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Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX

Over the last few decades, organizations have evolved tremendously in how they deliver products and services to customers. Not long ago, there were only a handful of ways to interact with an organization: visit its brick-and-mortar location (in fact, we used to simply call this a “location, ” without the need for a modifier), call it, or, once the web emerged, visit its website. One-on-one interactions between service representatives and customers were a large part of the relationship. However, as technologies advanced, many of our interactions with businesses moved online. We can now do just about anything on the web — from opening a checking account to buying our weekly groceries, without ever speaking to an actual person. Independence from customer service is often the goal for many of us (and for organizations as well): we want easy, convenient, and fast business transactions in the comfort of our own home or in the palms of our hands.

Although web-based customer journeys may seem simpler than the journeys of the past, they can actually be quite complex. Today’s customers interact with organizations across various devices and digital channels. Therefore, to deliver a seamless and uninterrupted omnichannel user experience, companies must have a rich understanding of their users’ behaviors and needs. When they succeed in doing so, web-based customer journeys work well and are ideal for both parties, but in many cases there is a breaking point that requires users to contact the organization for support.

We conducted two diary studies to understand how customers interact with organizations using various channels and what organizations do to provide successful omnichannel customer experiences. We asked people to report every interaction they had with an organization as they completed tasks such as shopping for insurance, opening a checking account, or making a large purchase. Most of these can be characterized as medium-complex tasks: not a quick question, but also not a horrendously complicated problem.

Of the 45 unique customer journeys we analyzed, 64% included at least one user-initiated point of direct contact with the organization, and some of these involved multiple contacts. The web is a mission-critical channel for organizations to conduct business, so it is alarming to see that only a third of customer journeys could be completed online without requiring the customer to contact the organization for support. This means a 2/3 failure rate for a self-service goal such as decreasing call-center costs or improving customer satisfaction.

Why Customers Contact Organizations

When we analyzed the data from our diary studies, we noticed that people contacted companies for one of four reasons:

  • Service Problems. These occur when the outcome of an interaction with a company is not as expected. Examples include:
    • One user had opened a Citibank credit card and he was supposed to receive $300 in return after completing a certain number of transactions in a three-month period. When that payment didn’t come, he contacted Citibank to resolve the issue.
    • Several other users contacted retail stores when their merchandise arrived broken or defective.
  • Roadblocks. These occur when users cannot complete a task on their channel of choice for various reasons (e.g., they’ve encountered an error or the task is not supported) and must switch to a different channel to complete the task. In these situations, only very motivated customers persevere. Many customers who are not brand loyal give up and abandon their task in favor of a better experience with a competitor. For example:
    • One user needed to add another item to his online grocery order just after he had submitted it, but the website did not support changing the order. He called the store to make the update.
    • One user attempted to sign up online for a Charles Schwab checking account, but received an insurmountable error during the application process. She reached out through online chat and also made a phone call.
  • Missing or confusing information. Many users in our study had information needs that were not met at specific points in their journey, because the site content was ambiguous or absent. In some cases, customers contacted the organizations for reassurance and confirmation that they were interpreting complex information correctly before proceeding. Some examples:
    • One user who was looking to get a home-equity loan on the USAA website found a note indicating that the home-equity loan product had been suspended. She called USAA to ask how long it was suspended.
    • A user purchasing a Nest Protect thermostat had researched the two models available through the website and social media, but decided to call a Nest technician to help him understand which model worked best for his needs because the information on the website and other channels was not detailed enough. (The need to compare and contrast choices is key for web usability, but often poorly supported.)
    • A Singapore user shopping for travel insurance on DBS Bank’s site could not figure out from the policy description whether it covered lost luggage or only delayed bags. He indicated he would call DBS to clarify the information.
  • Perception of complexity. In a relatively small number of cases, users simply preferred to complete tasks by working one-on-one with a representative, because they felt that the task was too complex for the digital channels available to them. (This is an example of a limitation imposed by the communication channel’s capacity: when users think that they need to transmit too much information through a narrow-capacity channel, they usually switch to higher-capacity one — digital or in-person). In these situations, the tasks may have been supported online, but users chose not to use those channels. Here’s one example:
    • One user who was shopping for car insurance visited the websites for Farmer’s Insurance and Good Sam Insurance, but instead of researching and getting a quote online, she chose to call and discuss her options with agents from both companies.

In our data sample, 36% of all tasks (16 out of 45) did not require customer service. Missing information was the most frequent reason for contacting customer service (38% or 11 out of 28), followed by service issues and roadblocks (24% each or 7 out of 29). Perception of complexity was the least common reason (14% or 4 out 29 tasks).

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
Pie chart breakdown of the reasons for contacting customer service for 29 of the 45 tasks studied.

The most common method of contacting customer service was by telephone (18 out of 29 tasks). Email was the second most common method for reaching out for support (9 out of 29 tasks), followed by online chat (2 out of 29 tasks) and social media(1 out of 29 tasks).

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
Pie chart breakdown of the methods used for contacting customer service.

An important conclusion from our data is that most of the time contacting customer service reflects a failure in the user experience. Even in the case when people choose not to engage with an online interface from the start, the expectation of poor user experience was the cause behind that decision.

Any time customers’ online tasks are interrupted and they are forced to contact an organization, other unnecessary touchpoints are added to their journeys. Interruptions and channel switching (from digital to human, or otherwise) degrade the customer experience. Over time, they negatively impact key metrics like customer satisfaction and loyalty, and ultimately your business’ bottom line.

