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Customer service and online chat best practices

By Emily Millar, Emily.millar@telus.com

Web-related shopping is growing. Forrester Research predicts U.S. online retail sales will reach nearly $250 billion by 2014 with many more billions to be made from shoppers making in-store purchase decisions that are “web-influenced” first.

At the same time, shopping cart abandonment is also on the rise. In another recent Forrester Research report, 88% of web buyers say they have abandoned an online shopping cart without completing the transaction. The research further suggests that retailers have yet to address the primary drivers of cart abandonment, such as frustration with shipping costs, un-preparedness to make a purchase and a desire to comparison shop. 

With more consumers moving their company interactions to the web, including customer support and online shopping, there is a tremendous opportunity for retailers with a web presence to enhance customer service and increase sales in real-time within the online environment itself. One way that many retailers have found to be incredibly effective to enhance the online interaction is the implementation of online chat. Also called live chat or web chat, it is the real-time, two-way text communication over the Internet. Some online chat platforms are reactive, requiring the user to actively click a button on the host’s website to “chat with us.” Other companies favor a proactive chat approach where website visitors are asked to engage with an agent usually in the form of a pop-up window.

The benefits of online chat for retailers are impressive, especially when it comes to providing rapid and cost-effective customer service. Online chat:

  • Delivers rapid, personalized and timely communications to a customer;
  • Reduces overall contact center costs by reducing average interaction costs;
  • Shortens the sales process by resolving customer issues immediately;
  • Reduces shopping cart abandonment by helping customers complete order forms;
  • Builds website credibility and trust with the customer; agents can answer questions immediately about billing, shipping and security issues;
  • Increases transaction value with up-sell and cross-sell opportunities; and
  • Increases efficiency, allowing agents to multi-task, handling multiple chats simultaneously.

Despite significant benefits, much of online chat’s potential remains unrealized. It is expected to continue to develop as an influential and profit-making customer service and sales delivery channel. But even with growing consumer preference, impressive ROI, and often very high satisfaction over other channels like phone support, online chat remains an immature and largely untapped channel. This is particularly the case for online chat sales. When TELUS International commissioned a recent benchmarking study for best practices in online chat sales, many of the largest retailers did not offer a chat sales option.

Making chat work
For retailers, considering a chat sales channel is important to meet the demands of today’s consumers. For those retailers that already offer chat, the next step is to ensure an optimal customer experience. The key is to focus on implementing chat effectively and to introduce the human element into the online interaction. According to our research, a successful online chat session rests on three key areas:  agent skills, chat system features, and communications style. 

Agent skills
Agent skill is critical to delivering a positive customer experience. In performing our benchmark study examining 60 in-depth sales chat sessions of six Fortune 500 customer service leaders, we looked at several key attributes pertaining to agent skills. From this research, training for online chat is one of the most important things a company can do to maximize the online customer experience. Telesales agents are not the same as chat sales agents. Chat agents need to understand the difference between chat and other forms of communication. 
As an example, chat agents need to understand how to construct a conversation flow in the chat environment. Best-in-class responses answer questions directly with the most important information upfront, void of promotional copy and include only one or two ideas per response. At the same time, responses have to be personalized as much as possible while still conveying the right tone and voice of the company’s brand. A chat session should also involve multiple back-and-forth exchanges and agents should accurately answer questions while driving to a close — all without rushing customers off a chat session to hit efficiency metrics. In short, there’s a lot to consider.

Chat system features
A further critical area is the chat system or platform itself. Chat technology is becoming more and more sophisticated. Chat agents need to fully understand the chat system features available to them along with company policies for using them. Understanding how a customer experiences live chat with your company is a good start.

The chat system should help set customer expectations in terms of queue position and estimated wait times. It needs to provide notification when the agent is typing a response and allow the customer to increase font size when necessary. Customers also need to easily link to your security and privacy information and should have access to post-chat transcripts. Chat agents should also be clear on the company’s policy around page pushing, document sharing and co-browsing. Agents need to have a clear understanding of the chat platform “bells and whistles” along with clear corporate guidelines for their use.

Communications style
Communications style is another critical element in conveying brand and agent credibility. The key take away is to invest in writing skills. Writing effective chat communications can be an art. While smiley faces and emoticons are often accepted in a chat interaction, too many can appear unprofessional and detract from a company’s cultivated brand. For agent credibility, responses must adhere to most grammatical rules including accurate spelling. Brevity and staying on point are also essential. Chat users expect instant gratification. As a result the ideal chat session should keep sentences short and directly relate to the customer’s question. Most important, the chat conversation has to be human with a careful balance between canned versus free-form chat responses. Ideally, for online retailers, the chat customer experience should simulate having one’s own personal shopper on the website.

Putting it all together
With so much web-based opportunity, adding online chat to your customer service and sales channels can be a big boost to ROI. Today’s customers expect instant gratification and immediate response. Chat offers that real-time interaction in a cost-effective manner. Focusing on agent skills, chat system features and communications style provides a solid foundation for optimizing the online chat customer experience. For additional best practices, including a checklist for optimized chat, consider downloading the complete benchmark study.

Emily Millar is VP client relations at TELUS International, a provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients, backed by TELUS, its Canadian telecom parent. TELUS International commissioned the benchmarking study “Best Practices: Online Chat Sales,” examining 60 in-depth chat sessions of six Fortune 500 customer service leaders. For more information, visit telusinternational.com. Millar can be reached at Emily.millar@telus.com.

© 2014