessly communicate over multiple channels without ever losing the narrative.

I took this exercise a step further and asked some of my omni-channel friends how they communicate with me. Their responses were illuminating.

My friend Amber responded quickly to my email. She said:

My decision on how to contact people depends on my relationship with them and what the communication is regarding. If it’s personal, and just something to share, I’ll use social media. If it’s personal and I want a response, I’ll text. If it is business and I want a response but it’s not urgent, I send an e-mail. I’m not a phone person -  as a Gen X-er I use phone calls as a last resort – when it’s business related and I need a quick answer.

My friend Jeremy is my most omni-channel friend. I counted ten different channels we’ve used to communicate over the past several months:

  • Office phone
  • Cell phone
  • Text
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Disqus (comments on my blog)
  • WordPress (comments on his blog)
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Face to Face

Here’s what Jeremy said:

My initial thought is that I communicate over the channel that requires the least time and emotional investment. That means email or text because I can very quickly send it and forget it. There’s no substitute for phone and face to face for cultivating a more dynamic relationship with another person though. The most profound thing for me when I see this list is the relationship. Regardless of the channel, that is the underlying theme. The channel is secondary and determined based on the circumstance.

My friend Larry is most likely to initiate a multi-channel conversation. He might ping me on Facebook and then send a Direct Message on Twitter when I respond. Here’s what he said:

With so many channels available to connect with each other it is important to be aware of what works best for the person in which you are trying to communicate. I have found that the best way to reach you Jeff, is to use e-mail. I know if it is not important or an FYI that you are on Twitter, I know you are active on certain tweet chats, I follow you on Facebook as well. But when I know I want to share something with you that I expect feedback, e-mail is the way to go.

Unscientific? Absolutely.

But, there are some consistent themes that guide how my friends communicate. I suspect you’ll see similar themes if you do this exercise too:

  • What works best for the message?
  • What works best for the audience?
  • Can the conversation continue seamlessly across channels?