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It's not either or: chat's place in both sales and service environment

Traci Moxson, Senior Business Development Manager from specialist employee performance optimization solutions provider, Silver Lining Solutions, explains the rationale for live chat in customer sales and service environments, debunks perceived wisdom and shares top tips on how to make chat work for your organization. This post originally appeared here.

What is fuelling the recent surge in live chat adoption?

As today’s consumers move from traditional in-store help, inquiries and purchases to online channels, companies are increasingly having to provide online sales and service support.  While self-service FAQ databases and a toll free number were sufficient in the past, today’s consumers expect immediacy – and chat can offer a good solution for this new norm. According to Forrester Research, by 2014 US online sales will reach $250bn, so the delivery of contact ‘immediacy’ as customers browse and research products online certainly makes sense.  In fact, 44% of online consumers say that having questions answered by a live person while in the middle of an online purchase is one of the most important features a website can offer.  But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that live chat is just designed to support sales.  It has been proven to reduce customer effort and provide higher customer satisfaction so it is also a cost-effective and efficient means for companies to service their customers. 

It is easier than ever to cater to these changes in customer expectations thanks to some very clever technologies that have been designed to maximize online sales and service by proactively targeting online visitors with appropriate messages at the right time.  In essence, these technologies are enabling ‘mass customization’ as they use real-time data to understand visitor behavior and history, and to prompt proactive invitations to engage with live agents in a seamless way.  This practice has the benefit of deflecting customer calls, reducing overall cost to serve and increasing return on investment as agents can typically handle an average of 3 chats at any given time.

How many customers does an organization need to chat with to make the investment worthwhile?

How much traffic is enough for live chat? Well, before taking the plunge you need to ensure that the demand justifies the cost and that decision will differ from company to company.  For example, companies with a wider offer but lower margins, e.g. online retailers, will likely need a few hundred live chats a day.  On the other hand, for high value B2B offerings, real estate and even law firms, one customer can generate a very high profit indeed and although there are probably not many daily website visitors, each one is of huge potential value.  Likewise, high value customers that have a question or product usage enquiries that can be well supported by live chat more than justify the monthly chat subscription.  You know it makes sense to identify high value customers who are struggling with their self-help experience and proactively connect them to a live agent as this will improve customer satisfaction and first contact resolution.

In a sales context you should also consider the demographics of your customer base.  Are they prolific online shoppers or researchers? 

If so, live chat provides a simple way to connect with customers who spend a good deal of their money online. A recent report by E-Marketer found that “Almost two in 10 live chat respondents did more than 75% of their holiday shopping online, compared with 14% of those who did not chat. A further 25% of chatters made 51% to 75% of their purchases on the web, versus just 10% of those who did not participate in the chat service.”  Definitely food for thought.

What is the biggest challenge when deploying live chat?

According to a recent Ovum international study of 8,000 people, the majority of consumers are now using three or more channels to communicate with organizations, with 52% of consumers using three to four communication channels, and 22% using five or more.  Customers are genuinely calling the shots and without a doubt, the major challenge when implementing chat – or indeed any channel - is to ensure that your agents are equipped with the skills and knowledge required for the communication channel.  Essentially, chat without agents available (the dreaded chat offline message), or without appropriately skilled chat agents is worse than no chat at all. It is also important to consider the full communication life cycle and how can you best support the transition between communication channels, for example, how can you start a conversation with chat and finish it with a call? Remember that live chat should not be viewed or implemented in isolation; as the Ovum statistics show, customers will select a variety of channels to communicate and each requires specific skill sets – in the case of chat, an ability to multi-task and a good written communications skills.  When implementing chat, make sure you have a good understanding of what your agents will be doing, identify those that need support (training, access to knowledge, etc.) in order to deliver to a high level, and focus your performance improvement initiatives on areas that will have the biggest impact.

Since 2008, as a result of severe economic pressures, organizations have been focused on rationalization and restructuring.  Deloitte has just revealed that in 2014 the focus will be on new and accelerated growth, which brings a variety of challenges: as your business grows, so does your competitor's, creating increased competition for customer wallet share and employee talent.  Happy employees genuinely do contribute to happy customers, so make sure you help them be successful at their jobs.

What are your top tips for the implementation of live chat?

  • Train your agents.  Your live chat agents have to be extremely knowledgeable about your products and/or services, any promotions, your competitors and your website.  Give your agents the training and tools they need to improve their performance and to make it easy to respond to customers.
  • Know when (and how) to staff. If you have an international business, typical 9 to 5 just won’t work.  Use web analytics to determine when visitors are using your site and staff accordingly.  Also, make sure you forecast chat demand and plan to have the right agents available at the right time – for chat and all the other communication channels you use.
  • Manage expectations.  Chat users expect instant gratification. During peak periods, customers need to understand if they are in a queue and an agent will be with them shortly, if not immediately.   Additionally, agents should set expectations by providing an estimated wait time for delayed responses.
  • Be timely and accurate.  Ideally, responses should be provided within 30 seconds.  Above and beyond timeliness, response accuracy is paramount to ensuring customer satisfaction and maintaining the overall integrity of the brand.  Responses must adhere to most grammatical rules and accurate spelling is critical to support agent credibility.
  • Get the ‘tone’ right. Customers expect a personalized, brand-appropriate experience, even when using online chat. Live chat is different from a telephone conversation; your communication must be concise and get right to the point.  The tone of the chat should reflect corporate identity and conform to the personality of the site (e.g. friendly, professional, informative, helpful, etc.) and should express the mood or feeling of the conversation in order to humanize the experience.  Beware!  Robotic communications will detrimentally impact the effectiveness of live chat.
  • Integrate live chat with other communications channels.  The Ovum statistics shared earlier in this post are a big clue.  Customers are not only using multiple channels, they expect to be able to switch from one to another seamlessly.  Make sure you’re able to switch to another channel if the customer asks to do so – after all, it’s totally understandable for them to ask to give you a call to discuss in more detail!  Think through the likely customer journeys and make sure you gear up for them or chat will fail.
  • Integrate live chat with your social channels. When your live chat agents receive positive feedback, consider asking them to request customers to ‘like’ your facebook page or, even better, comment positively on it.
  • Shop around. Chat software websites all provide live chat support, so be sure to shop around and test the products available – there will most certainly be one out there that’s right for your business.  Good luck!

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