Just a Chat Away

Sure, Web-based chat applications on your site represent a leap in customer service and sales technology. But let's not forget that the brick-and-mortar standards still apply. If an end-user is comfortable and finds your online rep trustworthy and predictive of his or her needs, the opportunities increase exponentially.

Managing the conversation into a rich, personalized experience that adds value requires a deliberate style and tone-one that, while respectful, is perhaps more suited to instant messaging (IM) or text messaging rather than stodgy or overly formal communications. Also, we now have the technology to inform each interaction (whatever that means), to personalize it, to target the conversation, and really make the interaction shine with the capabilities of chat.

Here are five ways to help achieve that no-longer-elusive, optimal chat interaction.

1. Recognize the changing audience. While we're by no means suggesting you ignore your older customers, you need to recognize the changing demographics of your customer base, especially those for whom the Internet is a second home.

Forrester reports that nearly 40 percent of 18-27 year olds research financial products exclusively online. In fact, people who have grown up in the Internet era have truly incorporated text messaging, IM, and other online communication methods into their lives at an amazingly high level. Chat most closely resembles the casual nature of IM; adopting a chat strategy suitable for that crowd will prove a prescient, forward-looking move that will benefit you for years to come, as the audience continues to change.

2. Find the right personnel for the job. There's a new way of doing things. And it means finding the right people to plug into the job. You need to find agents who are comfortable with the online medium for conducting a conversation. They should also be used to managing multiple online interactions at once.

Who's already on staff that will hit the ground running? Focus on your phone agents, rather than existing email agents. Email agents are used to an asynchronous, non-real-time interaction that gives them time to craft considered replies with the goal of resolving the inquiry in one response.

Phone agents are comfortable with the give and take of conversation and the free-form exchange that chat engenders. They'll likely be quicker on the uptake-and that means a better, more informative conversation for your clientele.

3. Change the script-in fact, keep it at arm's length. Not every agent can manage chat interactions successfully because of the nature of the conversation. When engaged in chat with a customer, agents should generally keep answers short and casual. A conversational exchange will include multiple back-and-forth messages, sometimes with some overlap, as both parties may be further in the conversation in their heads than they have managed to type with their fingers.

Emoticons and shortcuts are perfectly acceptable in the chat interaction, and even non-egregious typos aren't a conversation killer. However, scripted or canned phrases may come across as overly stiff and formal. Canned phrases can certainly be created for automated agents, but these should be scripted with care.

Of course, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Agents need to know the information readily available on the Web site, and should feel free to point customers to the specific links that are already available to address their needs. It will encourage customers to seek the answers in the appropriate place the next time they visit. However, be sure to stay available as backup or for follow-up questions. Web links are valuable, but they are not replacements for human interaction.

4. Use a combined approach. While chat is a great technology to start the conversation, don't forget the other rich tools at your company's disposal. Combine chat exchanges with collaboration capabilities. Co-browsing, joint form-filling, and page push can increase agents' effectiveness by helping with purchases, filling out applications, troubleshooting technical problems, or more.

5. You know what they want-don't be afraid to use it. You have a rich vein of information. Tap it. Customers will warm to chat interactions that are personalized. You may have their name or access to recent activity on your site; don't be afraid to use it, especially when extending a proactive invitation.

By applying intelligence about who your visitor is, pages visited, time spent on pages, and geographic location, the chat experience can become more targeted and, accordingly, will achieve a higher value for the customer.

Our understanding of the customer experience is better than ever, and we want to manage the chat conversation in a manner that creates a rich, personalized interaction designed to add value to the customer's experience with the company. You've recognized the generally changing audience. The quantity and quality of information you have about your customers today is far greater than ever before. Now is the time to leverage your technology, your research, and your well-trained staff, to make everyone happy.

About the Author

Jessie Brumfiel is owner of JB Labs (www.jb-labs.com), a communications consulting firm serving technology, financial services, and professional services clients.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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