Chat Adds to Retail Success

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Few companies have extended their chat offerings for consumers to more modern scenarios, especially on mobile devices, platforms, or channels that leverage chatbots or offer asynchronous alternatives, according to a Forrester Research report.

Chat has become increasingly important, with 42 percent of U.S. adults indicating in a 2020 Forrester survey that it was important for retailers to offer live chat on their websites, compared to only 27 percent in a similar survey a year earlier.

According to the 2020 Forrester Moments Map, nearly one quarter (23 percent) of U.S. online adults use chat at least monthly, with live or synchronous chat common for customer services in the hospitality, travel, and retail industries.

Julie Ask, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester and one of the authors of the report, points out that most chat is with human agents, not bots: Fifty-three percent of chat was solely with human agents, while 26 percent were hybrid, combining humans and bots, according to Ask. “Bots still struggle with conversations that depend on customer history and context from other channels, as well as with complex or multipart queries.”

Ask added that third-party platforms like Apple Business Chat quickly escalate to human agents to maintain quality experiences.

Though synchronous chat is used by many companies and industries, few have migrated to asynchronous chat, according to Ask. “Billions of consumers use asynchronous messaging with friends daily. These same consumers have shifted these same expectations of engagement to agents at brands because these interactions fit into their days and allow them to communicate when and where they choose.”

Forrester expects more large companies to implement asynchronous chat, joining many smaller ones that have already done so.

Chat is especially important in retail, according to Forrester; customers don’t buy through chat, but chat does influence their purchases. Chat helps consumers find items in stock, obtain store hours, and facilitate the pick-up-at-store option. Consumers in many instances, particularly when agent queues are long, prefer chat because they can receive quicker service.

According to Forrester, chat also helps companies improve customer experience because it enables them to highlight precise information to simplify consumer shopping; it can tailor recommendations to a customer’s specific needs, which can be different with different queries.

Chat can also be embedded in purchase funnels for quick, inline exchanges and can include sound and images, Ask adds.

Ask recommends the following strategies for successful chat:

  • Take a methodical approach. The first step is to build a customer experience strategy. “You must understand the needs of your customers and how you’ll serve those needs within the context of your brand promise,” she says, adding that product recommendations should be based on customers’ past shopping/browsing history, though queries might be used to gather more data before making recommendations. For example, a mattress store might ask about preferred firmness before offering product suggestions.
  • Improve consistency of offerings. Chat services vary significantly among agents at the same company. When that’s the case, a better option is to offer customers detailed instructions or direct links for self-service.
  • Respond quickly. While consumers might start and stop chat conversations at different times, they expect answers from the other side to be nearly immediate. Yet Forrester found that responses weren’t always immediate and that companies didn’t properly set customer expectations (e.g., a quick note that the query was received and when a response could be expected).
  • Promote private-label products. Less than half (41 percent) of U.S. online adults think they get better value from private-label products than from those with brand names.
  • Move beyond customer service to help consumers make purchase decisions. This will be humans in the near and medium term.
  • Integrate chat into the flow of a purchase. It can’t be just a pop-up on the side.
  • Leverage digital behavior context and continue to evolve the context used. Too many bots start with “How can I help you?” or “[In which of these ways] can I help you [and offer multiple choice]?” At least have an idea of what customers are doing or how they are struggling.

Ask also recommends that companies consider chat’s expected evolution when planning their strategies with and use of the technology. In the future, speech-based chat will feel more natural, and the technology will be able to handle more complex questions through a variety of channels.

“In the near term, this family of technologies will enable service providers in finance, healthcare, and education to scale coaching,” she says. 

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