Omnichannel: The Next Big Thing... Again

Remember when we called them call centers? Call centers were all about human-to-human voice interactions. The call center solution stack had the most sophisticated call queuing, routing, and related services that the telephony industry offered.

VoIP enabled fax, email, social interactions, and other new types of conversations to flow into the call center. Call center became too narrow a term, so "contact center" emerged. Despite the name change, the contact center remained predominantly voice-oriented.

Omnichannel has emerged as a popular contact center initiative. Typically, omnichannel begins by adding browser-based chat to an organization's website. This enables the customer or prospect to interact with the contact center agent without installing special software or obtaining access credentials. Without a doubt, Web chat is a powerful tool.

In the UC Spirit

It's a great start, but voice plus Web chat is not omnichannel. "I'm seeing omnichannel used often to describe voice plus a few digital channels. Usually chat comes first," said Ian Jacobs, a contact center analyst with Forrester Research. "Integrations with social networks are far from dead, but messaging is rapidly becoming the next channel."

Omni, derived from Latin, expresses every or all, and channel refers to multiple conversational modalities. It's really the same spirit as unified communications, but with a contact center twist.

Actually it's not that simple. There are several interpretations of omnichannel, and I won't include every or all of them here. While some focus more on the conversational modalities, other interpretations focus on conversational or transactional histories, or the ability to move conversations (and associated data) across modalities. Whatever, the case, omnichannel is more than Web chat.

Unfortunately, I consistently find two things missing from most omnichannel conversations: modern channels and context. This post addresses channels, specifically messaging and video. Context is a post of a different color.

The problem with omnichannel is the continuous change component of every or all. For example, fax was certainly an important channel at one time (and still is in some sectors). Modalities come and go, but omnichannel doesn't expire. Instead, it's necessary to reevaluate its scope regularly.

Omnichannel initiatives must now include messaging and video. These are the two most significant emerging modalities in enterprise communications. Both are already popular in consumer services.

Messaging

Everyone loves messaging, be that via an app like Facebook Messenger, Line, WeChat, and Viber, or whatever the preference might be. A big benefit of Web chat is that it doesn't require an app or credentials, yet these requirements haven't dampened the popularity of conversational apps.

There's little debate that texting is often preferred over voice. While using text instead of voice is a little more cumbersome, it offers numerous benefits. For example, messaging systems provide a persistent record of the conversation. Interactions can transition from text to voice or video. Messaging apps work as well in noisy environments as they do in quiet workplaces, and can be more tolerant of distractions and interruptions.

Cellular SMS is a form of messaging that shares many of the same benefits as text messaging. Both are less anonymous and ephemeral than Web chat. Twilio, Genband's Kandy, Vonage's Nexmo, and other communications platform as a services have made easier work of integrating SMS into contact centers.

Web chat doesn't offer an ideal experience on smartphones, so without messaging or text options smartphone users are left with calling. With that comes stifling expectations associated with attendant trees, recorded sales pitches, repetitive music, and risk of disconnection.

Video

Video offers even more potential for rich interactions. I know this because I keep coming across success stories that are exceptions not rules.

I've seen several big wins in the banking industry. Nationwide Building Society, a U.K. company, has implemented a Cisco-powered service to supplement branch office staff with virtual agents who can conduct face-to-face video consultations. The pilot resulted in a 62% gain in mortgages, so Nationwide has opted to expand the service to each of its 400 locations.

At a recent Genesys event, Consumers Credit Union presented how video banking and video-only branches facilitated double-digit growth and increased satisfaction among both customers and employees. And Barclays attributes a 40-point increase in its Net Promoter Score to video banking, with its deployment now reaching more than one million customers. Both institutions use technology from Vidyo.

Video is often narrowly associated with traditional video conferencing, but the technology includes general access to the camera and provides for screen sharing and co-browsing. Here are some examples:

  • Dreamforce 2016 featured a demonstration of how Coke uses a retailer's cell phone camera to troubleshoot problems and even upsell the customer. You can see the presentation in this video.
  • Netherlands-based DEKRA Claims and Expert Services International allows its customers to use their smartphone cameras to share and document damages when filing claims.
  • In an emerging video category known as see-what-I-see, field staff can get remote assistance when they share what they see via camera-equipped glasses or helmets. Last year, Vidyo announced see-what-I-see capabilities with ServiceNow.
  • Intuit, the personal finance and tax software company, offers SmartLook, a one-way video service that enables a tax advisor to assist and review tax preparation. SmartLook, powered by Nvidia, provided a 50% drop in support time and increased customer satisfaction scores.
  • Online consultations don't have to be limited to software products. Pella Windows and Doors last year launched in-home consultations over video.
  • Embedding video capabilities into a product can provide competitive advantage. Devices with a screen can often be configured to receive one-way video. That's what Amazon did to give its entry-level tablet competitive differentiation through support. Solutions can also be created with just a camera, such as integration of surveillance or drone video. Clearly, a camera and screen can offer a full experience, but in nontraditional ways. For example, NCR recently partnered with Vidyo to enable video support on its ATMs and Interactive Tellers.

Messaging apps can be walled gardens, but many now offer integration into applications such as contact centers. Video is often overlooked because it's thought to be hard, low quality, and expensive, but embedded high-quality video has never been simpler or easier.

Omnichannel contact centers are really about driving customer engagement. As organizations adopt self-service and digital solutions, establishing a personal relationship with customer is becoming increasingly difficult. Customer service provides one of those few opportunities to differentiate and build rapport, but too many organizations rely on obsolete tools and technologies.

Omnichannel will continue to evolve, but today's initiatives need to include messaging and video.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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