Multichannel strategy key to customer service

Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor and author of Competitive Advantage, wrote in this month's edition of Harvard Business Review that a multi-channel retailing strategy that unifies clicks with bricks is crucial. Today, the accounting firm Andersen came up with some hard numbers to show that he's right.

The new survey reports 49 percent of online users perceive that companies doing business both online and at physical locations are better at providing customer service online than companies that just operate an Internet channel.

"Currently, multi-channel operations enjoy an increasing advantage to complete the customers' sale," says Joe O'Leary, Andersen's global managing partner of its customer and channel solutions. "However, that advantage is lost if there is a disconnect among the channels. To that end, we are seeing a dramatic improvement in our clients' ability to integrate channels and train their employees to provide a consistent level of service across the board."

The thinking behind having a multi-channel sales strategy is pretty straightforward. Adam Sarner a retailing analyst at the Gartner Group puts it like this: "You don't want to be limited to having to go to the store when there's 14 inches of snow on the ground."

Sarner says businesses must offer a multiple sales-channel strategy for long-term success. The often-overlooked distinction is that plenty of companies have multiple channels, but they often lack a plan for how to make those channels work together.

"The more channels that are integrated into the consumer's buying process, the more valuable and sustaining the business will be," Sarner says. Beyond identifying an imperative for brick-and-click businesses to unify their sales channels, Andersen's survey found another interesting emerging trend, the use of Web kiosks in physical stores. About one in seven of those surveyed have used a Web kiosk in their store, typically using it to allow customers to determine whether a product is in stock or to find more detailed information about an item.

"Web kiosks create barriers to switching, are convenient for the customer and prevent the store from losing sales," O'Leary says.

Key findings from Andersen's survey include:

-- Fifty-eight percent of online users are satisfied with customer service when transacting online, a 10 percent increase over last year's findings. The most dramatic increase over last was that 70 percent of the women surveyed indicated they were satisfied with their online transactions.

-- Nearly 60 percent of online users prefer e-mail when communicating with customer service representatives, while 40% prefer telephone customer service. Only 2 percent selected in-store locations to air their complaints.

-- More than 30 percent of customers made a phone call to a customer service agent to confirm that an online transaction was processed correctly. By the same token, 25 percent of users had difficulty finding a phone number to call when they needed it.

-- The quick resolution of a problem was the main concern for 70 percent of the respondents, followed by their concern about getting a full refund.

-- Only about 10 percent of respondents were concerned about providing online sites with personal information such as mailing address, purchasing history with the company, age, clothing size and gender.

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