While customer service used to be almost exclusively offered via call centers, it's grown over the years, and it's now offered across a variety of platforms and channels.
Each customer service channel meets customers’ needs in different ways, so when choosing which channels you'll offer support on, it's important to consider how your customers currently communicate with you and where there might be communication holes you’d like to fill with one or more new channels.
8 popular customer service channels
Consider the following eight popular customer service channels if you're thinking through where and how your company should provide customer support.
The benefits of phone support are far-reaching. Specific demographics aren’t as comfortable writing an email or speaking with a chatbot, and those folks are more likely to reach out via phone.
For instance, according to the Customer Communications Review, 36% of respondents over the age of 56 rank phone calls as the top preferred communication channel, while it comes in at a close second for respondents aged 40-55. Even for younger demographics, the phone is a very close third at 22%.
Phone support can also be suitable for more secure support connections, like billing inquiries, conversations with your bank, or conversations with healthcare providers.
There are over 4 billion email users worldwide. When compared with the everyday usage of some other customer service channel options, none of them are quite as ubiquitous.
Email is excellent because it allows for asynchronous communication, and often a single customer service representative can work on a few conversations simultaneously.
While some types of conversations may be better suited to other channels, like those that are more technical or need a bit of back-and-forth dialogue to tease out, email meets a wide range of support needs.
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3. Live chat
Live chat offers the best of both email and phone support in that it's less time-consuming for customers — they don't have to work their way through a phone tree or listen to hold music — but they can also get an answer much more quickly than they could by sending an email support request.
At Help Scout, we looked at the happiness ratings across 8,000 customer conversations and found that customers are much more likely to give positive feedback after a chat support conversation than after an email support conversation, suggesting that live chat support leads to a better customer experience.
Self-service gives customers a way to answer their questions without having to wait for a response from one of your support agents.
Whereas email, chat, phone, and other customer service channels require your team to give direct attention to a customer, self-service allows you to create a single resource that can stay evergreen and help thousands of customers.
Not only is it super helpful for support teams, but customers appreciate it as well. According to Harvard Business Review, 81% of customers will try to solve their issues on their own prior to reaching out to support.
Self-service doesn’t just need to be documentation. It could include your blog, webinars, in-product contextual guides, or a video library. Self-service can comprise anything your company offers to help customers meet their needs on their own.
5. Social media
A study from Statista shows that 47% of respondents have a more favorable view of brands that provide customer support responses over social media.
There are lots of social media channels to choose from. Instead of spreading yourself thin across several spaces, try to find the social media channels where your audience is already most active and engaged, and develop a presence there.
Then, you’ll be able to showcase the great things that your customers have to say about you, publicly answer questions that may apply to other users, and provide an excellent customer service experience, too.
6. Video chat
For some types of support inquiries, being able to share your screen and browse together can be a huge game-changer. This is particularly true for highly technical conversations or tickets requiring some debugging that may be beyond the customer’s level of familiarity.
A recent study discovered that during just the first three months of the pandemic, customer service agents in banking saw a 400% average increase in video calls. As banking transitioned from in-person to virtual, video calls hugely impacted maintaining a secure and happy customer base.
A video call with a customer removes some of the separation between you. It eliminates the back-and-forth nature of email, and you can see the non-verbal cues a customer is communicating. In essence, video chat removes some of the ambiguity from customer service.
7. Communities and forums
According to a recent study, 71% of online product communities are created for customer support. The State of Community Management Report states the value of using communities for customer service:
“Community engagement supports every member’s success by giving them access to the knowledge and value of the entire community. By supporting them in their work, it inspires their loyalty. It exposes people to new ideas, prompts product and service use, and rapidly surfaces shifting needs.”(Video) Top 5 Features of ThriveDesk v2.0 (Helpscout Alternative)
So not only does offering community support potentially take some of the burdens off of your support team, but it also empowers individual users to develop their knowledge of the product and share it with others.
It helps create a sense of loyalty and camaraderie amongst users and addresses concerns and workarounds far more directly than an employee might be able to.
8. Mobile messaging
It can seem like most of the texts received these days are from businesses sending coupon codes and discounts. That said, many of those same companies also offer support in that same channel.
Mobile messaging isn’t just limited to text messages, though. You can offer mobile messaging over services like Signal, WhatsApp, or even Facebook Messenger.
While some customers may feel uncomfortable with the informality and immediacy of this type of support, it can be beneficial for interactions that are timely and/or temporary.
For instance, a customer may feel comfortable texting about their pizza delivery, but perhaps not about their next infrastructure purchase for their company.
Choosing the right customer service channels
As you read through the list of potential customer service channels above, there were probably a few that sounded exciting and useful to you.
However, before you jump into the wild unknown and start adding tons of different tools to your customer service tool belt, it’s essential to consider how that may affect your customers.
First off, the needs of your customers should dictate what support avenues you offer them. “Offer support wherever your customers are” is a pretty helpful rule of thumb as far as it goes, but deciding when and where you should offer customer service deserves a deeper level of consideration.
You do not need to add every single channel. Doing so will not satisfy your customers. Ultimately, you only need a few different channels to succeed, and which ones to add depends on a few other strategies.
Focus on excellence
Take an audit of the channels where you currently offer support and how you are doing with them. The best way to understand this is to check out your customer satisfaction score and how it has progressed over time. Has your score been gradually increasing, or has it taken a dip?
If you notice that one of the channels you are currently offering is suffering, consider focusing on improving that channel before you add any more. You want everything you provide to be excellent, even if it means that you offer fewer channels.
Something else to note is that not every customer service agent is best suited to working in every channel. Some people do well with fast-paced chat, whereas others will get overwhelmed and shut down.
Pay attention to how your employees perform within the channels they are assigned to and consider staffing channels with the best-equipped people. Once you’ve maximized your potential with the channels you currently offer, then consider adding more.
Ask your customers
If you decide that you want to add additional channels to your support strategy, the next step is to ask your customers what they’d prefer. Make a list of all the channels you would consider offering, and then create a survey. The focus of the survey should be to understand the following:
Who is your customer base? Depending on what age and demographic they are in, some channels may be more appealing than others.
What types of questions do they have? Complex technical queries are often easier to handle via email, for instance. So if most of your inquiries are technical, it may not be as essential to open up something like mobile messaging as a channel.
What are your competitors offering? Your customers have other options. If your competitors allow easy access to specific channels, you may need to consider matching them.
In your survey, keep the questions open-ended to allow for as many data points as possible. You don’t want to restrict your customers’ responses around your preconceived ideas.
Understand industry standards
Once you know what you can offer and what your customers want you to offer, it’s time to understand the industry expectations. One of the many reasons customers churn is because companies don't offer the experience they want or need. If your competitors do, what’s stopping your customers from going to them?
Understand your customers and the trends in your industry intimately. With this knowledge, you’ll prove yourself against any potential churn caused by your customer service experience.
Whichever channels you choose, it’s best to start with fewer channels and add more later rather than offer too many and have to close some down.
Pick the channels that work for you and your customers
Customer service channels are not a one-size-fits-all kind of addition to your customer service strategy. Depending on what type of customer you have, your product, and even the kind of support your team offers, you may choose different channels over others.
Evaluate all the options available to you, then cross-reference them with the channels that you currently offer. Are you excelling at all of your current channels? If not, put adding a new channel on the back burner.
If you decide to move forward with offering more, evaluate what your customers want and what your competitors offer. With all of this information, you should have a good picture of how to move forward.