Minimize the Need for Customer Service

If a user contacts customer service, it means your online channels have failed to address that user’s needs. Aim to eliminate the customers’ need to contact your organization. Not because you don’t want to support your customers, but because you want your customers to be empowered to complete their tasks however they find convenient. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to sit on hold to talk with a support representative, no matter how nice that person might be.

The two key components to minimizing the need for customer service are:

1. Understanding the customer journey. Step away from the features and functionality you provide on each channel and take a moment to understand the context around how users move through your solutions to complete tasks. What triggers them to go to your website? Is it a monthly newsletter, a promotional mailer, a link in a social post, or an advertisement? What are the stages they go through as they engage with your products? Each of these contexts may be associated with different user expectations. Identify:

  • Customers’ expectations for each of these contexts
  • Customers’ information needs at every step of their journeys
  • Devices or channels that customers choose in each of these different contexts and at different stages
  • Likely transitions from one channel to another and users’ expectations around these transitions

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
When she was browsing Air Asia’s Facebook page on her phone, a study participant tapped on a deal for a flight to New Zealand during the month of March. She was taken to a desktop page containing an exhaustive list of deals for a variety of destinations and time periods. She attempted to use the filters at the top of the list to locate the New Zealand deals, with little success. She explained, “This brings me to the whole page with all promotions, but it would be better if it could bring me to just this promotion for the month of March.”

2. Designing for the journey. Organizations must shift their mindset from individual-channel solutions toward one overarching solution that spans multiple channels and stays intact regardless of how a customer chooses to engage.

Design channel and device solutions that align with channels’ roles in the customer journey and with context of use and users’ expectations. Support transitions between channels: every time a user must change channels during a task, there is an opportunity for failure (as shown above in the Air Asia Example), often resulting in the need to contact customer service.

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
Google Maps: Users commonly look up directions to a location on a tablet or desktop first, to get an idea of where they are going. Then they access the directions again on their phones to navigate to their destination. Google supports this channel transition by providing an option to send the directions to the phone.

An important part of designing for the customer journey is to understand and eliminate common reasons for contact. Work closely with your customer-support team to identify the most common complaints and questions received. Do not ignore any method of contact, be it telephone, email, online chat, or social media. Then focus your attention on addressing the root problem that has led to these common issues. Understand information needs throughout the user journey and make sure that they are addressed properly, either by reworking confusing content or by creating new content. Identify and eliminate roadblocks and laborious channel transitions for key customer journeys.

Make Customer Service Easily Accessible

A simple way to minimize customer calls is to not provide a phone number or other contact information. Don’t do it. Reducing the need for customer service does NOT mean eliminating customer service. In fact, since you can’t possibly plan and design for every situation in which someone may want to speak with a representative, make it easy for your customers to contact your organization at any step in the journey. Some of the most frustrated users in our research were those who needed to contact an organization and could not do so. Some companies’ contact information was inexistent or very difficult to find, so people thought that the company was trying to avoid being contacted entirely. In these situations, customers resorted to Google or social channels to find contact information for the organization. And the organization lost their trust — a one-way ticket to the sand below the trust pyramid that had probably taken the company’s brand team years to build.

So, in the spirit of eliminating roadblocks and streamlining channel transitions, provide a clear path for customers to contact your organization.

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
DBS bank includes a path toward multiple contact options in the right rail of its complex travel-insurance product page.

Make transitions to a contact channel seamless. If you provide a path to contact, make this transition as effortless as possible. Take advantage of technology and device capabilities to do so. Whenever your organization sends a customer to another channel, ask yourself what the next step will be and how you can make it easier.

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
Left: The UPS My Choice iPhone app lets customers enter a delivery address in order to receive delivery-status notifications. However, when UPS doesn’t recognize the entry as a residential address, it simply presents a roadblock, with an error message that basically says “Figure it out own your own.” Right: Southwest Airlines’ iPhone app does not support booking to international destinations. Instead of presenting the user with a roadblock, it provides the error message along with pathways to two possible channels where users can resolve the issue. The guidelines for good error messages are 35 years old, yet only one of these two companies complied.

Provide multiple options for contacting customer service. Every customer issue has its own unique circumstances, context, and level of urgency, so don’t force all of your users down the same path to contact your organization. Provide people with the flexibility and level of information they need in order to choose the contact channel best suited for their situation.

One participant in our study had a simple question for his auto maker, Nissan. He chose to chat with a Nissan support agent via Nissan’s mobile website because he was riding the bus on his way home from work and it would have been difficult to have a phone conversation on the noisy bus. If Nissan had only provided a customer-service hotline number, he would have had to wait until he got home from work and navigate his way through a call tree to get a very simple question answered.


Venn diagram of common customer-contact channels and reasons why customers choose each of them

Minimize the Need for Customer Service to Improve the Omnichannel UX
Overstock.com gives its users several options to contact customer care. It also provides helpful context about the response time on each channel to set expectations and help people choose the right option for their personal situation.

Conclusion

We often design for the happy path through our products and services and we don’t necessarily plan for direct customer contact to be part of their journey, but customers often still need one-on-one support to overcome issues. Understanding the common reasons why customers make contact and addressing the underlying problems in your omnichannel solutions will reduce the need for customer contact and create an omnichannel ecosystem that allows users to self-serve without interruptions and roadblocks. In situations where customers do need to reach out through a contact channel, provide options to do so and make those transitions as effortless as possible.