A couple of years ago, we explored the state of omnichannel customer care, recognizing the fact that consumers have more channel options available to them than ever before. We also, as an industry, have exponentially more data and insight about consumer behaviors around these channels. When we wrote that article, we could not have ever predicted a global pandemic and the resulting change in consumer behaviors that pushed omnichannel into the spotlight.
With more than a year of pandemic impacts under our belts, let’s dig into the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19 on omnichannel customer care.
A pre-COVID Microsoft report established that, on average, customers use three to five different channels in a single customer journey. Furthermore, McKinsey observes that, in the reservations space, the average customer switches back and forth between desktop and mobile channels nearly six times.
In the excitement of emerging technology and the rush to accommodate every customer, many companies have responded to this type of data by adding more and more channels.
But the reality is, every new channel creates more touchpoints, further complicating the customer journey and decreasing the likelihood of first contact resolution. As McKinsey points out, the lack of focus, slow progress, and huge costs of implementing a “perfect” omnichannel solution are unsurmountable challenges.
COVID-19 has made this reality all the clearer. Yes, customers need more than a single channel to reach a company, especially when contact volume is spiking, but a choice of 10 different channels becomes overwhelming. This is particularly true in a time of crisis and when some of those channels are hasty ad hoc additions to a company’s existing omnichannel offerings. A seamless experience across the entire omnichannel landscape is exceedingly difficult to achieve, but it is consistency that consumers want most – one survey revealed that of the 71% of customers who want a consistent experience across channels, only 29% actually get it.
The mandated isolation and remote work environments that many people have faced throughout the pandemic have had a ripple effect on their behaviors as customers. Forced to get more comfortable than ever before with online options for retail and grocery, for example, customers’ use of self-serve and online customer care channels has similarly increased.
A mid-pandemic study from Noble Systems saw 29% of companies with increased IVR use, 26% with increased live chat use, and 44% with increased email communication. Interestingly, customers who are no longer tied to a strict 9-5 day and/or are no longer subjected to unwanted interest from nosey colleagues, are turning to these channels at more varied times of day. Traditional self-service volume peaks have all changed dramatically – for many brands, consumer peak volumes shifted toward day time hours from evening hours, and pandemic insomnia brought more customers than ever to these channels in the middle of the night.
But what about companies that are late to the omnichannel scene? The harsh truth is that when large companies create a flexible, frictionless omnichannel experience, it becomes the norm that customers begin to expect across the board. Smaller companies are often left in the dust, without the resources to provide the convenience and flexibility of an omnichannel experience.
In the US, 97,966 US businesses permanently closed in the first six months of the pandemic. Some of those might have been unavoidable in an environment where people were confined to their homes (think gyms, salons, and restaurants), but others might have been saved if only they had omnichannel support at their fingertips. In the midst of panic and anxiety, customers often choose ease, convenience, and flexibility – and that more naturally comes with omnichannel.
A pandemic on top of 2020’s political and social tensions led to a reprioritization of customers’ values. Consumers are more likely to buy from socially and environmentally responsible companies than ones who stay silent, as well as from companies who are committed to their communities and the wellbeing of their customers rather than ones focused only on their own profits and motives. At the foundation of these behaviors is, simply, trust. In fact, 51% of customers now say that the primary motivator behind their buying choices is trust.
How does this tie into omnichannel? Customer experience is a key factor (and often the first step) in establishing trust. Communication breakdown, lack of responsiveness, broken promises, and delays or errors all damage the customer experience and disintegrate trust, regardless of brand values. But a seamless omnichannel platform that leverages intelligent technology alongside empathetic human interaction can mitigate these risks. Customers want answers and solutions in a way that matches their expectations and reinforces brand trust – understanding these expectations and behaviors allows a company to respond with the right omnichannel experience, even if it’s only through two or three different channels.
In our industry, amidst all the change and upheaval the last year or so has brought, it is clear the pandemic has highlighted the benefit of a seamless omnichannel customer experience based upon thoughtful strategy, elegant technological solutions, rigorous process, and sophisticated agent training. It starts with an intimate understanding of the customer and their behaviors, expectations, and journey in context of a company’s unique sector and business model—while also recognizing the unique challenges of crisis situations like the pandemic.