Managing a Multichannel Communications Strategy
If you went back thirty years, business communications were relatively straightforward. Business critical documents, such as letters, invoices and contracts, were sent and received through the post, which meant offices were often filled with large filing cabinets and folders. However, as technology progressed – from the introduction of the fax machine in the 1980s and email in the 1990s, to mobile devices and social media in more recent years – it has increasingly influenced how businesses communicate, and today, digital communications is playing a much more prominent role. Of course, physical mail still remains a popular and effective means of communication, but the benefits of taking a paperless, or paper-light, approach – including cost cuttings, time saving and flexibility – has seen many businesses embrace a multichannel communication strategy. Indeed, according to a recent survey, over 40% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) rely on emails and physical mail to reach their customers and suppliers.
 Opinion way survey 2014
Other than the cost benefits, the adoption of digital communication channels is also being driven by the customer. While inevitably, some will continue to want correspondence sent to them through traditional means, others prefer the immediacy and interactivity of digital correspondence. As such, forward looking businesses are being encouraged to change their communication strategies in order to cater for all.
However, a problem is that smaller businesses often adopt digital technology in an ad hoc fashion, grabbing new opportunities as they come about without much care or thought for complete integration. As such, managing multiple communication channels isn’t without its challenges, and only by adopting the right attitude and putting the right tools in place can SMEs avoid the most frequent pitfalls of a multichannel communication strategy.
Business Communication Challenges
While SMEs need to adapt to a quickly evolving market in order to survive, one of the biggest risks organisations face when adopting a multichannel approach to business communications is time wasting. Indeed, 47% of SMEs consider this to be their biggest challenge. Businesses are increasingly faced with a process that involves the sending and receiving of digital documents in a variety of formats, before being adapted and physically posted, for example when invoicing. Documents, including invoices, may start as an Excel spreadsheet, which is processed onto another Excel spreadsheet for consolidation, then turned into an actual invoice or pdf that needs to be printed, and finally sent to the customer via email, mail or both. Manually typing, copying and processing important documents in that way can add a lot of time to an individual’s – or a team’s – already stretched workload.
Human error is another challenge to be considered. With paper and digital documents often needing manual intervention, it only takes one person to make a mistake that impacts not only a company’s reputation, but also its bank balance. Indeed, Newcastle City Council in the UK provides a good example of how damaging human error can be when it sent the wrong letter to 180,000 residents by mistake, costing it £50,000. While it is likely most SMEs will not deal with outgoing communications of that quantity, the potential for human error only intensifies as businesses grow and more people become involved in the process. As the complexity of documents and the data they contain continues to increase, the need for technology and a more autonomous process becomes more apparent.
Unsurprisingly, when using both physical and digital mail, some businesses also struggle to track processes and documents. In fact, vital documents, such as invoices, contracts and quotes, are rarely fully tracked, with a third of SMEs revealing that they struggle to stay on top of who has which document, and at what stage it is at in the process. Not being able to trace important correspondence can make resolving customer queries much more difficult, which can lead to reputational damage. Additionally, the inability to prove where a document has been sent, particularly important documents that require fast response times, means some businesses fail to comply with increasingly stringent regulations. For example, EU legislation states that all invoices must have an electronic traceable pathway and be retrievable in a timely fashion when requested.
Managing the Multichannel Flow of Documents
In order to cope with this increasingly complex communication flow, businesses must make sure they have a well thought-out plan in place. Furthermore, while many are still reluctant to incorporate new technology due to cost and perceived complexity, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they can no longer shy away from its importance in the business world. As such, they need to start considering tools that will complement the information management systems they already use. For example, output management software (OMS) can be used to automate outgoing communication; ensuring correspondence is always sent to the intended recipient, while an electronic document management system (EDM) automatically digitises, forwards and stores incoming mail. Moreover, such systems can stamp documents with a permanent traceable pathway. This means a document can be retrieved immediately with the use of the advanced integrated search engine, and it will be electronically stamped with who it was retrieved from, the action it required and who it was then sent to. These benefits can help small businesses save money, as well as improve efficiency and profitability.
Ultimately, it’s imperative that businesses look at the bigger picture during adoption and don’t further complicate an already disjointed process with incompatible systems or programs. Instead, a centralised process should integrate directly into their existing communication strategy, empowering them to contend with whichever communication method or format they choose. By increasing visibility, reducing the risk of blunders and saving time that can then be spent on maintaining and growing the business elsewhere, they can take full advantage of the benefits going digital has to offer.