Some colleagues doubted the usefulness of Milton Santiago's idea several years ago of incorporating text chat into ABN AMRO Service Company's (AASC) service strategy. Despite that anxiety, AASC implemented chat in anticipation of Gen Yers coming into the market and to offer customers a broader range of service-and-support options. Today, senior vice president of electronic banking products for North America Santiago's innovative thinking has contributed to AASC's high marks for service success. "Because [we are] a bank, some people didn't believe the customers wanted to be serviced that way," Santiago says. AASC's customer base includes senior-level financial professionals like controllers, treasurers, and CFOs. "We are a high-touch bank and relationship-driven.
"As more and more of our services were being delivered electronically, we wanted our customers to be able to reach out to us [online]. There was some concern we were showing less service," Santiago says. AASC services include CashPro Web, an online solution powered by eGain Communications's functionality, that lets customers perform treasury management activities like cash management and foreign exchange transactions; as part of its e-care for the offering AASC provides email, live chat, and automated chat. Although Santiago's motivation behind implementing chat wasn't to trim costs, the move paid off: AASC went from saving $23,000 in 2002 to saving $500,000 in 2006 from call deflection, according to Santiago.
Chat's gleam as a social medium shows no signs of fading, and companies like AASC are reflections of its burgeoning use as an enterprise tool. Text chat can make it easier for customers (not solely Gen Yers) to get assistance online instead of turning to phone reps. "The advantage that text chat has over any of the other touch points, even the phone, is that you can connect with a live agent within the context of whatever you're doing, whether shopping on a site or researching," says Zachary McGeary, associate analyst at Jupiter Research. Vendors like eStara (acquired by ATG in 2006), eGain, KANA, Knova Software, LivePerson, RightNow Technologies, SupportSoft, and Talisma are some of the providers delivering chat capabilities.
"As live chat has become ubiquitous on e-commerce sites, consumers benefit from convenient access to sales and service support through the online channel, while companies benefit from increased conversion rates, improved customer satisfaction, and higher average order value," says Kevin Kohn, executive vice president of marketing for LivePerson. The key, however, is to view chat as one touch point in your multichannel arsenal, not as a standalone solution.
Part of chat's appeal as an enterprise technology is based on two factors: the increasing consumer presence online and the widespread use of instant messaging. A third factor are the potential productivity gains.
The idea is that reps can handle multiple chat sessions simultaneously, whereas with a phone call (a single-threaded interaction) reps can only handle one call at a time. "You can justify it based on that cost savings," says Allen Bonde, senior vice president of strategy and marketing for management consulting and system integration firm eVergance. On the other hand, some industry experts argue that because chat sessions tend to be lengthier than phone calls (an average of 7 percent longer, according to Jupiter Research), the only way to bring down the cost per chat is to handle multiple chats at once.
Regardless of where educated opinion falls, attempting to have reps handle too many chats at once will ultimately undermine an enterprise's efforts to foster efficiency and bolster the customer experience.
If the number of text chat sessions a service representative is dealing with exceeds the amount he can actually manage, chances are it will take longer for him to respond to the customer, which can frustrate her. The number of chat sessions that agents can handle simultaneously without muddying the customer experience varies slightly among industry pundits interviewed for this article, but there's a general consensus that the number should be moderate. For instance, AASC's agents can handle three to five sessions on average concurrently; Bonde says two or three chat conversations are reasonable; McGeary contends that most companies have found it's really not practical to have agents engage in more than two chats at once.
The ways companies offer access to text chat fall into two camps: reactive chat (also known as click to chat) and proactive chat. Reactive sessions--those initiated by site visitors by clicking on a Web site's chat icon, submitting a question, and waiting for the company to respond--are typically used more in a customer service environment. Customers can reach out for help with a variety of service issues. Once a customer initiates the session and indicates what his query is, the responding rep can push the appropriate information out to the customer.
