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Well-managed Chat Can Elevate the Online Customer Experience -- and the Bottom Line

More and more contact centers today are doing the write thing – offering web chat to support online customers in real time. Savvy centers add chat not only to bolster their list of contact options and cater to customers who prefer typing over talking; they do so because chat is a smart way to keep customers from abandoning shopping carts. Giving online customers who get hung up during the purchasing process a quick and easy way to get live assistance goes a long way toward securing online sales.

But the savviest centers have an even keener chat strategy. They focus on providing fast and effective chat service as a way to draw customers toward the website in the first place, thus enhancing the likelihood that the customer will embrace self-service – the holy grail of customer support from the call center’s and organization’s perspective.
“That’s one of the big potential benefits -- the ‘stickiness’ factor on the website,” says Lori Bocklund, president of call center technology consulting firm Strategic Contact. “You want customers to learn to self serve, and they are more likely to do so if they have been to the website before and were successful in completing what they wanted to complete with the help of a chat agent. That’s going to bring the customer back, and maybe the next time they’ll feel confident to serve themselves without any assistance.”  

Unfortunately, many centers are evidently doing the write thing the wrong way. Recent Forrester studies reveal that a mere 14% of consumers report being “satisfied or very satisfied” with research and sales chat interactions, and 47% of business and IT decision-makers admit to “poor/below average” support for chat facilities. Yet, nearly half of the consumers who have used chat said they liked that it provided immediate access to a live agent.

In other words, customers like the idea and the potential of chat, just not the execution. It’s now up to contact centers to take charge, to beef up their chat applications and strategies in order to convert customers into satisfied – and, eventually, autonomous – online users.

The Rundown: Leveraging and Managing Chat in the Call Center
Executives: Web chat as a customer service channel offers the potential to increase "stickiness" on your company's website and to promote cross-selling and upselling, as well as "saving" transactions that might, otherwise, be lost. This incremental value can add up quickly.

Directors/Managers:  Successful chat strategies and implementations rely on thoughtful pairing of technology selection and business needs and capabilities in the contact center. You'll need to build a process blueprint, identifying every area of your call center operations that could and should be affected by the launch of this new channel. Additionally, it will be imperative that you bring in key players and stakeholders as you plan and execute your chat strategy. That team will help you answer questions about workforce management, technology needs and capabilities, agent support and aptitudes, among others. And take advantage of chat technology tools that help you manage performance.

Supervisors: Focus on making sure agents have the support and training they need on a new chat initiative or on new features to a chat program. Will they have a knowledgebase available for "canned" answers? And how will they integrate knowledgebase information in their chat transactions to make the customer feel they're getting personalized service? You'll also need to make sure that staffing matches volume, and make sure that agents know what part of the performance process they're held accountable for (adherence and compliance).

Best Practices in Chat Support

Whether your center is planning on offering chat or already handles it, the following tips and tactics will help you to manage the medium, ensure high customer satisfaction and keep your agents from losing their minds.

Invest in an advanced chat management (or multichannel management) system. Having the right system in place doesn’t guarantee success in handling chat, but it certainly makes things a lot easier. While some contact centers are able to get by using basic chat tools, centers that consistently achieve or exceed their service level objectives and report high customer satisfaction typically have in place an advanced application specially designed for chat management.

Today’s systems help centers to do most if not all of the following:

  • Take advantage of intelligent routing capabilities, to ensure that each customer chat request is efficiently routed to the right agent.
  • Integrate with other customer contact channels (i.e., email, phone, self-service) and back-end content systems, to create a unified customer interaction hub.
  • Provide agents with access to complete customer history (regardless of contact channel used previously) to enhance service and personalization.
  • Provide agents with a knowledgebase of FAQs, response templates, web links, and commonly requested documents to enhance service efficiency and consistency.
  • Enable agents to use web collaboration tools to help customers fill out forms, find specific web pages or see how a particular product works. (More on this later.)
  • Set customer expectations by displaying queue position and wait times (as well as  notify customers when the agent is typing information, to reduce abandonment).
  • Provide multilingual capabilities, allowing customers to chat in their preferred language.
  • Encrypt sensitive customer data, such as credit card and Social Security numbers.
  • Capture and log all chat session transcripts for quality monitoring and coaching purposes, as well as to provide customers with a record of the interaction.
  • Enable agents to effectively chat with multiple customers simultaneously. (More on this later.)
  • Provide managers with detailed, actionable reports highlighting overall and individual agent performance, as well as notable trends.

When choosing a chat management system (or multimedia management system that incorporates chat), look for vendors with a proven track record of helping actual contact centers enhance e-support and achieve a high ROI. Some vendors to consider include eGain, nGenera, Kana, and Interactive Intelligence.

