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How to capture what the customer wants

Companies often fail across digital channels because they are insufficiently aware of the real needs and preferences of their customers across omnichannel journeys.

Customers now have an unprecedented number of ways to engage with companies, from traditional channels to an ever-growing array of digital modes. Many organizations have responded by investing in digital channels, frequently in an effort to replace traditional modes of engagement. The thinking is that as customers become more technologically savvy, they favor digital channels, significantly reducing the need for live agents and thus saving significant costs. Many companies have expected to save more than 40 percent through reducing live contacts. Yet companies that take this approach often see their customer interactions increase rather than decline, despite significant efforts and resources.

To understand what such companies got wrong in their omnichannel strategies, one needs look no further than digital leaders. Amazon, for example, has also built self-service and e-care capabilities, but with a key difference. Because self-service has thus far largely proven inadequate—that is, customers still often seek out a live agent on the phone—Amazon steers customers to the channels that are best suited to their preferences while also offering digital live interactions and company-initiated contact. So despite being a digital leader, Amazon has designed an omnichannel customer-care strategy in which live agents still figure prominently to handle complex requests, demonstrate empathy, and resolve issues quickly.

Companies seeking to keep pace with industry leaders must embark on an omnichannel transformation—one that views touchpoints not in isolation but as part of a seamless customer journey. And since customer journeys aren’t simple and linear but a series of handoffs between traditional and digital channels that can vary significantly by customer type, an effective strategy requires an in-depth understanding of what customers truly want. To design an omnichannel experience, companies should follow a sequential process composed of four essential components:

  • Setting the design principles based on an overarching omnichannel strategy.
  • Designing service journeys, ensuring that the end-to-end digital and live-contact journeys address identified customer needs and preferences and have clearly defined digital migration points.
  • Identifying foundational enablers to support the journeys, featuring multiskilled agents and best-practice contact-center operations to engage with customers live.
  • Defining the IT architecture with next-generation enabling technology to support a seamless omnichannel experience.

An omnichannel transformation is the only way for a company to address rising complexity, provide an excellent customer experience, and manage operations costs.

Critical insights to build successful omnichannel strategies

Our research on the future of customer care in 2017 reinforced the importance of omnichannel and digital and the key role that live channels play in creating an excellent experience. 1 Many of the trends we highlighted, particularly the growing number of digital channels, have made the journey to omnichannel more arduous. Three trends in particular are reshaping successful approaches to customer care.

Digital channels have completely changed the ways that customers prefer to interact. Beyond the expectation that information and service will be accessible with a few keystrokes, customers have also become accustomed to engaging with companies through multiple channels. Many customers, for instance, use different channels to gather information on products and to make a purchase. Social media and chat are also rapidly gaining channel share. Companies that believed digital channels would reduce the volume of engagement and the number of touchpoints have been disappointed to find both often continue to increase.

Quality customer care is highly dependent on digital performance. Many companies have subpar digital capabilities that actually increase customer demand for engagement. Indeed, organizations that attempt to migrate customers to digital channels before they are fully ready can trigger the “boomerang effect,” in which customers can keep coming back to a company multiple times in an effort to resolve a problem. In our experience, trying to implement digital care channels prematurely can significantly increase both the number of transactions and the cost per transaction (Exhibit 1).

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Individual touchpoints must be seen through the lens of the end-to-end customer journey. While companies can be tempted to focus on optimizing individual touchpoints, believing that the whole will automatically be greater than the sum of its parts, such targeted intervention can magnify variations in service and inconsistencies in other interactions. Moreover, no matter how successful specific tools are (for example, online self-service), companies that lack visibility into where customers are choosing to interact from touchpoint to touchpoint can still experience service breakdowns.

Customers still favor live agents for complex requests. In a British Telecommunications survey, 52 percent of respondents indicated they want to speak to a live agent when they are facing a crisis and need a solution to a problem with a product or service. Even 24 percent of customers looking to complete a routine task, such as paying a bill, sought out a live agent. 2 Companies with strategies that seek to minimize access to live agents at all costs often see lower customer satisfaction without reducing their overall customer-care expenses.

These trends all conspire to make omnichannel customer care that much more complex. Live agents clearly are not going away; in fact, they are more important than ever for certain kinds of interactions. Digital channels can be invaluable when well executed and integrated, but they can also create issues and increase demand for live agents when poorly managed. Therefore, companies embarking on an omnichannel transformation must ensure that each channel, as well as handoffs across channels, are optimized for each customer interaction. To do that, they must seek to understand what customers truly care about on a granular level.

What really matters to customers

Conventional wisdom can be an insidious obstacle to improving customer care. Companies frequently assume they know what their customers care about. The result is that customer care often settles on standard approaches to resolving issues that aren’t based on actual customer needs and preferences. In general, customer expectations in service journeys fall into three categories:

  1. Speed and flexibility, defined as minimum processing time, responsiveness, and needs-based service.
  2. Reliability and transparency, including proactive outreach and communication.
  3. Interaction and care, consisting of comprehensive competence, personal attention, empathy, and simplicity and clarity.

