If there is one thing that I’ve learned from living in two countries and a few states, it’s that broad generalizations about people rarely work. Case in point: I am constantly told that “older customers don’t like email or the Internet.” In reality, if you look at the age profile of Tower Hill policyholders:

And compare it to the age profile of those who have voluntarily signed up to use our website portal for policyholders:

You’ll see that there is one measly percent difference between the over-55’s who own Tower Hill policies and the over-55’s who use our website.

When you can’t make generalizations, you have to offer choices. That’s what customer service is all about. Not only are you constantly evaluating how you treat customers when you interact, you also have to question whether you offer the right channels for those interactions.

But what channels are the right ones? You can’t offer a choice of everything, so how do you narrow it down?

Some customers call you, make an appointment, or even drop by. They are visible, possibly loud, and sometimes bring presents. Hardly anyone emails you on Facebook or tries to contact you via Twitter. Also, it’s really hard to count how many customers email or how frequently they do it, so you assume that “most of my customers call or meet with me in person.” This is an exaggeration, but even if they are the majority, how do you know that phone or in-person is always the most convenient for them?

Research shows that about 75% of people will use three different channels each for getting in touch with a single business (Source). You have three channels that work well – telephone, in person, and a website with email links – so you’re covered, right? Nope. Those three channels are table stakes. You have to have them, but if you intend to win, you’d better pony up with some more.

So you are upping the ante. Your Facebook page is getting some traction, and you’re using Twitter a little more. You’re even using Instant Messaging inside your agency.

And you are seeing more channels open up every day. Pinterest (whatever that is) seems to be everywhere. Texting really does seem pretty convenient. Tower Hill has started chatting online with policyholders – and it’s catching on. Wait, what was that? Chat? Maybe Pinterest and texting are going a little too far, but chat – that is something to think about.

Consider two things about expanding into a new channel:

First, your personal experience doesn’t actually matter. You’ve probably been invited to chat when you hit your local big box store website because of that email with the coupon. You might have found the chat invitation annoying. Does that mean it would annoy you on a website where you do need help, but don’t want to sit on the phone on hold?

More important, does the fact that it annoys you mean it will annoy your customers? If you’re like most independent agents, the profile of your customers is changing. They aren’t necessarily just like you, and neither are their service preferences. Don’t let me catch you generalizing.

Second, what’s the risk of trying? You can download a free trial of a chat service, get one CSR interested in being the “operator,” add a button to your site, and see what happens. Without knowing a lick of HTML, you can control the days and hours the service shows up on your site, so no potential chatters go unanswered. If you’re in the office late, leave it on. If you knock off early, turn it off. After the free trial, decide whether there is enough usage to keep it. You can pay as little as $21 for a monthly service subscription that you can cancel any time (here is a list of possible vendors).

Just don’t force it on your customers. An auto-response on your email saying “I no longer respond to email, please go to my website and click the Chat button” would be a bad idea.  It’s hard to fathom, but a major Silicon Valley-based job networking website is doing something similarly awful. If you can find their phone number and call, you get an automated message that says “For Customer Service, please click on the Help Center link located at the bottom of any page of our website.” Big mistake. Forcing all users into one channel won’t work, especially if it snubs a proven channel like the telephone.

Why not take a little risk? When it comes to opening new communication channels, the risk of not trying far exceeds the risk of trying.