Meet Pete.

Pete is the proud owner of a brand new phone. He’s been waiting for months to upgrade his old phone for the shiny new one. Finally the day arrives.

He eagerly takes in his old phone, gets the new one, and takes it home to set it up. But something goes wrong. The phone isn’t working properly.

So Pete pulls out his laptop. He thanks his lucky stars that the days of “Call this number for assistance” have been upgraded along with his currently useless phone since he has no way to call. Finding the company’s website, Pete clicks a button and begins a chat with someone from customer service.

In half an hour, with the customer service representative’s helpful tips, Pete has a working phone.

Once upon a time, consumers had very few options when it came to contacting companies with questions about products. They could write a letter and wait weeks for an answer. Or they could call the company, sit on hold for who knows how long, and navigate the endless prompts of “If you would like to talk to a real person, press 1”.

Now there are even more ways for customers to connect. However, it’s up to companies to use these different channels to their, and their customers’, advantage.

And believe me, they are.

A recent study showed that 44% of companies view customer service as the make it or break it point between them and their competitors. They want to reach their consumers in new and exciting ways, to make the experience of customer service enjoyable.

They’re turning to multichannel customer service. It’s also been called omnichannel customer service. Whatever you call it, the idea is the same.

Using multiple venues to reach consumers.

Companies are using social media and live chats to help consumers figure out issues. They’re using phones and physical locations to offer aid. And it seems to be working.

Why You Want It

Consumers practically demand that assistance be available any time they need it. That can be hard for a company to keep up with, but using more than one route of communication can actually help with that.

Multichannel customer service sounds like a tough change, and it can be difficult to make the switch. So what’s in it for you?

Increased Accessibility. By offering your services across several different venues, you become more accessible to your customers. They’ll be able to find and contact you more easily. Their questions will be solved more quickly.

Increased Efficiency. If customers can find you more easily, you can answer their questions faster. Not only that, but information and questions can be separated and organized. Got a technology question? It goes directly to tech support. Did your new dress get damaged in the mail? Your information is sent to the relevant people.

By breaking up and sorting people’s issues and inquiries, they can be addressed more quickly and by the right people, solving the problems faster.

Increased Customer Satisfaction. Customers who are helped more quickly and more efficiently are happier. A UK study showed that 73% of consumers who stopped associating with companies did so because of bad customer service experiences.

That same study estimated the loss of one customer as a loss of £248 ($350 US) a year.

Not only that, but offering customer service through multiple channels has been proven to increase customer retention and loyalty. 78% of customers said they’re more likely to be loyal to a company that is accessible and easy to communicate with during an emergency. And companies who connect multiple channels to their customer services report retention rates as high as 89%.

Which Channels to Choose

Once you’ve decided you want to incorporate multiple channels into your company’s customer service, another important choice is ahead of you. Which channels do you choose?

Now this won’t be the same from one company to the next. It’s important to spend time researching what your customers want and what’s possible. But I’ve listed five of the most popular channels I’ve seen below with a brief description of how each can be used as well as some issues you might encounter.

1. Phone

Phone calls have always been a popular choice in customer service. One study showed that 54% of customers make contact with customer service by calling.

Phone calls allow the consumer to talk directly to someone and get immediate answers. The customer can fully explain the problem and the representative can walk her through the solution. If something doesn’t work, he can suggest something else, no delay.

It’s efficient. Not only that, but it’s what people are used to. A 2012 survey showed that 40% of consumers preferred to get help through a live conversation.

But recently it takes more time than customers are willing to wait to get through to someone. Companies have tried using automatic messages and options to walk customers through solutions to the most common problems, but that just creates a virtual maze that’s very easy to get lost in.

2. Email

Emails are similar to the physical mail people used to send, but they are so much faster.They allow the customer to state the problem they have, explain things they may have tried, and ask specific questions without interruption.

In return, customer service representatives can give detailed responses that consumers can refer back to without having to remember everything that was said.

Of course, unlike a phone call, you may have to wait for a response. Customers won’t likely have to wait as long as if they’d sent snail mail, but it might be a few hours before they get a reply, and in today’s society, that can feel like weeks.

3. Live Chat

Live chats are a great solution for those customers. Or for customers like Pete, who might not be able to make a phone call for some reason or another.

Companies with live chats offer consumers a way to get immediate, individual attention. No stressing out about making a phone call or waiting to get through. No worrying about whether your email got buried in someone’s inbox, or worse, junk mail.

It’s so much like texting that many customers are already comfortable with the format.

