Published: September 24, 2009 | Comments
When it comes to providing a positive experience for online customers, RDI Marketing Services has the write stuff. The leading outsourcer’s effective use of text chat gives customers a dynamic e-support option featuring near-real-time interaction with live agents – greatly enhancing customer loyalty for RDI’s diverse corporate client base.
“As the younger population – prolific at text messaging – has entered the business age, chat has become more and more important,” says Jim Borum, senior vice president of Client Services at RDI. “It’s not a ‘stand-alone’ interaction channel – it’s all a part of giving customers the opportunity to contact you any way they want, whenever they want.”
Chat is much more than just a customer contact channel at RDI: The company also uses chat to enhance communication internally between agents, supervisors and subject matter experts, thus bolstering coaching, mentoring and performance.
RDI at a Glance
LOCATION: Four centers in Ohio, one in Arizona, and one in Mexico
HOURS OF OPERATION: 24 x 7 x 365
NUMBER OF AGENTS: 1,000
PRODUCTS/SERVICES PROVIDED/SUPPORTED: Customer service and support for customers of corporate clients in a wide variety of industries, namely Utilities, Financial Services, Telecom, Pharmaceuticals and Retail.
CHANNELS HANDLED: Phone, IVR, email, chat
NOTABLE: Have effectively incorporated text chat into their contact center to greatly enhance online customer support as well as internal communication.
Executing the Text Strategy
RDI started handling chat about two and a half years ago to bolster its e-support efforts, which previously entailed email contacts only. The call for chat really came from RDI’s contact center customers, says Borum. “It was being requested by clients. We had clients coming to us and saying, ‘We really need text chat – can you offer it?’”
Today, RDI’s six contact centers collectively handle roughly 1,000 chat sessions with customers daily (representing about 2% of RDI’s total contact volume). Most of the sessions are handled by dedicated chat agents, though several agents serve a more “universal” role, handling chat in addition to phone and email contacts.
RDI aims for – and consistently achieves – an answer rate of 80/15, meaning that agents provide a first response to 80% of all chat inquiries within 15 seconds. The center’s chat abandon rate (customer abandoning the interaction before an agent’s first response) is under 2%.
While most of the clients’ for whom RDI handles chat (about 50 percent of the total client base) offer the contact option to all customers, several clients have decided to make chat a more exclusive offering, explains Borum. “Many of our clients limit text chat to premium customers – it’s not an ‘open’ contact medium available to every one of their customers.”
RDI works very closely with its clients when setting up a text chat option for them, and is careful to explain to them that offering chat without careful preparation and planning can be disastrous. “For example,” says Borum, “we encourage them to limit the time of day that chat will be available. The last thing you want to do is offer a new contact medium and then not service it correctly.”
In most cases, customers who want to initiate a chat session do so via the client’s corporate website. However, some clients provide “elite” customers with a special web link that allows the customer to contact an agent via chat. “These links are often included in a special bill stuffer sent out to the most ‘valuable’ customers,” says Borum. “In other cases, certain customers gain access to the chat option after logging in and being recognized as a high-level customer.”
Helping RDI to effectively route and handle all the customer chat inquiries is a chat management solution by Interactive Intelligence. The system features a skill-based routing function to help ensure that each chat is efficiently handled by the most qualified agent available, as well as potent reporting capabilities that provide essential data on volume and chat-handling performance.
Keeping Chat Quality in Check
RDI recognizes that ensuring quality for the chat channel is just as important as doing so for phone calls – and in a way, even more important, since online customers who receive poor service can easily wreak havoc on a company’s reputation with just a few unkind words in the blogosphere. Borum points out that because each chat transaction is captured in writing, it enables customers to literally show the world what transpired during their interaction with the company.
To greatly reduce the chances of such a social media disaster, RDI carefully monitors chat transactions internally and surveys customers on their experience following their interaction with an RDI agent.
On the monitoring side, QA personnel not only regularly observe agents handling chat sessions live, they evaluate a random sample of transcripts for each agent to ensure accuracy, professionalism and good grammar. Supervisors then conduct coaching sessions with chat agents to provide timely feedback. “The transcript audit allows us to sit down with the rep and show them in black and white, ‘Here’s the interaction – what do you think you could have done better? What tools are you missing? Did you give accurate information? They get scorecards just like they do for phone interactions,” Borum explains.
To get a customer’s eye view of the chat experience, RDI selects a random sample of customers and emails them concise survey following their interaction. In addition, customers can request to complete a survey immediately following their chat session.
Another quality measure that RDI takes for chat is to restrict each chat agent to handling no more than three chats simultaneously (and only that many when each is a basic transaction type); the average is about one and a half chats at a time per agent. “Productivity can never be gained at the expense of quality,” says Borum. “When you have agents handling four and five chats simultaneously, it’s easy to get sloppy, and all you do is create more inquiries via some other channel – customers handled poorly via chat will just contact you via phone or email.”
Borum adds that quality is particularly important with chat because customer tolerance tends to be lower with chat than with other contact channels. “A text chat customer, if they become frustrated, will abandon the interaction more quickly than will somebody on the phone or in another medium. They’ll click off the chat session and either try to text chat with a different rep, or, in most cases, they’ll contact the center via a different medium. So we work really hard to have that not happen.”
It appears that work is paying off: While RDI doesn’t report on customer satisfaction with chat separately, the center boasts a very enviable general customer satisfaction rate of 97%.
Chat’s Impact on Hiring Practices, Internal Communication
Further enhancing the quality of chat interactions at RDI are the company’s comprehensive hiring program, which is set up to ensure that the center is always staffed with agents who have strong written communication skills and computer savvy.
“Hiring and training changed significantly after we introduced email five years ago, and it changed even more when we added chat two years ago,” says Borum.
An interview process that used to adhere strictly to traditional methods – phone screening, personal interview and reference checks – now includes grammar, spelling and computer proficiency tests.
The hiring phase is the same for all candidates, regardless of whether or not they will be handling chat transactions with customers, as text chat serves as a powerful communication method that all agents are required to utilize internally.
As Borum explains, “Agents are expected to be able to use text chat as a workplace tool – whether that’s to access a supervisor, a team lead, a subject matter expert or somebody in management.”
He adds that such use of chat in the center has had a profoundly positive impact on communication and agent performance and morale. “It’s wonderful! Whether an agent needs help while on a phone call or during a chat session with a customer, they can initiate a chat with an expert and get the assistance they need in near real time. It’s so cumbersome for an agent to have to yell across the room or raise their hand to get a supervisor or someone to come over and whisper in the agent’s ear while on a call. Text chat eliminates all of that.”
As much as RDI staff like the “helpdesk” aspect of chat for coaching and communication, it’s the ability to assist online customers and increase customer satisfaction that has agents truly enamored with the channel, Borum points out. “Agents really enjoy handling chat. They are able to use more tools – they can ‘push’ how-to video links and such to customers – and they like the fact that they have a little more time to think about their response, not like on a phone interaction.”