The 9 Customer Channels – Strengths and Weaknesses

Live chat and phone and email, oh my! Choosing the best customer channels to offer is not an easy journey, but ultimately rewarding.

It used to be a no-brainer: first add phone and then maybe email. But now people have devices that can do so much more. Companies are figuring out how to offer the best customer experience without investing in too many unnecessary channels.

If you have limited resources, this gets even more difficult. That’s why we outlined the most prominent customer channels available to help you consider which ones may suit your support needs best.

Nine most important customer channels

  1. Phone
  2. Email
  3. In-person
  4. Live chat
  5. Messaging
  6. Video calling
  7. Social media
  8. Knowledge base
  9. Online communities

1
Phone

There’s no denying it; phone support has seniority in customer service. Many customers still expect it despite the availability of newer channels. This is because it meets basic human needs: having a direct, personal line of communication where you can express yourself in your own words.

  • Conversation scale: 1:1
  • Communication: Synchronous
  • Use effort for customers: High

Some companies, like Squarespace , don’t even offer it. Phone is an older solution, so it’s unsurprising that it’s generally preferred by an older crowd. As long as you call within service hours, you’re pretty much guaranteed to reach someone.

But if your company is marketed toward a younger demographic, phone support may be too tedious or inconvenient. Being forwarded and having to repeat yourself is a pain.

cartoon image of telephone

Since it’s voice communication, conversations aren’t documented and searchable. This makes following up on inquiries and quality assurance a lot more difficult than it needs to be in support. Once a customer has their issue solved, chances are they don’t want to stay on the line to rate your service quality.

Agents can also still only take one call at a time, which inevitably leaves your customers in waiting queues. If your support demand is high, then your employee costs will be high. This is a tough battlefield for companies that are trying to keep their service costs down, which explains the switch to more flexible, asynchronous solutions.

UpsidesDownsides
Direct human connectionDisruptive in an office
Less miscommunicationMaking or taking calls can be inconvenient
Easier to read customer's emotionsLong waiting times
Familiar for customersRequires extensive training
Easily accessibleOften needs extra equipment
Managed expectations from familiarityRequires larger teams

Tools we recommend:

  • Placetel : Placetel offers a flexible telephone system with over 150 functions. It doesn’t require any extra hardware, is suitable for home office setups and is quick to set up. They even offer a team collaboration suite that lets you and your team stay connected via instant messaging, desktop and file sharing and HD video conferences.
  • Grasshopper : This integrative VoIP solution lets you make phone calls anywhere you have an internet connection without the need for a traditional phone line or cellular network. You have all the same voicemail and forwarding benefits as a regular phone line, but because it’s mobile, calls will rarely go missed.

2
Email

Customer support requires effort for all parties involved, but email alleviates some of that pressure. It’s an ideal medium for customers who can’t commit to a live conversation but responses are much slower. Customers and agents can end up waiting days to receive a response and resolve an issue.

  • Conversation scale: 1:1
  • Communication: Asynchronous
  • Use effort for customers: Medium

Email delegation and status tracking and drafting, even if you’re using canned responses, can also get messy. Even if many of your customers like the moderate effort it takes to email, they still expect a speedy response. According to a benchmark study by SuperOffice , the average email response time is 12 hours and 10 minutes.

Also, only 20% of companies were able to answer the customer’s questions in the first full reply. It lacks the rapid exchanges you get from phone and chat, which limits your conversion rate and how much you can guide customers across your website.

UpsidesDownsides
Allows for longer, more personalized explanationsHigh barrier
(Often) direct form of communicationTime-consuming to draft
Instant documentationLong response and resolution times
Flexible for customersPrime for misunderstandings
No waitingRequires organized delegation and status tracking
Accessible for international customersSlow approach to building customer relationships

Tools we recommend:

  • Freshdesk for easier ticketing, reporting, automating, multilingual support and app integrations.
  • Zimbra : Desktop software that allows online and offline access to email accounts. Zimbra’s email software offers team chat, mailbox integrations, smartphone compatibility and more.

3
In-person

Meeting your customers face-to-face isn’t just limited to businesses with physical stores. Customer meetings and visits are also helpful in online business.

  • Conversation scale: 1:1
  • Communication: Synchronous
  • Use effort for customers: High

When possible, meeting your customers in person lets you make a human connection and put a face to a name. You can read your customer’s body language to see how they respond to you and your business, give interactive product demonstrations and help guide them during the shopping and selection process.

In-person service can also be more demanding of agents, especially when customers are angry or irate. Long waiting lines, peak service times, product unavailability and misunderstandings can lead to quick escalations. This isn’t completely avoidable, but important to remember if you’re considering opening your own brick and mortar.