Put chat in its proper place. Few call centers jump straight into chat full force when they first introduce it as a contact channel. After determining that chat is right for their organization, most center roll it out in a controlled manner – often offering it only to a select group of customers (based on customer “value”) behind a restricted “login” area at first, or reserving chat only for certain functions (e.g., technical support).

“It’s a good idea to start with a limited rollout, and expand as you work out the kinks and get your agents trained with the chat and co-browsing tools,” say the authors of a whitepaper on chat by eGain, a leading provider of call center and e-support software. “If you put it immediately on the first page or all over your website, you might get more chat requests than agents can handle at first. Worst would be if you didn’t design and scale your infrastructure to deal with the volume and the service fails. This frustrates your customer and your agents.”

Jeff Robinson, vice president of Customer Care & Operations at online computer back-up firm Carbonite, agrees. “Start off with what you can do easily, and then add to the menu as you evolve. That’s what we did, and that’s what we recommend other centers implementing chat do.” Today, Carbonite’s call center, with the help of a chat management system by nGenera (formerly Talisma), effectively handles roughly 800-1000 chat sessions each day – representing a whopping 40% of the center’s total contact volume.

Robinson and other experts agree that, considering the damage that disgruntled online customers today can do to your company’s reputation with just a click of their mouse – sharing their negative e-support experiences with the world via social media outlets – it’s better to not offer chat at all than to offer it and not be able to properly support it.  
Note: The eGain whitepaper authors also recommend not forcing customers to download or install any software to enable chat. “Downloads, especially these days with a constant flood of new viruses and worms, scare customers away.”

Incorporate chat into the call center’s WFM process. To reduce the risk of severely underestimating the number of chats received – and the resultant customer insurrection – top call centers that offer chat strive to overcome the workforce management (WFM) challenge involved. Being a relatively new support medium, WFM in chat environments is still more of a guessing game than a science, says Bocklund. “Chat can be difficult to predict and plan for. Unlike with call volumes, where centers know what the patterns are, with chat they don’t really know how many customers will use it much less when they will use it.”

The best centers work hard at taking the “guess” out of the game by carefully tracking how many (and what type of) chat contacts the call center receives every day, when such transactions typically occur, and how long the average chat session lasts, as well as factoring in events (e.g., marketing campaigns, etc.) that may impact chat volume. Such analysis has enabled many call centers to uncover key historic trends on which they can base solid staffing decisions.

That said, reporting, forecasting and scheduling for chat can be further complicated in centers that have agents handling multiple chat sessions concurrently to gain efficiencies. When a customer initiates an exchange, the reporting system must note how many concurrent exchanges are already in queue for that agent – something that not all systems today can accurately do. The exchange handle time must then be divided by this number to provide accurate reporting.

Whether or not a call center handles concurrent chat sessions, customers will inevitably have to wait in queue on occasion to initiate a transaction, or wait “on hold” during the course of a transaction. To avoid alienating online customers during such instances, it’s a best practice to implement some sort of “web-on-hold” application that shows the waiting customer a browser frame or text boxes containing information like expected wait times, “thanks
for holding” messages, or, with more advanced applications, a notice about relevant products or services.

Set agents up for chat success. The best chat management systems and WFM processes alone won’t ensure that chat will be a hit with customers; the call center must also properly prepare and equip agents for handling chat efficiently and effectively.

This includes selecting the right agents to handle chat. “Some centers hire for chat – focusing on finding agents who can type well and have good writing skills,” says Bocklund, “while other centers train existing agents for chat and rely on their systems to help agents handle the channel effectively, with things like pre-built answers. Either of these methods can be effective – there isn’t one best practice. But what centers want to avoid is throwing their existing agents at chat without providing any training and expecting them to do well.”

Leading centers provide comprehensive training to all chat agents – whether newly hired or picked from existing employees -- covering such things as:

  • The company’s web-based customer contact strategy.
  • The chat agent’s specific role and performance objectives.
  • The actual chat technology used in the call center.
  • The company’s policy regarding the use of “canned” responses. (Most call centers teach agents to mix content from response templates in with more personalized text rather than simply cut and paste the entire pre-written responses.)
  • Other preferences/policies regarding chat writing style (e.g., “netiquette,” as well as what – if any – emoticons and abbreviations agents are permitted/encouraged to use in their chat responses).
  • Chat-related functions that agents may not be familiar with—e.g., web collaboration (co-browsing, document sharing, page pushing).
  • Corporate privacy policies.  

Setting chat agents up for success (and ensuring customers satisfaction) also involves not overextending them in an effort to maximize efficiencies. We’ve already mentioned that many centers enable agents to handle two or more chats simultaneously – in some centers, agents handle up to four or even five chat sessions at once. But how effectively? Many experts, including Robinson and Bocklund, feel that two chats sessions – maybe three (if the inquiries/issues are routine ones) – are the most that even a highly experienced agent can handle without sacrificing quality and the customer experience.