That said, not all customer expectations fall into predictable categories. Organizations should gather direct, up-to-date feedback from customers to understand what matters most to them. Additionally, not all of the above factors contribute equally to overall experience, so homing in on the most important factors or combination of factors is critical. One company, for example, made speed of issue resolution a top priority because customers were consistently complaining that its service was too slow. In response, customer care redesigned processes and made significant investments to enable agents to move more quickly. It was only when these moves didn’t translate to improved customer satisfaction that the executives realized they needed to get greater visibility into their customers to understand what combination of factors was at play.

An in-depth analysis of data and surveys uncovered some interesting insights (Exhibit 2): customers were dissatisfied when they received fast responses but little information on an issue. The real revelation was that customers were content with longer wait times—provided that they received regular updates and felt fully aware of why issues were taking longer to resolve.

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Four steps to a successful omnichannel transformation

The sheer range of variables that customer-care functions must account for—not just on the customer side but also internally—can quickly become overwhelming. But by first establishing some parameters on what good looks like and setting priorities by customer segment, companies can gain clarity on where to direct resources.

1. Define strategy and design principles

Companies must develop a customer-service strategy, or set of principles, that encompasses not only a vision for how to deliver an excellent experience but also how these interactions should feel for their customers. These principles help companies design service journeys that strike the right balance of speed, transparency, and interaction within each channel and that achieve a successful interplay of digital and live channels. Such an approach can ensure that companies apply an omnichannel lens to each service journey rather than focusing on optimizing individual touchpoints (such as interactive voice response, chat, voice, and digital).

To apply an omnichannel lens to the service journey, companies must understand customers by their digital behavior and offer the right channels that best align with the interests of each segment. Not all customers are the same, and it’s how they differ in their behavior and preferences—particularly on digital—that should have an outsize influence on how service journeys are designed. Our research into digital customer experience identified four different personas, and each is receptive to different ways of being engaged.

Digital by lifestyle (23 percent). For these consumers, digital is fully integrated into their lives. They don’t perceive a separation between the digital and traditional worlds—that is, they use social media every day and tend not to watch traditional TV or read newspapers.

Digital by choice (35 percent). Individuals who enjoy the advantages that digital brings, such as Netflix, Skype, YouTube, online check-in for travel, and online banking transactions, have options for how they engage but opt primarily for digital channels.

Digital by need (25 percent). Digital is beyond the comfort zone of these consumers, who engage with digital channels only when necessary.

Offline society (17 percent). Individuals who live in the nondigital world and prefer personal contacts make up nearly one-fifth of all customers. They use bank branches, shop in brick-and-mortar stores, and typically do not use the internet.

Focusing on the right set of customers will help companies prioritize efforts and identify key attributes and characteristics that would motivate each group. Best practice is to design primary service for each segment, using contact volume distribution and persona profiles that differentiate by digital behavior to determine engagement strategies and the necessary investments in each channel (Exhibit 3). For customers who are more tech savvy, the goal might be to promote online self-service and automated tools for basic tasks such as payments and installation updates. Only a small percentage of contacts—around 10 percent—require a highly skilled live agent. These contacts include cancellation requests and complaints, interactions for which the right engagement can turn a potential issue into an opportunity to strengthen customer relationships.

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2. Map service journeys

Once companies have gained greater visibility into customer personas, they can design end-to-end service journeys across digital and live channels. These journeys should take into account the migration of a customer across channels to ensure seamless handoffs. It’s also critical to note that customer preferences aren’t static; they will continue to evolve, sometimes in surprising ways, based on the channels at their disposal, demographic shifts, and other factors (such as the influence of digital leaders in raising customer expectations). Companies can use the principles to construct a vision of how the customer journeys would look three years from now in a fully omnichannel world and then develop ambitious solutions that can keep pace with this change.

Understanding the end state of the most important service journeys can help companies set goals accordingly. To start, companies must determine which service journeys are most important in terms of the cost of the journey to the organization, the complexity involved in improving the journey, and how important the journey is to the customer. Companies must also overcome entrenched thinking and assumptions; senior managers, for example, often believe that customer care should seek to resolve issues in one session. However, this perspective can overlook opportunities to strengthen customer relationships. Take the claims process in insurance: if a customer has a car accident, he might feel guilty and could look to agents for emotional support. If an insurer is too focused on first-call resolution and speed, the customer might come away with a negative view of the encounter—and, by extension, the insurer.

Companies should apply a “test fast and learn” methodology. Tactics such as design thinking and ideation sessions with customers can structure these interactions; industry best practices show that “customer-experience labs,” which are built like innovation centers with customers and employees jointly designing journeys, can support the quick implementation and live-testing of prototypes with customers. This rapid, iterative approach can be summed up as, “Test, fail, adapt.”