UpsidesDownsides
Close human interactionWaiting lines
Complete focus on the customerHigh performance pressure on agents
Guided, personalized shoppingIncreased chance for escalations
Humanizes companyLimited product availability
Barrier-freeRestricted to local customers
Easily accessible

Tools we recommend:

4
Website chat

More companies are switching to live chat to serve their customers. It’s a direct channel that allows for fast, personalized support directly on your website. Whether you work from home or at an office, live chat is undisruptive, familiar and less demanding than other channels.

  • Conversation scale: 1:3+ - more than three chats at a time can get overwhelming
  • Communication: Synchronous
  • Use effort for customers: Low

Live chat is also one of the most cost-effective channels on this list, which is ideal for businesses of all sizes. It lives on your website, which means no extra equipment. Agents can also assist multiple customers at one time, which means smaller teams.

image of assigned conversations in userlike dashboard

Businesses also tend to have an increase in conversion rates after switching to live chat. This is because it’s the only channel that lets you effectively guide a visitor throughout their experience on your website.

For customers, it’s a relatively easy channel to use. There’s no need to download anything, and chatting is straightforward. It’s instant communication that is internationally accessible at no cost, and translation software embeds, like DeepL , make live multilingual support possible.

UpsidesDownsides
Fast response timesGenerally unused by older customers
Convenient and quiet to useHigh quick response time expectations
Instant documentation of conversationsSusceptible to trolls due to its low barrier
Budget-friendly
Reduces cart abandonment
Personalized support and more

Tools we recommend:

  • Userlike : We recommend our own live chat solution that we built for every team size and budget. Userlike offers multi-channel messaging, live translations, canned messages and more for your customer support and sales teams, Being GDPR-compliant means you also get a safe and secure service fit for international support.
  • Tawk.to : Free solution that has a built-in ticketing system, customizable widgets and chat agents for hire.

5
Mobile messaging

Mobile messaging through apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger allows for private, quiet and direct communication, but on a much more flexible scale. It’s both synchronous and asynchronous. Customers can continue a conversation whenever it’s most convenient for them.

  • Conversation scale: 1:3+ - more than three chats at a time can get overwhelming
  • Communication: Asynchronous and Synchronous
  • Use effort for customers: Low

Becoming a part of your customer’s messaging contact list makes it more likely for them to reach out to you in the future. It’s easily accessible and requires low effort to use.

whatsapp icon with cartoon faces

Messaging is even helping break the relationship barriers that tend to exist between businesses and customers. Because this channel lives on their personal device, customers will see contacting your business as an effortless, satisfying task.

UpsidesDownsides
Casual and low effortAsynchronous nature may prolong resolution times
Familiar and easy to useUnappealing to older users or those who fear being spammed
Allows for image and audio attachmentsMay require extra convincing for customers to try
Reduced pressure to be onlineMessaging apps, like WhatsApp, have limitations for getting set up
Budget-friendly
Private and accessible 24/7

Tools we recommend:

  • Userlike’s Unified Messaging : In addition to live chat, we offer a service that allows for mobile messaging support. In addition to your website, you can use UM to reach your customers on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Apple Business Chat and SMS.
  • Respond.io : A business messaging platform that lets your team collaborate on chats from shared inboxes, automate responses and surveys and integrate your business’ preferred apps.

6
Video calling

Online business isn’t excluded from face-to-face interaction. Our devices make it easier to video chat with anyone in the world at any time. Why not extend this into customer service?

Companies, like N26 , use video calling as an added security measure when processing new customer applications. Other companies, like SightCall , help insurance customers show their problem in real time to receive quicker reimbursements and reduce the need for onsite visits.

  • Conversation scale: 1:1
  • Communication: Synchronous
  • Use effort for customers: High

It’s a modern way to have those in-store type connections and put a face to a name. Though not without privacy, and dare we say it, awkwardness concerns. Video calling demands your full attention and customers may feel wary about sharing their face during the first contact.

Of course, you should use your own discretion to decide if video calling is suitable for your business. For example, industries like automotive , technology and fashion can use video for product demos and style consultations.

UpsidesDownsides
Can be done remotelyMay be distracting in an office
You can show rather than just tellCustomer may have unreliable internet connection
Can offer in-store experience for everyoneLess privacy
Allows you to see and read facial expressionsImpossible to multitask
Can be expensive

Tools we recommend:

  • Agora : A customizable and secure solution you can embed into your existing applications. It works across platforms and channels and supports one-to-one video calls and group chats.
  • Webex : The Webex Contact Center is an omnichannel, native cloud contact center solution ideal for small and midsize businesses.

7
Social media

Despite being a relatively new way to connect with friends and family online, customers of all ages have found their social media flavor of choice. Since the major platforms now offer business accounts, social media has become a viable contact channel.

However, managing customer relationships via Twitter or Facebook can end up chaotic and messy. Responses are public, which means your service interactions become publicity for your brand. This can be a good thing, but also very bad; many people use social media to complain about a brand , which can lead to discussion and resolutions but also damaging debates and arguments.

