3 Approaches to Handling Multiple Support Channels

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This article was originally published on the FCR blog on September 16, 2016. Click here to read the original.

Managing a customer service team that handles multiple support channels with their own set of SLAs (Service Level Agreements) can be complex. The challenge really varies depending on the size and skill level of the team and the volume of each channel. Many of our teams here at FCR handle a combination of at least two or three support channels— typically some blend of the usual suspects like phone, email, chat, SMS, and social media.

Multitasking is generally kept to a minimum. While our colleagues typically focus on one support channel and one customer at a time, they may be asked to handle emails between calls or chats as time permits. Chat support does allow agents to converse with more than one customer concurrently but we’ll talk more about that in a future post.

Now let’s consider cross-training our teams on all of the support channels offered and the fact that there are different skills required for the different channels. While all channels require superior customer service skills, text-based support is heavier on the ability to write, and do it efficiently. Phone support on the other hand is much more dependent on the ability speak clearly.

There are a few different ways to align your support team to best handle these channels with great quality and within SLA. Here are three different approaches for handling them along with some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Dedicated Roles

One method for handling multiple support channels is to dedicate agents to the different roles. Perhaps you know you have enough chat or email volume for one person or a small team to be consistently busy. These channels require agents who not only write well but can produce great writing quickly and efficiently. Typing speed and writing ability are important skills and a great phone agent might not necessarily possess them.

I recently worked with one of our teams who aims to put their most experienced and knowledgeable agents on chat and email because they touch more customers than a typical phone agent does on a given day.

There are a couple drawbacks to this approach:

  • Too much ownership of the role – If you put a group of agents on one of these support channels, there’s a risk of them taking ownership of that channel so much so that they become resistant to jumping over to other channels (especially phones) when you really need them to. Flexibility is a must!
  • No back up – Without other agents who are cross trained to handle the support channel, you may find yourself in a pinch if an agent takes a day off or leaves the company.

Rotational Roles

A second way to handle multiple support channels is to broaden your requirement for the channel a bit and cross train your team. For example, you might have a general requirement for typing speed when identifying a group of agents to handle the channel. Rather than dedicating a small group, you instead create a scheduled rotation for your agents. There’s tremendous benefit in allowing agents to rotate and handle different support channels on a given day and it can break up the monotony that goes with doing the same job day in and day out.

There are a couple drawbacks to this approach to consider:

  • Quality – You may sacrifice some quality and efficiency at least initially unless you’ve done a really good job at hiring customer service agents who possess these skills. If you’ve introduced a brand new channel like SMS or social media, that may not be the case.
  • Scheduling Hassle – This does potentially add another layer to your scheduling and another “thing to manage” in your already busy day. It can make it more difficult to keep track of who’s handling which support channel on which day and making sure people are in the right place at the right time. That’s hard enough with one support channel.

Free For All

I’m not totally sure why I listed the free for all as an option. This approach is worth considering for smaller operations where you really don’t have the volume on a channel to dedicate anyone to it for a significant length of time. This can be positioned as an “opportunity” for growth and learning for agents as you build the channel into something more and certainly you’ll have a group who really wants to show their initiative to excel.

Here are the drawbacks to this one:

  • Accountability – It’s really hard to hold anyone accountable to getting this work done if it’s just a free for all. If there’s no accountability, clear expectation, and time allotted to do the work, the responsibility then falls back on you as the manager. This makes it difficult to hit SLAs.
  • Quality – Again, while the cross training is great, you might suffer on the quality side here by having too many people handle support channels they may not excel at.

As you may have guessed, I have experience with all of these approaches in an attempt to handle multiple support channels. The ultimate goal here is to get the work done, get it done well, and get it done on time. Depending on the volume and response requirements for each channel, you may have to adjust your approach to achieve those goals. Let me know how it’s going for you.

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Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Experience at FCR, the premiere provider of outsourced call center and business process solutions. He has more than 17 years of experience as a customer service and experience professional. He is co-founder of the Customer Service Life blog and a regular contributor. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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