“As a customer, you know when an agent is chatting with too many people because they don’t respond fast enough,” says Bocklund.

The metrics used to measure chat performance should also promote a healthy balance between productivity and quality. The best centers realize that focusing solely on traditional metrics like average handle time (AHT) or number of chats per hour/shift – metrics that are rarely within the agent’s control – is a surefire way to drive agents into the ground and customers away. Instead, these centers add into the fold such metrics as contact accuracy/quality (gauged via quality evaluation of chat transcripts), contact resolution rate, and customer satisfaction (gauged via post-contact surveys – typically email based).

You’ve got to achieve a good balance between productivity and quality,” says Robinson. “And the productivity part can’t just be handle time; you need to focus on metrics more within  agents’ control, like schedule adherence, attendance and compliance.”

Use web collaboration tools to enhance support and customer autonomy. To help enhance e-support as well as convert online customers into self-servers, top call centers combine web collaboration tools with chat. In doing so, agents are able to not only resolve customers’ issues and/or close sales, but also show customers exactly how to support themselves the next time they visit the website.

The most common types of Web collaboration include:

  • Co-browsing – enables the agent and the customer to simultaneously view the same web browser screens during a chat session, making it easy for the agent to direct the customer to relevant areas on a website.
  • Page-pushing – enables the agent to send specific web pages, or other relevant documents, directly to the customer’s screen. Many call centers have found this to be not only an indispensable customer service tool, but also a way to enhance upselling and cross-selling during chat sessions.
  • Application/form-sharing – enables the agent and customer to collaborate on complex web-based forms and applications, and often entails the agent moving the customer’s cursor to specific areas of a document to help gain efficiencies.

“Co-browsing is all about enhancing the customer experience,” says Robinson. “We survey every customer following a chat and co-browse session, and 94% of our customers who respond to the survey say that the result of the co-browse session was ‘very good.’”

While the benefits of co-browsing are apparent, Robinson adds that it can eat into overall chat productivity. “Once you start co-browsing in a chat environment, your agents will not be able to effectively handle two or three chats simultaneously all the time. You can’t take on another chat until a co-browsing session is finished. It can become a messy process.”

The Potential Power of Proactive Chat

While many call centers are still getting a handle on the fundamentals of chat, others have moved on to more advanced chat applications and strategies. One of the hottest emerging trends today is the use of proactive chat, where agents reach out to initiate a chat whenever a customer’s actions on the website indicate that they may need assistance, or just a little push to purchase. For instance, if the center’s proactive chat tool recognizes that a high-value customer has made numerous entries into a knowledgebase or search box – suggesting that the customer is struggling to find what they are looking for – a chat box will pop up and invite the customer to engage in a chat session with a live agent to assist them with their inquiry. If accepted, an available agent in the call center can then begin to chat with the customer to help resolve their issue. 

Proactive chat tools can also pick up on when a full shopping cart has been abandoned by a customer at the last minute, or when a customer has viewed a certain sequence of web pages that reveal a strong likelihood to purchase. In such cases, a subtle, personalized nudge from a chat agent can go a long way toward recovering/generating revenue. According to technology and market research firm Forrester, call centers that present proactive chat to the right customers and prospects at the right time can expect about a 15% acceptance rate for proactive invitations and about a 10% sales conversion rate. Not huge percentages, but it could mean huge amounts of money – money that, otherwise, the company would never have seen.   
Of course, organizations that deploy proactive chat need to be as non-invasive as possible to enhance customer acceptance. Centers that carelessly fling a dialogue box at website visitors are likely to do more harm than good, annoying and possibly driving away valuable and loyal customers.   

Customer Loyalty the Greatest ROI

In many call center environments, chat simply makes sense. When implemented well, the ROI can be attractive – particularly in centers where agents are able to effectively handle a couple of chat sessions simultaneously. And centers that are successful in getting chat customers to eventually embrace online self-service enjoy an even greater ROI.

But the most important ROI is customer retention, says Robinson. “If you can do things to continually improve the customer experience, the average customer lifetime will increase – and we have seen that particular effect with chat. There is a strong correlation between good support outcomes and customer satisfaction and retention.”  

Millennials: The Text Generation

With the Millennial Generation (people born after 1982) making up a rapidly growing portion of the consumer base, chat is evolving from a “nice-to-have” to a “need-to-have” contact channel in call centers. The Millennials have grown up with text communication – in real- or near-real time – being the norm; SMS messaging and Instant Messaging (IM) is part of their daily existence. Certainly, companies that can effectively communicate with them in their preferred mode stand to generate considerable loyalty.

According to research by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Genesys, most companies are struggling with how to adapt their businesses to serve a new wave of consumers from the Millennial Generation. The report highlights the urgent need for businesses to invest in new modes of communication and to tailor their approaches to match customer preferences, pointing out that better online support via chat, as well as text messaging and social networking, are effective ways to engage Millennials.