Low-complexity types of queries mesh well with chat, especially when agents are juggling several sessions. For chat to be most effective in a reactive environment, McGeary suggests setting boundaries around customers' accessibility to chat. "Just simply leaving it up on the site, universally available, results in a large volume of inquiries that probably weren't appropriate for chat." If the business is like a typical service organization, the majority of incoming inquiries are fairly basic and common, so those queries are probably better suited for self-service choice like an automated contact chat solution, according to McGeary.
Vendors like Colloquis (formerly Conversagent--Colloquis was acquired by Microsoft in October) specialize in automated chat solutions that feature natural language-processing technology. For companies that deploy automated chat solutions it is important to have the ability to escalate chat sessions that are better handled by live agents. Be sure to collect enough information using Web forms to route customers to the best rep without annoying them by requiring them to fill out too many fields, according to the CIM Forum's white paper "Customer Interaction Management: Best Practices In Enterprise Chat." (See sidebar: "A Look at Enterprise Chat KPI."). The forum contends that satisfaction typically plummets when customers are asked to fill in more than three items.
Proactive chat interactions--company-initiated exchanges that are triggered by business rules based on factors like consumers' Web-site behavior--can also be used to resolve service queries. But they're usually rolled out in a more sales-driven atmosphere. Pitney Bowes uses the Talisma Customer Interaction Management (CIM) suite as part of its chat strategy, which includes reactive and proactive chats in its small business segment. With its proactive approach, for example, "if somebody abandons the shopping cart or stays on a certain page for a certain amount of time with no activity, we may fire a business rule" that prompts an invitation for a chat session, says Rudy Chang, vice president/general manager of customer care and global online services at Pitney Bowes. In fact, the $5.7 billion provider of mailstream software, hardware, services, and solutions has seen an uptake in conversion rates of 8 percent to 10 percent, according to Chang.
Chat is "really becoming less of a customer service tool and more of a sales and marketing tool," McGeary says. "Typically there's revenue at stake or a transaction at stake. You want to make sure that you resolve that and provide the highest level of service."
Smoothing Out the Wrinkles
Whether you opt to leverage reactive chats, proactive chats, or a mixed-bag approach of both in your multichannel strategy, there are several factors that if left unchecked, can severely tarnish a customer's chat experience. On the HR front, agents must be multitaskers, skilled in the written word, and strong typists. Some companies have taken a liking to leveraging blended agents, but, Bonde says, "It seems like the emerging best practice is having specialized agents, because there are different skill sets needed for having multiple, simultaneous text discussions versus talking to somebody one at a time on the phone." Not every rep is adept enough to do an outstanding, consistent job of manning both your voice and Web channels. An agent armed with pristine phone skills may be dreadful at handling emails and chat sessions. Steer clear of forcing agents to handle touch points they're not primed to and train them accordingly.
Rob McDougall, president and cofounder of call management automation solutions provider Upstream Works Software, says that the inability to hear the tone of the speaker's voice is one of chat's largest shortcomings: "How many times have you gotten an email and you read it and thought this person is out in left field or shouldn't have said something, and it really wasn't what the person meant to say? That person's intent in the email didn't come across to you. Chat has the same limitation."
From a metrics perspective, one of the more obvious gaffes some companies make lies in sluggish response times, both between exchanges and, if initiated by the customer, the time it takes for an agent to accept the chat invitation. An agent response within 60 seconds between when a customer initiates a session and when an agent actually begins chatting is crucial in a reactive-chat session, but responses between 10 and 15 seconds maintain the conversational feel in any chat environment, according to the CIM Forum.
Providing that conversational touch, however, isn't always easy. An integral component of chat is maintaining certain standards, and to do that responses to customers' questions are often put on templates--pretty much cut and pasted from a knowledge base. As a result, exchanges can sometimes feel like less of a dialogue. A partial list of some of the best practices the CIM Forum suggests include: using canned responses in situations where there is very specific data that must be relayed precisely, sending URLs when a response is very long or contains frequently updated information, and segmenting longer exchanges into one or two sentences.