In addition, quantitative research (including customer surveys) and qualitative efforts (ethnographic research) can offer a comprehensive view of customer groups and segments and open executives’ eyes to customer needs. By conducting this process for the most important journeys, companies can piece the omnichannel experience together—including additional touchpoints, detailed personas, a deep understanding of pain points and delight moments, preferences, and trade-offs about channels.

A look at a typical e-commerce journey reinforces the importance of taking an omnichannel view (Exhibit 4).

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A customer might begin online by researching products but then reach out to a live agent to get more information and inquire about inventory. After comparing prices online and through a mobile app, he or she purchases the product online. A call to a live agent to check on the order status confirms the package’s delivery time. When the customer decides to return the product, it sets off an additional round of contact with a live agent to manage the process. Since movement between channels has become a common occurrence, managing this movement seamlessly and providing a consistent experience are paramount to customer satisfaction.

This in-depth consideration of service journeys can enable companies to determine what capabilities they need across technology, people, and the organization.

3. Invest in foundational enablers

To design and implement an effective omnichannel strategy, companies must embrace a culture of customer orientation across all employers and managers. This commitment helps to guide the development of three foundational enablers. First, agile process redesign empowers customer-care managers and agents to move more nimbly, improve transparency, and ensure frontline processes and actions are aligned with overarching business objectives. 3 Agile methodologies create ownership for care groups, deepen their resolution skills, and establish appropriate incentives—all to accelerate progress on a customer-first, omnichannel experience. Companies should establish and test interaction models to confirm that they are providing a seamless experience across channels.

Second, the workforce must have the right service skill sets. An omnichannel transformation also requires a shift in mind-set, from one focused on execution to continuous improvement and problem solving. To support this shift, employees must also build new skills. Care agents who possess the range of skills to resolve the most complex issues are a critical component of the omnichannel model.

Last, these efforts all need to be supported by well-designed and efficient foundational capabilities, from automated measurement that enables a meaningful performance management to routing based on personal attributes, harnessing customer data using advanced analytics. 4

Measurement and accountability are also critical to gauge the progress of these efforts. For example, lots of companies measure Net Promoter Score and customer satisfaction, among other metrics, at a company level, but this approach doesn’t highlight issues in specific parts of the customer journey. Therefore, measurement must be sufficiently frequent to identify patterns in customer engagement and granular to get an accurate picture of how customer care is performing at crucial interactions in each journey.

Accountability often requires companies to build a cross-functional team. Most companies are still organized by function, so improving a customer journey could involve operations, product development, the back office, legal, and compliance. These functions, when left to their own devices, typically focus on optimizing their area of the process rather than thinking about overall customer satisfaction. Providing an excellent customer experience across multiple touchpoints requires functions to coordinate their efforts more closely. Companies should set up a cross-functional team of senior managers that is responsible for improving the customer journey. They can then convene on a biweekly basis to determine how they can collaborate to reach the business’s goals instead of just focusing on their own function’s.

4. Build out IT architecture

The principles, service journeys, and functional enablers must be supported by an integrated IT architecture that can help to deliver a seamless experience. This architecture consists of the following elements:

Omnichannel desktop. Each agent’s command center integrates chat, cobrowsing, and email via applications. Routing and analyses efficiently direct complex requests to skilled agents, and chat and callback are offered via digital channels using javascript applications.

Omnichannel platform. This platform coordinates all channels used by representatives and routes and manages all incoming requests. An integration platform brings together a customer’s entire contact history and coordinates with the back end. Through a 360-degree customer perspective in the omnichannel desktop, representatives gain access to a self-service portal and can steer the process for customers.

Back-end interfaces. A self-service portal uses back-end interfaces to handle all requests. Data from these interactions are saved in data storage where they are quickly accessible. The portal also interfaces with the back end for synchronized communication.

Advanced analytics and new technologies, such as predicting issues before the customer explains the reason for the call, allow first movers to create “wow moments.” Similarly, algorithms based on natural language processing allow companies to promote behaviors to their agents that could affect customer satisfaction. For example, a system could coach an agent to talk slower or to use more energy in the conversation. New technologies and applications are seemingly arising each day; in the near future, they will enable companies to implement an IT backbone for their omnichannel experience that we cannot even imagine today.


The push to omnichannel is not confined to specific industries. Instead, it emanates from the evolution of customer preferences and behaviors as more channels emerge. And though customers are becoming more tech savvy, their comfort with digital channels only serves to elevate the importance of live agent interactions. Companies that understand this apparent contradiction, truly commit to understanding customer journeys, and build the capabilities to provide seamless omnichannel service will be well positioned to delight customers for years to come.

About the author(s)

Jorge Amar is a partner in McKinsey’s Stamford office, and Julian Raabe and Stefan Roggenhofer are partners in the Munich office.

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