Multi-channel is coming to your business whether you like it or not. It\u2019s already made a massive mark on retail businesses and it\u2019s starting to move into other sectors.\nThere are many reasons why you need to move to multi-channel, and the main one \u2013 for retail at least \u2013 is that your customers are already multi-channel consumers. They\u2019re 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.\nThey don\u2019t 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.\nMulti-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.\nBookmaker Ladbrokeswas one of the forerunners of this cross-channel movement as Liam Hennessey, head of contact centre technology at Ladbrokes explains.\n\u201cWe set up the ability to multi-channel some four or five years ago. With the system we put in place it\u2019s 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\u2019s only in the last 18 months that customers have really started to use the system to its true potential,\u201d he says.\nBut this early int\u00adegration wasn\u2019t enough for Ladbrokes\u2019 customers, and recently the company has added even more cross-channel integration.\n\u201cWe 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,\u201d says Hennessey.\n\u201cSo we have recently started on adding the ability to move those queries to a single source of information, with a live chat \u00adsolution from Gensys. By the end of the year we\u2019ll have the ability to link all our different systems, so when a user has a problem they can talk to a customer\u00ad 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.\nThe 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\u2019s probably a CRM system with customer information, an e-commerce system which may also have customer data, an \u00adaccounts 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.\u00ad Each system\u00ad also needs to be backed up and managed. It\u2019s all very wasteful, and it\u2019s also very frustrating for the customer.\nOne of the key benefits of cross-channel is to eliminate call centre hell. We\u2019ve 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.\nIt\u2019s a situation that Lucille Jackson, senior marketing manager, Northern Europe Enterprise Market Group at Alcatel Lucent, knows very well.\n\u201cCustomers are getting frustrated that they have to repeat themselves, turning one conversation into multiple conversations, and it\u2019s 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,\u201d she says.\nThe 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 \u2018Click and Collect\u2019 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\u00ad who opted for the collection service going on to make an \u00adadditional purchase in store when they pick up their order.\nBut it\u2019s not just retail where cross channel is being used, and it\u2019s starting to move to all areas of business as all sectors realise the core benefits of having a single version of the truth.\nElmar Flamme, CIO of Klinikum Wells \u2013 Austria\u2019s 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.\n\u201cThe 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,\u201d says Flamme, adding that the intention was not to create a graveyard of information with the archive.\n\u201cBy centralising the data and adding metadata we\u2019re creating an important res\u00adource for the future of the business, which we hope to keep extending by adding further\u00ad sources of data such as office document and e-health records.\u201d\nAs 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 \u00a3248 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:\n- Being trapped in automated self-service\n- Being forced to wait too long for service\n- Repeating themselves\n- Representatives that lack the skills to \u00adanswer their inquiry\nObviously multi-channel can\u2019t help with reasons one and two but it can certain\u00adly help with three and four.\nAs Alcatel Lucent\u2019s Jackson says, cust\u00adomer retention is key. \u201cBusinesses 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.\u201d\nMulti-channel\u2019s 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: \u201cBy 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 \u00adactual needs and their previous purchases. Ultimately you give a customer a better level of service.\u201d\nLadbrokes has also used its multi-channel systems to give more feedback to their marketing departments. \u201cOur marketing department will typically send out 160,000 SMS messages a week, which \u00adresult in hundreds of calls a day to the live chat systems. But in the past we couldn\u2019t 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,\u201d says Hennessey.\nThere is also one last additional benefit to be gained from multi-channel that can be useful to any company no matter what field they\u2019re 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\u2019s ability to cope with a disaster.\nMulti-channel will mean a big change to the IT structure within your business, and it\u2019s not going to be a change that happens overnight, but it\u2019s a change that gives benefits to all. It\u2019s also a change that you will need to make, because your customers will be asking for it, and if you can\u2019t \u00adprovide that one version of the truth, they will go elsewhere.