More and more business people are talking about the multimedia or multichannel contact centre. But, as is often the case when the media hype kicks in, a lot of the detail is lost, writes Karl Reed, sales and marketing director at Elingo.

Here is a quick guide to the essential elements underpinning the trend.
What is it?
Multimedia covers the full range of communication channels, including voice calls, e-mail, fax, Web chat, call backs, SMS, video calls and social media discussions. Leading multimedia contact centre technologies route all these forms of communication between customers and the business through a single processing engine.
The fact that all communication is routed through a single engine enables measurement, recording and reporting across all interaction types, creating a strong understanding of the brand's customer service experience, via a single interface.
Why does it matter?
As all the analysts and strategists keep telling users, the communications landscape has changed dramatically over the last five to 10 years. But ultimately, whether people want to use Twitter and MXit to communicate with a business is less important than the fact that brands are facing a strategic context where they can no longer dictate how consumers speak to them.
This is a major shift – only a few years ago was it acceptable for a brand to demand that consumers use a voice-orientated contact centre. Today, this approach will simply see the consumer try another company that is more sensitive to their individual context.
New opportunities
A proactive approach to a multimedia contact centre can open up new business development opportunities. Aside from meeting evolving consumer communication demands, many companies are implementing innovative new channels as well. Instant messaging offered from the company Website is just one such option.
In the realm of Web-based electronic product sales, for example, the ability for clients to chat directly with service agents as they browse sites can add significantly to competitive advantage in a very competitive sector.
The big challenges
If it's not executed correctly, the shift to a multimedia contact centre can be chaotic and expensive. It can also damage the quality of customer experience.
Integration is a primary issue that must be addressed. A multimedia contact centre will only deliver on the vision of improved customer service if it is governed by a single processing engine.
That sounds basic enough, but the reality is that many organisations are running parallel communications systems. In addition to the technical nightmare that is bound to emerge from the parallel mind-set, disparate systems make it inevitable that “oh dear we must have missed it” will become a part of the company's service culture.
Conversely, in a singular system every multimedia interaction has measurable service levels and minimum response times. All interactions are routed into the same processing engine, queued and routed to the appropriate work group, and then reported on.
Standard service levels can be applied to any interaction customers have with an organisation. In this context managers are able to by-pass the impossible task of manually collating report-backs from each channel, while the detailed strategic view of all customer interactions that is created allows decision makers to do their jobs as effectively as possible.
The bottom line
The days of the one way communication street are over. Customers want to choose how they interact with an organisation – they certainly don't want to be told how they will interact with the business.
Multimedia contact centres have the capacity to meet this primary service challenge. In addition, however, they deliver important cost and efficiency benefits. The bottom line is that it is cheaper for organisations to handle a wide range of electronic communication efficiently, than it is to attempt to force all customers to use the telephone.
Companies providing excellent service via multimedia interactions not only reduce call volumes and operational costs, they also improve customer satisfaction levels in the process.