How do customers get in touch with your company these days? Do they call on the phone, or do they e-mail? Both? Web chat? Social media? Snail mail?

The mechanics of customer service have changed pretty dramatically over the past 20 years, to the point where companies are able to offer several different “channels” through which customers can get in touch with them  — or vice versa — to ask a question, pay a bill, make a purchase, or request service. But, as John Ragsdale of the TSIA pointed out Thursday in an hour-long webcast (available on demand with registration), none of that matters if companies’ support channels aren’t working together.

“We all have our favorite channels, and we’ve even been trained to try self-service,” he said. “So today it’s common to start a conversation [through] one channel and pick it up again later through another one. And it’s irritating for a customer to contact you by one means have no record of their earlier conversation.”

These “channel islands,” as Ragsdale called them, are mostly a result of prohibitively expensive CRM licenses that typically segregate support staffs by channel — email staff handles email but can’t access phone records; web chat people don’t even have a phone on their desk; and the Twitter guy has no idea what’s going on.

So while many companies today boast about offering “multi-channel” support, the fact is that what they should be focusing on is “cross-channel” support; so that a customer who follows up an email with a phone call or a Facebook message is recognized regardless of the medium, giving your support staff a complete picture of their customer history, and ultimately a better shot at diagnosing and solving their problem without rolling a truck, which is incredibly expensive.

“Very few companies are using the same [CRM]  tool across their marketing, sales, and service departments anymore,” Ragsdale said. “Handling customer records and tracking interactions is more in the domain of some of these multi-channel platforms, rather than CRM — and it doesn’t take a year for IT to implement them.”

Does your company offer multi-channel support? And if so, how about cross-channel support? Let us know in the comments.

More: Great Creative About Customer Service: Meet Them on Their Terms.

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Ian is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.