A Look at Enterprise Chat
The CIM Forum--comprised of companies that include founding members AOL, Dell, eBay, Epson, Microsoft, Outsell, Pitney Bowes, and Sprint; sponsored by IBM and Talisma; and comanaged by eVergance--is committed to enhancing multichannel customer interaction. The forum crafted a white paper titled "Customer Interaction Management: Best Practices In Enterprise Chat," concentrating on issues like technical infrastructure, placement and design of a chat icon, Web forms and routing rules, use of prepared responses, acceptable wait times, and survey usage. Another area detailed in the document is measurement and reporting. The chart illustrates average chat KPIs for some forum members. --C.B.
to view chart full-size.
Shaking the Magic Eight Ball
In the enterprise world chat has primarily been text based, but vendors like ATG's eStara and LivePerson are spearheading the fusion of voice into the chat experience with click-to-call solutions. Hospitality and leisure specialist Red Lion Hotels Corporation uses click-to-call functionality from eStara. Most of Red Lion's decision to implement chat was born of its multimillion-dollar investment in completely overhauling the design of its Web site (the company launched its redesigned site about 21 months ago). Like most commerce-driven outfits, the company's online presence is particularly important as it provides customers with another method for booking reservations. So Red Lion sought a way to pinpoint any barriers thwarting site visitors from booking hotels online and ultimately to help transition a potential case of site abandonment into a completed reservation. "We wanted to make sure that we were touching those customers and retaining those customers that we otherwise might lose due to an error or frustration," says Julie Silbar, Red Lion's director of call center operations.
The hospitality company tapped eStara's flagship product, Click to Call, and implemented the solution across its reservation and hotel directory Web pages (and across its meeting-planning pages). Site users can connect immediately to live representatives over the telephone for assistance during the online-booking process. "If I've got a more complex product or I've got a shopper who's got a nice full basket that I want to make sure converts and has a little extra help, then I can selectively offer click to call or click to chat," says Kelly O'Neill, commerce product marketing director at ATG. That agent can "be fully informed as to where that shopper is in that process."
By clicking on a Web-site button customers are presented with a popup window; they have the option to either talk directly to a Red Lion CSR from their PC through IP, or enter their phone number and request a callback immediately or in one, three, or five minutes. With the callback option of click to chat, "from a cost perspective you really have the same cost as if that person had called you," says Marchai Bruchey, CMO at KANA. "What you have is the convenience for the customer to be able to schedule a time for that to happen."
As part of its deployment Red Lion also selected eStara's postcall survey functionality, which allows customers to provide feedback on their service experience. "The surveys that we get back show us that people are very, very satisfied when they do get help from one of my agents," Silbar says. "We ask them what they would have done if they hadn't had that option and a lot of them say they either would have abandoned the site or gone to a different hotel site. We want to make sure we capture that." Clearly, Red Lion is doing a better job of keeping visitors from leaving its site: The company reduced its Web-site abandonment rate by 13 percent.
In addition to voice, incorporating video into chat sessions is on the horizon for crafting a more robust, multimedia experience, according to Jim O'Farrell, senior vice president of global marketing for Talisma. For instance, if a customer in a technical support environment needs help with installing a network card, an agent can push a video--much like a canned response--to the customer. While the video is playing the agent can handle other projects. The video would have a timer on it, and when the video has completed or is stopped by the customer, the agent is alerted and can return to the customer and continue to assist him.
"We're going to see a lot of video in the coming year, two years, three years, as a key component of the chat experience," O'Farrell says.
Revving the Multichannel Strategy
Despite its relative infancy in the enterprise domain, companies can realize notable gains from chat functionality if they use it appropriately. Critical to chat's success is an understanding of the kinds of queries a company will receive, an understanding customer needs (and their willingness to use chat), and an understanding of a company's business objectives for the communication tool. Chat, Bruchey says, is "far more powerful when you integrate it into other channels and have a complete strategy."
Contact Associate Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com.