The Buzzwords Battle: Is It Omni-Channel or Multi-Channel?

By Donna Fluss

There is a new buzzword battle in the contact center market. The defender is the term “multi-channel,” and the contender is “omni-channel.” While it’s tempting to let Webster end this debate, buzzwords and phrases are not subject to the rules of language. Therefore, anything goes, and the market gets to make the choice.

In the past few months, I have been interviewed on the benefits of omni-channel contact centers versus multi-channel contact centers, corrected by vendors when I used the “outdated” term multi-channel, and laughed at when I suggested other vendors are more comfortable using omni-channel as opposed to multi-channel. While this inconsistency is laughable – even if it causes vendors to spend thousands of dollars to change their marketing materials and website content – the underlying reason for the desire to move away from the term “multi-channel” is a serious matter.

The History of Multi-Channel Contact Centers: I went to Gartner seventeen years ago to cover two emerging trends: Web self-service and multi-channel contact centers. As someone who had spent the prior fourteen years in financial services, I saw the great potential of Web self-service solutions and multi-channel servicing environments. As is often the case with new technologies, however, the adoption curve was much slower than anticipated by the vendors. In the case of Web self-service, the market and consumers around the world experienced the pain of the early generation of these environments. While there is still great opportunity for improvement, companies have been steadily making investments in their websites, though it has taken too long to realize that customer service should be an essential element in every step and every screen.

As bad as the investment picture was for Web self-service, it was much worse for multi-channel environments. Investment dollars, already limited in the late 1990s, become almost nonexistent for customer service and contact centers in 2000 due to the technology recession. The mantras of “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” and “doing more with less” became the standard for these departments around the world. At the same time, new servicing channels were becoming popular among consumers, who expect companies to support them in their channel of choice – which hardly ever happened then and is still rare now. Email came on strong in the late 1990s, although most organizations either didn’t bother to respond or waited too long to get back to customers. Chat arrived on the scene a few years later, followed by SMS. And social customer care is still being ignored or mishandled by all but a few organizations, even while the volume of these interactions is growing at warp speed.

Slow adoption of multi-channel servicing was exacerbated by the lack of integration between servicing applications. The more innovative companies who were willing to spend money on their service organizations added new channels. But even they missed the importance (or were not willing to make the investment) of creating a frictionless customer experience and instead established siloed groups to handle each one. So, all too often, if a customer first sent an email and then called, the phone agent had no knowledge or way to find out what happened in the alternative channel, forcing the customer to start over every time they reached out using a different mode of communication. The US continues to lag behind Europe, particularly Scandinavia, in adoption of servicing channels, but the lack of a fully integrated servicing environment remains a major issue around the world.

Though brief, this summary of the history of servicing channels points out that most companies have not invested properly in building multi-channel servicing environments, even though the technology has been available for years. This is where the omni-channel concept comes in.

Does a Name Make a Difference? When pushed, vendors explain that the difference between multi-channel and omni-channel is that the former is a failed concept and the latter is an unsullied one with great potential. In the world of “buzz,” the words “multi” and “omni” are virtually interchangeable. What’s different and worthy of attention is the growing emphasis being placed on building effective omni-channel contact centers to deliver an outstanding and consistent customer journey throughout all channels. If changing a word can get companies to invest in improving their servicing environments, then count me in the “omni” camp.

Donna Fluss is the founder of DMG, a vendor-independent research and consulting firm that analyzes contact center and back-office technology and best practices. DMG uses this information to help enterprise and contact center leaders build their servicing strategies and select the right solutions for their environments. Contact Donna at

[From Connection Magazine Sep/Oct 2014]