Why you must support ‘Channel of Choice’

Summary: Why must you support ‘Channel of Choice’? Digital Transformation efforts tend to streamline everything to a digital channel. This can create unforeseen consequences. Offering channels that are flexible and allow broken journey recovery for your users is critical. Why? Customers, citizens, and users interact with and switch channels (phone, web, app, store, paper, etc.) for convenience or to bypass a technical or design blocker in your channel.

Why you must support ‘Channel of Choice’

The concept of “Channel of Choice” emphasizes the importance of serving customers through the channels they are most comfortable with rather than coercing them into your preferred channels. Digital Transformation efforts often overlook this, opting to streamline everything into a digital channel. Cost savings is usually the motivation…

Yes, but: Digital is not always the “happy path” because sometimes journeys break. It is essential to recognize that customers frequently turn to other channels to navigate a broken touchpoint within your channel. Some examples:

  • A text message alerting a user of a pre-service preparation step goes to a broken link….leaving the customer to search or to contact you via another channel (potentially running up your costs).
  • A custom QR code on a website requiring security checks prompts a mobile app download upon which the QR code fails to ‘handshake’ with the app..leaving the customer blocked, forcing repeat effort and possibly an unnecessary expense call to Customer Support.

Customers and citizens rely on a channel to be flexible and help them recover from errors happening in the channel. This is important for accessibility and customer journey continuity. Disruptions in the journey break the seamless flow, causing dissatisfaction and loss of engagement.

Channel experience strategy is an access and inclusion issue

Your customers, citizens, and end-users expect seamless experiences across channels.  This is critical in Service Design efforts, especially government, healthcare, banking and differentiated retail experiences. Whether through traditional channels like phone calls or online chatbots, meeting customers where they are can lower costs, avoid disrupted user journeys, and increase long-term loyalty or retention.

At the same time being fluid with your channel design is vital. A well meaning channel may have the unintended effect of excluding users.

Consider this real-world scenario from government:

Scenario: A City Council wants to engage its citizens, so it posts posters asking for feedback on “The Future You Want To See.” A URL and a QR code are provided.

Problem: Not everyone will see or stop to read the poster. Only the most motivated feedback givers will go to the URL + QR code to provide their feedback, in the feedback survey. Many audiences in the community will be left out.

Solution: The City should also engage the wider public through in-person channels (older users, users with disabilities, users with mental health or literacy challenges, students, immigrants etc). For instance, they could use an identifiable color  (like yellow) linked to the poster call to action, whereby a person dressed in yellow stands outside shopping centers and public parks striking up a conversation. They could also offer a “Your Thoughts” box with paper and pen placed in coffee shops, playcare areas, retirement homes and more. This would allow wider outreach and get feedback that would otherwise be missed.

Two defaults: omnichannel & channel-switching

Salesforce studies estimate that consumers touch up to 10 channels across a customer journey.

This means “omnichannel” is the default: users zigzag from store to mobile to call center to desktop. This is important in all domains, but we’ve only heard about its importance in e-commerce. Shopify provides a nice distinction between omnichannel vs multichannel:

“Omnichannel is a strategy that offers different methods of shopping to consumers (e.g., online, in a physical store) to provide a seamless, consistent experience across all channels.

Multichannel is a strategy that uses multiple channels to reach customers, but these channels operate independently, offering separate and distinct shopping experiences.”

The reality for many products or services is to push every interaction toward digital. For example, finding Customer Support contact information on websites is deliberately complicated. The idea is to push customers off to Frequent Questions, forums, or chatbots—anything to avoid speaking to Support agents, which drives up costs.

Salesforce (2019) found: Forty percent of customers won’t do business with a company if they can’t use their preferred channels. Millennials and Gen Zers are the most omnichannel generations by far — citing, on average, 51% more channels as “preferred” than the silent and baby boomer generations. Younger customers are, unsurprisingly, more digitally savvy when engaging with companies. More than half (56%) of millennial and Gen Z customers prefer mobile apps, and are more than twice as likely than silents/baby boomers to prefer voice assistants like Siri and Alexa. Email is favored across generations.

Orgs bias toward digital: The perceived problem resolution of customer issues via digital-only is likely why your org prioritizes Digital Transformation, overlooking UX or Service Transformation. The idea is that digital is the most important channel. Yet only 50% of consumers prefer digital channels over traditional ones (Salesforce 2019). The reality is that users switch channels, making it difficult to anticipate, especially if you don’t have a detailed understanding of your touchpoint and channel experience.

Why do users switch channels? It’s usually due to an absent, broken, or confusing touchpoint. We hear users regularly say: “What am I supposed to do?”; “Where do I go now?”; “None of these answer my problem”. The response is to switch to another channel to turn for help.