Live chats depend on having customer service representatives available at all times to chat with customers one on one. They don’t have to know all the answers right off the bat, but they need to be able to find them quickly.

4. Social Media

Social media seems like a strange place to incorporate customer service, but it’s not new. Well, it’s new in the last 10 years, but it’s now a commonly accepted practice.

Why?

That’s where customers are. They tweet, update statuses, pin, and post pictures almost constantly. They can do it from their computers or their phones. So if they have a question for your company, an easy way would be to do so through your company’s social media.

And if they’ve been stuck on hold for almost an hour, they’re going to tell their friends.

The result might not be as immediate as a live chat, but other people will be able to see you being helpful to their friend. You can answer a question for one person and have five others say they were wondering the same thing and now they don’t even need to ask.

And don’t forget about your company’s website. It might seem like a part of social media, but it’s an important part of the customer service process. Over half of consumers who call customer service were on the company’s website beforehand and 38% were on the website while calling.

5. Physical Location

Sometimes you just have to see a problem to understand it.

Some people have trouble explaining what’s wrong. Sometimes the issue is bigger than it may appear. In either case, the best solution is for a customer service representative to actually see the item in person.

Now this isn’t always an option. For companies that exist mostly online and only have a few stores, you can offer help in the stores but you won’t be able to reach many people. But for companies with multiple locations or for local or individual stores, this is a very real and very important option.

There are, of course, problems you may run into.

You have to find space in your store for a help desk of sorts. You also have to hire knowledgeable people, or educate employees on the various products you sell. They don’t have to become experts, but they should be able to easily deal with common problems and know how to find the answer to more complicated questions.

Getting the Most Out of Your Channels

Okay, so you know why you want to have multiple channels. You even know which ones you want to use. But how do you get the most out of them?

Obviously, time and practice will show you what works best for your company. In the meantime, however, here are four tips to help you get started on a beneficial multichannel plan.

1. Meet Customers Halfway

The whole point of having multiple channels is to make your company more available to customers, more accessible. So make sure you’re choosing the right places.

Find out where your customers are most active and most comfortable. Customers will feel valued if you meet them halfway. And they’ll be more likely to return to a place that had such a pleasant experience.

2. Consistency

One of the most important things to remember if you are using more than one channel is to make sure all channels say the same thing. Different messages make people confused. They won’t know which is the most recent or accurate information. And you don’t want that.

After all, confusion leads to frustration. Frustration leads to anger, and anger to the dark side leads. Or in this case, the customer might decide to take his business elsewhere.

It’s a good idea to have one person in charge of deciding exactly what all the channels should say. Multiple people can be involved in getting that message out there, but if only one person is coming up with it, it will be a lot clearer.

There’s less of a chance of a misunderstanding happening.

3. Employee Comfort

Now, all these channels, electronic or not, require people to run them. So you want those people to know what they’re doing. If you have an employee who isn’t comfortable with social media running the Twitter account, your results might not be as good.

There are two simple solutions to this.

The first is to find out the strengths of your employees. Does one hate talking on the phone but has a great social media presence? Assign that person to social media for your company. Does another employee love talking to people rather than typing on a screen? Have that person take calls.

Playing to the gifts your team possesses will make for a more efficient group.

The other solution is to offer training to employees involved in your customer service department. It can be mandatory or optional. Spend a day or an afternoon on each of the different channels your company uses. This will give employees the chance to learn more about the areas where they might not be as comfortable.

4. Upkeep

With multiple channels, there are unfortunately even more ways things can go wrong. It can be hard to keep track of how everything is supposed to work, let alone what to do if something bad happens. A lot of companies rely on customer reviews to find out if something has gone wrong.

That’s not a good idea.

As a company, you should really test channels regularly to make sure everything is working properly.

Yes, it takes time. No, you probably won’t catch every glitch and hiccup. But it will be worth it in the long run.

When something goes wrong, it likely means an unhappy customer. Sure, the customer might be nice enough to let you know that something has happened and you can fix it, but they’ve already had that bad experience. There’s no fixing that.

If you have an app for a smartphone, have employees try it from various brands to make sure it reads well on all of them. Have people log into the website. Make test calls. Catch those issues before your customers do.

Of course there will always be problems, but if you keep your customer service machine well-greased, those breakdowns will happen less often.

Multichannel customer service is growing more popular and because of that, it’s getting easier to use.

Not only that, it’s what customers are starting to expect.

There are even more options for you to explore and I’d encourage you to do so. What other channels have you found to be helpful?