Multi-channel is coming to your business whether you like it or not. It’s already made a massive mark on retail businesses and it’s starting to move into other sectors.

There are many reasons why you need to move to multi-channel, and the main one – for retail at least – is that your customers are already multi-channel consumers. They’re used to having the choice of being able to buy online, in store or over the phone, and they expect your business to cater for their choices.

They don’t care that your data is stored in multiple silos, they view you as a brand, not a bunch of unconnected ERP, CRM, and e-commerce packages. They want to be able to order the same things online that they can see in the shop, and they want to be able to talk to a customer service representative about their order no matter whether it was taken online, on a mobile or in a store.

Multi-channel is already being aggressively bought into and marketed by big high-street names like Argos, Halfords and John Lewis. Their offerings allow you to buy online, reserve goods in-store, return goods bought online to a shop, and talk to a representative who has all of this cross-channel information at their fingertips.

Bookmaker Ladbrokes was one of the forerunners of this cross-channel movement as Liam Hennessey, head of contact centre technology at Ladbrokes explains.

“We set up the ability to multi-channel some four or five years ago. With the system we put in place it’s possible for a customer to go into a shop in the morning and setup an account, bet over the phone in the afternoon, go online in the evening and pick up their winnings in store next morning. However it’s only in the last 18 months that customers have really started to use the system to its true potential,” he says.

But this early int­egration wasn’t enough for Ladbrokes’ customers, and recently the company has added even more cross-channel integration.

“We found more and more that we were handling queries in three separate siloed channels; phone email and the web and we were spending more and more time on handling questions from customers,” says Hennessey.

“So we have recently started on adding the ability to move those queries to a single source of information, with a live chat ­solution from Gensys. By the end of the year we’ll have the ability to link all our different systems, so when a user has a problem they can talk to a customer­ representative on live chat, and the representative will have all of the customer data from all the different channels, to better answer the customers query.

The reasons for adopting multi-channel vary from industry to industry but at the heart of multi-channel is the ability to see one version of the truth. In most businesses there are silos of data spread through the business. There’s probably a CRM system with customer information, an e-commerce system which may also have customer data, an ­accounts platform, and email servers which may also contain data on customers. Each system has its own version of the truth, and none of the systems are designed to interoperate.­ Each system­ also needs to be backed up and managed. It’s all very wasteful, and it’s also very frustrating for the customer.

One of the key benefits of cross-channel is to eliminate call centre hell. We’ve all suffered from call centre bounce, where you ring up one department only to be passed through several others, and in each one you have to explain the same problem over and over again.

It’s a situation that Lucille Jackson, senior marketing manager, Northern Europe Enterprise Market Group at Alcatel Lucent, knows very well.

“Customers are getting frustrated that they have to repeat themselves, turning one conversation into multiple conversations, and it’s leading to customer churn. However by moving to a cross-channel approach you get a positive customer experience and you reduce that churn, with just one single conversation to answer their questions,” she says.

The ability to reduce customer churn is just one of the financial benefits of moving to multi-channel. John Lewis credits its multi-channel strategy, which increased the number of lines available and added a ‘Click and Collect’ service, as a major reason why 2009 sales were up by 24.2 per cent in the middle of one of a recession. John Lewis has also seen a huge take up of the cross-channel services, with Click and Collect accounting for up to 10 per cent of total orders and 38 per cent of customers­ who opted for the collection service going on to make an ­additional purchase in store when they pick up their order.

But it’s not just retail where cross channel is being used, and it’s starting to move to all areas of business as all sectors realise the core benefits of having a single version of the truth.

Elmar Flamme, CIO of Klinikum Wells – Austria’s 5th biggest hospital, is building an archival system using Hitachi Data Systems Content Platform. The system takes data from multiple silos including, doctors letters, SAP documents, and lab reports and archives them in one single repository.

“The intention is to consolidate multiple archives from different systems, but to then add a whole layer of metadata on to the data, with the intention that the system will eventually be able to be used for searching patient records by nurses and doctors,” says Flamme, adding that the intention was not to create a graveyard of information with the archive.

“By centralising the data and adding metadata we’re creating an important res­ource for the future of the business, which we hope to keep extending by adding further­ sources of data such as office document and e-health records.”

As we said earlier one of the main drivers for multi-channel is customer demand. By giving the customer an easier and less-stressful time in connecting with your business you are also more likely to retain that customer. A September 2009 survey by Genesys (The Cost of Poor Customer Service) calculated that 73 per cent of consumers have ended a relationship due to a poor customer service experience, and that the average value of a customer relationship lost to a competitor through poor service is worth £248 a year. When asked what the most significant root cause of poor service down was down to, customers in the survey responded with four clear reasons:

 - Being trapped in automated self-service

 - Being forced to wait too long for service

 - Repeating themselves

 - Representatives that lack the skills to ­answer their inquiry

Obviously multi-channel can’t help with reasons one and two but it can certain­ly help with three and four.

As Alcatel Lucent’s Jackson says, cust­omer retention is key. “Businesses spend huge amounts trying to get new customers, but then lose them at the first hurdle. With a multi-channel approach you can keep those customers, and turn their user experience into a positive experience.”

Multi-channel’s single version of the truth also enables businesses to be a lot more intelligent with the way they use the data stored. As Lynn Collier, director of Software & Solutions, EMEA at Hitachi Data Systems explains: “By having one system that covers everything, it allows you to take a holistic view of your customers. You can then start to drive value from those customers by up-selling and cross-selling products and services, based on their ­actual needs and their previous purchases. Ultimately you give a customer a better level of service.”

Ladbrokes has also used its multi-channel systems to give more feedback to their marketing departments. “Our marketing department will typically send out 160,000 SMS messages a week, which ­result in hundreds of calls a day to the live chat systems. But in the past we couldn’t directly link the responses to the marketing messages. With the new system our live chat representatives can see the SMS messages and consequently we know which messages are more effective. We have effectively become the feedback mechanism for the business,” says Hennessey.

There is also one last additional benefit to be gained from multi-channel that can be useful to any company no matter what field they’re in. By eliminating the multiple silos of data and replicating the data in a single place, you can reduce your data storage requirements and at the same time improve your business’s ability to cope with a disaster.

Multi-channel will mean a big change to the IT structure within your business, and it’s not going to be a change that happens overnight, but it’s a change that gives benefits to all. It’s also a change that you will need to make, because your customers will be asking for it, and if you can’t ­provide that one version of the truth, they will go elsewhere.