  • Conversation scale: 1:∞
  • Communication: Asynchronous
  • Use effort for customers: Medium

You don’t need to currently have a large following on the social media channel your business prefers to start using social media management software. Though you should first consider if it’s even necessary for your business. Retail can take advantage of social media shopping features, such as Instagram’s “Swipe Up” profile shop. But for business software like Userlike, there’s little value in social media engagement.

UpsidesDownsides
Connect with customers on a more casual levelMakes it easier to share impulsive opinions or thoughts
Allows for more humor and personality in responsesMessages can pile up or be missed
Private communication via direct messagesBad management may hurt company image
Marketing tool and communication channel in one

Tools we recommend:

  • NapoleonCat : Lets your team interact with customers across platforms from a single inbox. You can schedule and publish posts on multiple platforms simultaneously and receive automated reports straight to your email.
  • ContentStudio : This platform also offers a unified inbox for easier customer response management. You and your team can see who is responding to which inquiry, add notes and categorize conversations for automation and reporting.

8
Knowledge base

Customers like to help themselves sometimes. It’s empowering and a learning opportunity.

Most websites have a FAQ page where customers can get answers to common questions, but this meets the bare minimum requirements of it being a viable channel. You can create satisfying customer experiences by building an interactive knowledge base organized with a large variety of troubleshooting articles.

  • Conversation scale: 1:∞
  • Communication: Asynchronous
  • Use effort for customers: Low

A searchable knowledge base, like Adobe’s and Dropbox’s help centers, with articles that address everything from billing troubles to product errors can take a load off your agents. Even if customers forego searching your knowledge base for themselves, agents can easily send and reference articles when assisting customers.

screenshot of dropbox's help center search function

This draws attention to your knowledge base for future inquiries and keeps agents from having to repeatedly explain the same solutions.

UpsidesDownsides
Reduces workload for agentsTakes effort and time to create
Prevents spread of misinformationMay suffer from the knowledge curse
Customers learn how to use the product betterLess personal approach
Customers feel more self-sufficient
Helps agents respond quicker to inquiries

Tools we recommend:

  • OMQ : OMQ Help is a searchable FAQ page that customizes itself to fit your customers’ behavior. Displayed results change based on search frequency and the auto-complete function helps guide to an accurate solution. They also offer OMQ Contact, which is a contact form that gives possible automated solutions after the request is sent. The software learns and improves over time as it helps customers.
  • Atlassian : This knowledge base software works both for internal and external customer use. Customers can use the search engine for quick answers, confluence lets teams collaborate on documents and find everything in one place, and it supports your theme, branding and workflow add-ons.

Looking for better customer relationships?

Test Userlike for free and chat with your customers on your website, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and SMS.

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9
Online communities

Online forums and communities exclusive to your products or services are another form of self-service, but a lot more collaborative.

Creating a space for customers to ask and share solutions to problems or concerns is a great community approach to support. Just look at Moz Community and the Wordpress Support Forum where customers submit and resolve issues on a regular basis.

  • Conversation scale: 1:∞
  • Communication: Asynchronous
  • Use effort for customers: Low
cartoon of brain with chat bubble

Resolved issues, especially when easily searchable, assist similarly to help center articles. However, these resolutions can come from other customers, which means your agents may only need to monitor and respond when necessary.

Over time, your community page or forum will become an interactive guide where customers can reach out, learn, teach and share their thoughts and insights.

UpsidesDownsides
Public way for customers and agents to assist other customersProne to misinformation
Strengthens customers' relationship with a companyRequires strict monitoring
Casual space to ask for help or learnCustomer explanations may be poor or overly complicated
Alleviates workload for agentslow contact with customers

Tools we recommend:

  • WordPress : The publishing site offers several plugins that let you seamlessly integrate a forum into your WordPress website.
  • Vanilla : Enterprise-level software that lets you start discussions and allows users to post their own questions and polls.

It’s all about customer channel quality versus quantity

Picking the right customer channels is a strategic decision. Chances are your company doesn’t have a need for more than two to three customer channels. Any more than this can lead to miscommunication, unaddressed messages, inconsistent service quality and stretching your team too thin.

For example, a fashion brand told me to call them after I’d sent them an email. Why? So they could “better assist” me. Why offer email if phone is preferred and encouraged? I could have saved a day of waiting for a response if their preferences were clearer on their website.

If your budget allows for it, try to offer a blend of personalized and self-service solutions for your customers. For example, phone, a knowledge base and live chat. Throwing email into this mix would be too redundant. Written communication is already taken care of. We recommend Userlike as a live chat solution since it’s website chat and mobile messaging in one. It only takes five minutes to set it up. Get started with our free 14-day trial .