Customer Contact Channels and Strategies
What It Is
Here's a list of the most common customer contact methods. Is your agency prepared to respond via all these channels?
Toll–free numbers are one of the most popular ways for customers to get help. Decide whether you will provide self–service and/or live assistance
For live assistance, decide the days and hours of coverage and the performance goals you want to achieve. If you serve a large non–English speaking customer base, will you offer live support through bilingual agents or use a language interpreting service?
Establish a nationwide or geographic-based toll-free number, and route calls to your contact center based on predefined rules (e.g., time-of-day, day-of-week, originating area code).
Accommodate callers from foreign countries (for whom toll-free numbers don't work) by setting up a local (commercial) phone number and have their calls forwarded to the toll–free number.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR)
An IVR can direct callers to the right resources for immediate help. Tools such as Frequently Asked Questions or interactive databases allow callers to get answers 24 x 7 without the help of an agent. This enhances the customer experience and lowers your operating costs.
Your IVR tree should be simple, offering information on broad and frequently–needed topics and/or simple interactive applications (change your address? request a benefit statement?). An effective IVR can greatly reduce your call volume and your customers’ wait time, and keep callers from getting frustrated.
Use a Text Telephone or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TTY/TDD) to make your services accessible, in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794d). You can also use the national “711” telecommunications relay service to enable TTY/TDD callers to communicate with your center.
If you need to send and/or receive sensitive or legal documents, such as documents with signatures or Personally Identifiable Information (PII), a fax machine will allow you to send/receive these types of documents over the phone line in a more secure manner.
To handle a high volume of fax documents, you may want a fax server that can receive and store documents electronically and route them to a specific destination. A fax server can work with an IVR to send documents on demand (fax–on–demand) if you have customers who prefer documents to be sent to them by fax rather than downloading documents from a website.
A content–rich website can provide information to your customers 24 x 7, but requires cooperation from others in your agency to create and maintain content. Even a small site with answers to a few frequently asked questions is helpful.
To deliver a consistent customer experience, create a comprehensive knowledgebase, covering questions received via all your communications channels, and use it throughout your organization.
Interactive online services, such as email and chat, allow customers to conduct transactions electronically. Provide video clips to show visitors the latest news and program information.
Even with a content–rich website, customers may need to contact you directly for assistance. An email webform on your website allows customers to send you their questions. An automated acknowledgement can be sent informing the customer of the typical expected response time.
You’ll need knowledgeable staff to answer email. Decide whether to use canned answers, individually customized ones, or a combination of both. Customized responses and short response times mean more staff and higher operating costs.
Unlike telephone calls, email does not allow for real–time probing to clarify the questions, so a higher percentage of inquiries will need further information from the customer. Unless your workflow process is designed to allow back and forth interactions between customers and agents to clarify questions, your customers may not be happy with the response quality.
If your contact center handles customer inquiries involving sensitive information, email may not be the best choice, since there is a perception that it's less secure to transmit sensitive information via email.
Take into account the amount of spam email you’ll get. Filtering applications can help, but some will get through and will add to the overall cost of responding via email.
With web chat, customers submit their questions to agents and receive answers in real–time. The interactive nature of web chat enables agents to clarify questions and push relevant web resources to the customers, resulting in more accurate answers and a better customer experience than email.
As with live telephone support, you’ll need to decide the days and hours of coverage, the languages you want to support, and the customer service and performance goals you want to achieve.
Short Message Service
Also known as SMS or Text Messaging, your audience’s demographics should support your decision to use this technology. The text message maximum length of 160 characters makes SMS suitable for applications, such as alerts and notifications, as well as short interactions.
As the popularity of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube increase, people want to communicate with organizations via these channels. Leverage these connected communities to extend your services to a broader audience.
Ensure the demographics of your audience, as well as the type of programs you offer, supports social media as an effective customer service strategy. Use of these tools should always help you to meet your agency goals, never use social media "because everyone else is doing it".
If you have customers who submit their inquiries through traditional postal mail, you’ll need to publicize a mailing address for accepting the postal mail. You’ll also need to decide on the type of envelope and stationary to use when responding and a strategy for handling postage. Providing customized responses via postal mail is expensive.