Customers or citizens switch channels for various reasons (comfort, preference, convenience). It might also be due to a language, cultural, or disability barrier. In many cases, they switch because the touchpoint is broken or poorly optimised—they can’t figure it out, so they switch channels, hoping for a better experience, such as Phone Support. Ironically, many interactive voice response (IVR) messages persist: “Please visit our website or app to do this…”  If they could only hear the customers saying, “I couldn’t; that’s why I’m here!”.

Consider this real-world scenario from banking:

Scenario: A customer phones their bank’s customer service center with a request to make a transaction on an investment. The phone banker redirects the customer to another department. That department redirects them to a voicemail that won’t accept messages. Upon calling back, the same situation occurs, only the department person answers saying they are not the right department and places the customer on indefinete hold (20 minutes…).

Problem: Incorrect information on the banks phone banking portal, a lack of familiarity or training in solving exact queries from the phone banking staff make help from the contact center impossible.

Instead:  Optimising the touchpoint could help by giving phone bankers training in listening to identify precise problems and then waiting with customers as they connect to the right department (instead of spin the bottle redirecting of calls). And then, yes the digital fallback: The website or mobile app could provide a direct contact (that stays actively assigned to each customer) in the incidence of a frustrating or broken journey experience. The voice response could announce “Not getting what you need? Check the website or your mobile app to talk directly to your personal bank manager or their assistant”. If the user opens their app or site login, a conversation could already be started. Generative AI could enhance this experience even further.

However, there are times when digital as default is necessary for accessibility:

Consider this real-world scenario from healthcare:

Scenario: A low-vision user (borderline blind) comes out of a doctor’s appointment with a sheet of paper containing important follow-up instructions. He holds the paper half an inch to his eye holding a light with another hand, as he desperately tries to read the instructions.

Problem: Paper print-out is the only way the patient information is delivered. In this case, paper was probably considered for its general accessibility, without forcing digital. However, to support users with disabilities, a redundant channel may be needed.

Instead:  Blind or low-vision users will require a digital version with high-contrast colors and fonts and a screen-reader accessible format. They may require an audio-read back version of the text on the site as well. This could also help neurodiverse users. If anyone loses the paper, the digital version can act as a backup.

What if you can’t support ‘channel of choice’?

Are you stuck with a business decision or investment that led you to put all your eggs in one basket? The most important thing is to make sure the channel you are offering is accessible, intuitive, simple, and enjoyable. This means you focus on making your touchpoints within this channel super-clear and stress-free.

See How to Optimise Your Touchpoints

Considerations to combat digital bias. Yes, digital is essential, but a few critical questions need to be considered in your product or service strategy:

  • What analog “high touch” touchpoint was the customer trying to use but couldn’t? What do we need to fix to reduce the wasted cost? For example, a call center phone call can cost $2.70 – $5.60 per call.
  • What analog touchpoint is vital for the product or service experience to work?
  • Who is being pushed out by our decisions of channels we will support? (e.g. older users)
  • How do digital “high tech” and analog “high touch” channels strain each other to solve a customer’s problem? How can each solve the customer’s issue without straining the other?
  • What is the current experience within the channel(s) we are offering? i.e. Are they switching by preference or by desperation?
Benefits of embracing channel of choice

By embracing the Channel of Choice approach, businesses and organizations can:

  • Respond to customer behavior: Support channel-switching to provide a seamless and unified customer journey. Put omnichannel first as a strategy, not just force digital without thinking, as many governments and non-profits are rushing to do—following in the footsteps of digital consumer companies like Amazon, which blocked ‘contact us’ access for many years.
  • Align around unified journeys: Keeping the holistic customer experience in view is critical to solving system-wide or journey-wide issues and root causes. Here Service Design mindsets can be an asset.
  • Increase engagement and loyalty: When customers can interact with a brand through their preferred channels, they are more likely to engage regularly and develop a stronger sense of loyalty.
  • Improve Accessibility and Inclusivity: By providing multiple channels for communication and service delivery, organizations can ensure that their offerings are accessible to individuals with diverse needs. See Design for Equity in Service Design…
  • Drive business growth: By offering flexibility and choice, you demonstrate a commitment to customer preferences and provide an excellent customer experience. Meeting customers where they are (not where you need them to be) can increase customer retention, and positive word-of-mouth referrals,  driving business outcomes positively.
Wrapping up: Why you must support ‘Channel of Choice’

With an agenda to centralize access to a product or service, Digital Transformation can get it wrong. Streamlining purely for digital can lead to unintended consequences. Worse, users need fallback channel support for access, inclusion, or a breakdown in the channel touchpoint. Therefore, it’s essential to appreciate and plan for fallback channels. It starts with honoring a customer’s “Channel of Choice.”

Bottom line: Avoid a singular channel mentality at the start of your project. Conduct user research with your audiences to understand what’s working and what’s not. If you are designing a service, an excellent place to start is a Service Safari: a quick trip to that space to see, hear, feel, and make sense of what users experience.

Go Deeper: Watch the FREE recording of the webinar Kickstart Service Design with Service Safaris

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