Chat Is the Channel of Choice, For Now

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Today, customers have no shortage of channel choices for contacting companies with their customer service inquiries. In addition to the long-standing phone and email channels, these now include social media channels like Twitter, messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and online chat.

Chat in particular is now an essential part of the customer support package, but experts disagree about its staying power in that capacity. Some expect that chat will remain important, while others assert that it will decline in popularity as other channels, particularly messaging apps, continue to grow.

Service requests are by far the most common use of chat. In fact, 44 percent of companies say the bulk of their current web chats involve service requests for existing products and services, according to ContactBabel’s “2018-19 U.S. Contact Center Decision Maker’s Guide.” An additional 35 percent of companies say their web chats are more about service than sales, with only 17 percent saying theirs are more about sales than service. Sales requests alone make up just 4 percent of chat interactions.

Chat provides many benefits for the businesses that use it, according to Justin Poggioli, senior manager at business consulting firm West Monroe Partners. Among them, a key benefit is that it “facilitates a more utilized agent population.” “If agents are properly skilled, they can handle up to four chats simultaneously,” he says. Even the most skilled agents can still only handle a single phone call at a time.

On the customer side, experts note a growing preference for digital support channels in general. Volker Hildebrand, global vice president at SAP Customer Experience, says this is particularly true among younger consumers, although today, consumers of all ages “want fast answers to their questions.” Live chat, he explains, “allows for this in real time.”

Poggioli adds that chat is best used to address simple questions, which he puts into three categories: basic informational requests (“What is the address to send in my payment?”); product research (“Does this product come with these options?”); and specific account inquiries (“What is my rewards point balance?”). This, he adds, applies across most industries, although some industries, like healthcare, tend to receive more complex inquiries and, therefore, might have “a more difficult time finding a common use case where chat makes business sense to implement.”

When it comes to B2B versus B2C, experts agree that both can benefit from offering online chat. Hildebrand, for one, notes that the popularity of online chat “doesn’t really differ between B2B and B2C” because “a lot of B2B buyers are also digital natives, and their experiences as consumers shape their expectations for B2B interactions as well.”

Yet experts also say that online chat might be less useful in some B2B contexts, where interactions can be a bit more complex. Hildebrand has seen a tendency for more involved interactions in a B2B context result in a preference for phone calls.

Brooke Niemiec, chief marketing officer at customer-centricity and marketing strategy consulting firm Elicit, agrees that phone interactions are a better fit for B2B. “Live chat is probably better suited for B2C, where requests may be simpler to address through this channel. Additionally, B2B clients may have expectations of a higher level of service and interaction due to what is typically a higher dollar value associated with those relationships,” she says.

But despite its popularity, consumer perception of online chat is still “mixed,” according to Niemiec, largely because “the quality of live chat execution varies so widely.” Setbacks ensue when an agent isn’t familiar with the product in question, doesn’t have access to customer information, or is not authorized to resolve issues directly.

Instances where online chat is only offered during “regular” business hours “further aggravates the situation,” she adds, as the online platform “sets customer expectations for 24/7 service.”

Potential drawbacks aside, though, Hildebrand is adamant that “every organization should offer a live chat option.” He says that while it has been primarily used in e-commerce, its benefits translate across industries, and those that stand to benefit the most are telecommunications, high-tech, travel, and utilities. Utilities, for example, often have a large number of inquiries that deal with billing. “These questions can be answered easily via chat and automated even further using a chatbot, saving a company resources and time while keeping their customers happy,” he states.

But then the key to making chat successful is “ensuring that common contact reasons are known and that chat agents are trained on how to resolve those requests,” Niemiec says. “The more complex the nature of the business, the more difficult it will be to make live chat work effectively.”

ONLINE CHAT VS. OTHER CHANNELS

Experts agree that convenience and low cost are the primary advantages of online chat, yet they say that it’s still advisable to offer a combination of channels to support the widest range of inquiries.

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