Editor's note: Crystal Collier is CEO and Gavin Winter is vice president strategic solutions at CX Act, an Arlington, Va., customer experience consulting firm.

Pundits continue to argue over the precise meaning of the latest buzzworthy term to hit the customer experience (CX) world: omni-channel. But one thing’s for sure: The customer is unquestionably in the driver’s seat when determining the tasks or actions they want to perform. They also decide when and where in their customer journey they want to perform them, using the channel or technology of their choice.

It has taken decades for companies to embrace a broader notion of CX that crosses the Rubicon of the brand promise touted to consumers by marketers trying to acquire them and to customers by service delivery channel operations trying to retain them! We will refer to them as customers throughout their journey.

The fact that customers can and do flit between channels as they move along this continuum is really forcing the omni-channel issue. A primary reason for this is that the technology to understand and engage customers, as well as deliver service interactions, is now commonly available to customers and companies alike.

But herein lies the challenge to the current practice of so-called omni-channel: Just because it’s technically possible to manage customer interactions through self-help and social doesn’t necessarily mean it’s desirable. The key point here is customer choice.

Social media provides customers with a voice that must be proactively managed. The inexorable shift toward chat and self-help service channels will continue – driven by general familiarity (desensitization) regarding their use and the emerging influence of key (younger) demographic groups.

Coupled with this is the underlying and powerful business driver of perceived cost efficiency in their use. As machine-to-machine technologies (particularly mobile and app-based services) continue to wholly or partially replace human-to-human interactions, companies and brands have fewer real opportunities to connect at an emotional level with their customers. More likely, they will have just introduced more opportunity for technology disconnects with the resulting frustration requiring “someone” to sort it out.

There is no escaping the fact that emotional engagement is the foundation of any brand and it’s been long established that it is key to delivering a differentiated brand experience. How companies manage their service interactions, particularly at key moments-of-truth, can deepen customer engagement and drive loyalty. It’s easy to see how activating these emotions can be done in a phone interaction and more difficult in e-mail, chat and self-service!

Ill-prepared to offer alternatives

When it comes to service interactions, clear and present danger exists in companies prematurely pushing cus-tomers away from their channel-of-choice before they are ready and in being ill-prepared to offer alternatives and manage them effectively. While preferences are slowly changing (particularly with Millennials and Generation Z), for the moment and the foreseeable future, the contact center remains king for most customers (with the most disposable income).

So, companies should take heed if they don’t want to miss out on the intrinsic benefits that well-managed contact center interactions offer as far as providing defining and brand reaffirming experiences.

In late 2013, CX Act undertook extensive research across 3,000 customers in the U.S. and published its find-ings in Touchpoints: Personal Presence Trumps Digital Decorum for Optimal Customer Experience. Our research showed, confirmed and amplified these observations: while only half were satisfied with their first interaction, personal touch prevailed, with satisfaction highest for those who contact in-person and lowest if done via social media.

As a matter of interest, one in five shared their experience via social media and among those, Facebook dominated over Twitter by a 4:1 ratio but Twitter followers are more engaged.

In 2014, we took a deeper look into the subject by conducting what we called a Customer Touchpoint Stress Test across 50 major brands and multiple sectors. We looked at how they performed on customer satisfaction with contacts across four different channels: phone, e-mail, chat and Facebook. Customers of the companies tested were recruited to evaluate service offered when contacting on simple issues such as billing questions and product inquiries.

The first headline was that companies just aren’t making it easy for customers to initiate contact in the first place. Only 52 percent of the testers found the customer-care contact information on their Web site very easy to find and only 24 percent found the information extremely helpful.

As shown in Table 1, phone was the highest-performing channel, with an 86 percent resolution rate and 58 percent of testers being very satisfied with the resolution. But even high-performing companies on phone did not fare well with other channels, with less than half of the testers obtaining resolution and only about one-fourth being very satisfied with the response.

Surprisingly, since this is not a new channel, e-mail response fared very poorly, with only 44 percent receiving a resolution and only 22 percent very satisfied with the response.

CX Act’s previous research showed that access is crucial and that making it difficult for customers to contact companies with questions or complaints can lead to fewer contacts, leading to lower customer satisfaction and loyalty. The same research also showed that contact-handling can be a profit center due to dramatically higher loyalty created by the positive contact-handling experience.

The stress test confirmed this, showing that once the contact is initiated, the customers’ experiences strongly impact their loyalty. Having a positive contact experience resulted in testers being 15 times (94 percent versus 6 percent) more likely to say they would definitely buy again than those having a negative contact experience.

Key takeaway: engage and show empathy

There will undoubtedly continue to be structural changes in how companies need to mirror the needs of the market and changing customer demographics. The key takeaway from this article (and the research featured herein) is that companies need to engage and show empathy, and phone interactions remain the principal means by which they can do this. They need to align their resources to today’s reality while building to take on the challenges ahead when it comes to creating meaningful interactions via alternative channels.

We started with a nod to the ongoing debate around what omni-channel means. For the purposes of this discussion, the difference between omni-channel, multi-channel and cross-channel are actually moot when it comes to enabling customer service interactions within the context of the overall CX today.

Most companies are struggling with the very practical and immediate issues of managing inbound customer contacts within and across channels and aligning their processes and platforms to deal with them. And, more often than not, it’s their employees who stand to win the day when they engage customers at key service interactions. Their ability to manage those interactions and smooth critical hand-offs between channels can make all the difference.

Here are six steps companies can take across all contact channels to improve their CX now:

Empower reps to resolve issues. Employees who are encouraged to use their unique skills, abilities and creativity to resolve the customers’ issues are more satisfied and engaged and provide a better customer experi-ence.

Add personality and personalization. While scripts and templates are great for guiding an appropriate response, leave room for personalization and letting reps make it real and authentic. Creating an emotional connection is especially critical with digital responses but voice tone can also make or break a customer interaction with phone response.

Timeliness counts. Especially with the digital channels, a long delay between posting and response significantly degrades the customer experience. Having chat available or placing your company in the social media arena isn’t enough. How quickly you respond and engage is what creates a great customer experience.

Acknowledge and empathize. Automatic acknowledgement of online form/e-mail contacts helps reassure the customer that their request was received and sets expectations for response time. When responding, reps should be trained to always, in all channels, acknowledge and genuinely empathize with the customer’s situation. The customer needs to know they were heard before they will be ready to hear any response.

Stay within the channel. Customers who contact via chat, online form/e-mail or social media have selected their contact preference. Focus on addressing their needs within this channel and try to avoid moving to a different channel for final resolution.

Stay focused. Especially with digital channels, customers expect short and succinct responses. Keep it positive. Focus on the customer’s situation and what you can do; no excuses or rationale.

Beguiled by technology

It’s convenient to be beguiled by technology and view social media as an “easy out” when managing customer interactions. This is especially the case when companies mistakenly view their contact center as a cost center and every contact as a problem to minimize (rather than an opportunity to engage customers and reinforce the brand promise). We see this tension between operational efficiency and customer experience management effectiveness daily.

Sound familiar in your company? If so, the evidence of the damage this could be doing to your customer loyalty is there for all to see! Of course customers will continue to seek out alternative channels to engage your organization. The key is, this must be of “their choosing” and when they do, you’d better be ready to do it well! So, ask yourself: Have you covered all the bases and are your policies, processes and people aligned to manage them effectively and with a relentless focus on the customer? Then put yourself in your customer’s shoes and ask yourself again: do you like what you see, hear and feel?