very now and then comes a buzz word that gets everybody worked up to a frenzy. For instance, you can’t mention Pokemon Go these days without being trampled on by a herd of avid Gamers.

For many people who run a business, it’s highly likely they’ve heard the term “omni-channel” thrown around quite a bit over the past year, and so the debate begins: is omni-channel really the future?

What is omni-channel?

There are a few differentiating terms that help sum up what “omni-channel” is:

  • Multi-channel: meaning you offer a select choice of channels to your customers (IVR, SMS, web, email, etc)
  • Multi-modal: meaning you offer a mixture of channels whilst engaged, completing the customers’ journey in a single interaction
  • Omni-channel: meaning you offer many channels over a series of interactions with a claim to consider the entire customer journey

Put simply, “multi-channel” contact centres offer only a handful of contact options and hold the information from each separately, whereas “omni-channel” centres offer options across all eight points of contact, and have a full, unified view of all interactions.

The eight points of contact

  1. Voice (Inbound and Outbound)
  2. Video
  3. SMS
  4. E-mail
  5. Social Media
  6. IVR
  7. Self-Service
  8. Web Chat

Each of these contact points holds its own strengths and weaknesses, and catering for all of these comes with definite challenges, such as resourcing each area to a high enough standard to keep customers satisfied. So is omni-channel something each contact centre should aspire to, or is it more of an idealist dream?

Amazon, for example, would consider themselves an omni-channel brand, yet it’s very clear they only want to talk on the phone if they consider it absolutely necessary, so they deal with the vast majority of customers through self-serve and automated messaging. When things go well, the service appears faultless and it’s fantastic, but we still live in a world where many don’t like to – or aren’t able to – use technology. And even those happy to do so occasionally experience problems where they need to speak to a person, and it can be frustrating when that’s not an easy option.

This brings us onto another very important point.

Robot Vs Human

Streamlining and downsizing companies in favour of technology makes a certain amount of economic sense, but what is the knock-on effect of minimising the human interaction element of your company?

Self-driving cars are a good example of how opinion is divided, with some arguing there would be far less accidents if we removed human error. The more nervous among us though are entitled to ask a very important question: when the technology fails – and technology does fail – who will be accountable for the accidents caused?

Outsourcing

Some companies have realised that customers still crave human interaction, but in an attempt to cut costs they allow certain staff to work remotely. Again, there are pros and cons to this, but modern customers expect to receive the same experience regardless of what channel they communicate on, and it’s harder to drum a company’s ethos into staff that work outside of the office.

Also, if somebody answers the phone from home, what will the acoustics of their work space be like? If a customer calls Nike and hears a washing machine on in the background, it wouldn’t exactly fit the brand, and that can be a problem.

Fads and trends

When e-books became the next big thing, experts viewed sales charts on a weekly basis and claimed the rise in digital sales spelt the end for physical books. There was mass panic among traditional printers and publishers, and many knee jerk reactions as a consequence. However, over time the sales plateaued and it’s now clear there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for both to co-exist.

Final thoughts

For the majority of contact centres, the smart thing may be to just focus on a strong multi-channel offering and ensure their brand identity is strong across each one. After all, customers stay loyal to brands that offer great service, and aren’t so interested in how many ways they can connect with the contact centre. They’ll simply communicate via the method that best suits their own habits.

If resources are not an issue then omni-channel is great, but you must be prepared for it to shape your company in unexpected ways, too. For instance, when Twitter rose to prominence, many companies only created Twitter profiles to appear “in the loop.” Suddenly, their feeds were bombarded with unresolved complaints and, feeling the need to avoid public shame, the companies appeared to deal with these issues more urgently, which encouraged more customers to do use it as their go-to portal when they wished to vent their frustration.

There are now countless teams of social media account handlers all over the country that wouldn’t need to be in place had the companies in question not created a Twitter account in the first place, so the key takeaway is to consider your demographic carefully and understand their habits before taking the plunge into omni-channel. Once you do it, you are likely to be overwhelmed with correspondence across multiple channels, and unless you can deliver suitable responses it can do far more harm to your reputation than good.