Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Support Channels: Which is Better for Agents and Customers?

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This article was originally published on August 15, 2018 on CustomerThink as part of Jeremy’s regular advisor column. Click here to read the original post.

I’ve found the topic of support channel mix to be an interesting study in organizations. Traditional channels can be categorized a few different ways. Phone and video are live channels that use both spoken and nonverbal communication. Email, not a live channel, is a written mode of communication. Then there’s chat that straddles the fence between phone and email, offering the ability for a live customer interaction but in writing.

The delineation between voice and text-based, live and not live has increased in complexity with the advent of new channels like text messaging (SMS), social media, Facebook Messenger, Apple Business Chat, and WhatsApp. How should these channels be categorized and handled?

Synchronous vs Asynchronous

In a recent conversation with the folks over at Intercom, a provider of customer messaging software, I learned a new way of categorizing support channels – synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous communication is a live conversation with a clear start and end and can typically be identified by faster response times. This always includes phone but, depending on the software we use also includes live chat and other messaging channels. In synchronous conversations you might experience agents saying/writing things like, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” or “Are you still there?” or “If I’ve resolved everything for you can you please click ‘end conversation’ in the top right corner of your screen?” At that point the conversation is complete.

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Email is a good example of asynchronous communication that’s a bit more open-ended and typically has slower response times. A conversation might be marked as “solved” in the ticketing system after responding but can easily be reopened by customers if they need to write back with more questions. In my conversation with Intercom, I was surprised to learn that their platform is asynchronous. I had initially categorized with traditional synchronous chat providers. With this platform, however customers can visit a company’s website and initiate a chat with customer service. They can navigate away from the site and then come back later to continue their conversation with support.

Initially when I heard about this difference, especially for chat, I was skeptical. But when I recalled the number of times I’ve had customers complain that someone hung up on them during a chat conversation, it started to make a lot of sense. Still, I think there’s a place in your customer support operation for both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Let’s look at the advantages of each and then I’ll conclude with some recommendations.

Advantages of Synchronous

Let’s first look at some of the advantages of synchronous communication – and in this group I would include phone, in person, video, and synchronous chat support.

  • Resolve complex issues more efficiently. There comes a point in escalated asynchronous conversations that we need to cut to the chase and get their issue resolved. A phone call or an in person visit with someone who’s empowered to solve the issue is still the best support channel for these sorts of situations.
  • Focus on the issue and customer from start to finish. While the issue might not always be resolved on the first contact, there’s always a start and a finish to these interactions and it’s generally dictated by the customer. Assuming the customer can connect in a reasonable amount of time, they’re more likely to address all of their concerns quicker through synchronous communication in a less drawn out way.
  • Non-verbal communication and the human connection. The various synchronous channels I mentioned fall somewhere on a spectrum with in-person and chat support being on opposite ends. Nonverbal communication is important to human communication and the absence of it can be an obstacle to overcome. If there are aspects in the customer journey where a genuine human to human connection is required or desired, synchronous communication is the way to go.

Advantages of Asynchronous

There are also some clear advantages to asynchronous communication and this includes email, sometimes chat, and for the most part social, SMS, etc.

  • Allow the customer to go at their pace. Sometimes our customers lead busy lives and only have the time to send a quick message to support before they move on to another issue, appointment, or meeting. The ability to get the ball rolling now rather than waiting for a large enough window of time in their schedule is preferable – especially for issues that aren’t as urgent.
  • Keep the conversation open-ended. This is a sub point to the previous one. Many contact centers have a process, especially with synchronous chat that if customers don’t respond in three to five minutes they say something like, “It appears you’ve stepped away. I’m going to disconnect this chat. Feel free to contact us again when you’re back.” I mentioned this earlier but I’ve reviewed enough of these conversations to know that customers often feel abandoned by support and dread having to initiate another chat to start all over again. Asynchronous communication keeps track of the conversation and doesn’t require the customer to start over because it never actually ends.
  • A more mobile-friendly option. We know that the increase in popularity of new messaging channels is due largely to our ever-increasing dependence on mobile devices. Channels like SMS, social, etc. thrive on mobile because of their ability to send short, quick messages. One of my long-standing pet peeves about synchronous chat support is that once I get an agent on the line, I’m tethered to my computer until that interaction completes. Asynchronous conversations move at the customer’s pace, traveling with them on their preferred device(s).
  • A natural relationship with self-help. Whereas synchronous messaging is better for the human connection, asynchronous paves the way for artificial intelligence to help answer some questions, especially those that might be easily solved with a knowledge base article. But before settings your sights on chatbots, here are some ways from a past column to use AI to understand the customer’s needs and smartly serve up the right self-help content.

What to consider when evaluating channel mix

So where does this leave us in the debate between synchronous and asynchronous communication? I’m not sure there was a debate to begin with. Both have clear strengths, but the mixture may look different for your organization depending on the customers you serve and the complexity of issues you handle. Here are some recommendations:

1. Know your customers, their issues, and expectations.

Are the issues urgent, complex, or highly technical in nature? What’s the generational makeup of your customer base? You may find that for certain issues and people synchronous messaging is the way to go. I’ve worked with a number of startups that only offer email support and it’s interesting reading survey feedback where customers say, “PLEASE CALL ME” or “PLEASE GIVE ME A NUMBER TO CALL SUPPORT.” Receive enough of that kind of feedback and it’s a clue that asynchronous communication might not work for all situations.

2. Start by offering great service on existing channels before adding more.

How many companies spin up social media teams because their phone support sucks? That’s a gross generalization but if the motivation to add any support channel is solely to mitigate poor service levels on another channel, the problem will only get worse. Beefing up self-help content is a good first step to help peel off some of the unnecessary volume to existing channels. From there you may need to seriously test whether or not adding a new channel will significantly reduce volume on other channels and improve your overall customer experience.

3. Use fewer tools, not more.

With the right tools you can consolidate asynchronous messaging so agents aren’t juggling several different platforms. I recently had a great conversation with the folks at Sparkcentral about their expansion from a social media engagement platform to include SMS, in-app, and on-web messaging. And it’s not just them. Many others are moving in this direction. This also makes staffing those channels and appropriately prioritizing the work a whole lot easier.

4. Empower agents to move conversations from asynchronous to synchronous and vice versa.

There will be times when the issue at hand is best resolved in another support channel and agents should be empowered and encouraged to understand when it’s time to switch. Here are a few examples:

  • After several emails back and forth we discover the issue is highly technical and we’re getting nowhere. It’s time to pick up the phone and call the customer.
  • A customer sends a question that’s covered in the knowledgebase. We answer the question in the channel they initially used but we also take the time to educate them on some of our fantastic self-help resources.
  • The customer has stepped away from their desk during a synchronous chat conversation and we need to move on to other chats. We open a ticket with a copy of the chat conversation and send the customer an email. They can then reply in an asynchronous channel at their convenience and pick up right where they left off.

Chances are that your customer service operation supports both synchronous and asynchronous communication channels and that’s great. There’s a time and a place for both and hopefully these recommendations help you do them well. If you have a moment, please share your thoughts on support channel mix in your organization and the whys behind it. How did you arrive at that channel mix and what strategies do you have in place to communicate with customers on the channel appropriate to their preference and issue type?

Jeremy-Watkin-Blog-Profile
Jeremy Watkin
Director of Customer Experience
FCR

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Experience for FCR. He has more than 17 years of experience as a customer service, customer experience, and contact center professional.  He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Customer Service Life.  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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