Why Legacy Chat Doesn't Cut It

We all know that in today's digital world, many buyers expect real-time engagement online. It's what they get in the offline world, when they step into a store and are greeted by offers of help by a real, live person. In the offline world, no obtrusive questions are asked up front—such as personal contact information, which is often the price of entry into an online chat session and why many consumers avoid them altogether.

While live chat is a means to an end, if a company wants to provide exceptional online customer service, chat isn't cutting it.

To summarize, some limitations include:

With chat, control is in the hands of the vendor. Instead of enabling site visitors to choose who to chat with and at what point, vendors pop up with an obtrusive invitation to chat with an anonymous representative as soon as they've tracked enough of the visitor's behavior to assign the "right" rep to the chat.

Interaction is usually limited to text chat, with some systems offering "Leave your phone number and we'll call you back" functionality. Most legacy chat systems often have no capability for live video chat, or sharing rich content like social profiles, video, or presentations.

Chat is often only available on the vendor's Web site. There's no ability to engage in a chat from a social networking site, blog, news site, or other venues where buyers search for information.

Because identifiable personas (picture, name, title) are not available in legacy chat solutions, it's difficult for the visitor to re-engage the same representative on subsequent visits. It's easy to find vendor Web sites through search, but not people. The prospective buyer gets the next agent in the queue and typically has to start from square one again.

So, What's the Solution?

Despite its limitations, legacy chat has its place. Chat is a good complement to Web sites that supply low-involvement, frequently purchased consumer products like books, apparel, and commodity electronics. It's a cost-effective way to answer customer questions, provide online support, and collect valuable metrics.

But for high-involvement, high-value, infrequently purchased goods and services where knowledgeable human interaction remains vital, there is a better way.

That way is a customer-initiated engagement platform that improves the online chat experience for vendors whose products and services require more than the simplistic and often obtrusive functions legacy chat platforms provide.

Customer-engagement technology is a function based on the premise that vendors of high-value products and services have vastly more complex sales cycles than legacy chat platforms were designed to support. People in the market for a new car, house, life insurance, or even something like a once-in-a-lifetime dream cruise have different requirements and expectations than buyers of cell phones, sweaters, or laptops. Success in selling to the former group often depends on early and rewarding human reaction and interaction, and carefully nurturing prospects through the entire purchasing deliberation process. Customer-initiated engagement platforms use some of the same technology as legacy chat products, but approach the problem differently.

Instead of funneling customers into call center queues, where they wait their turn to interact with randomly selected agents, customer-engagement platforms allow companies to invite Web site visitors to chat with identifiable sales and product agents. Customers can select the person they want to engage with by perusing personalized agent profiles.

Profiles are portable, so they can be displayed on virtually any Web site buyers might visit, from vendor Web sites to blogs, news sites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social and business networking sites. And because agents are known and identifiable, prospective customers can re-engage the same agent anytime they want in the buying process.

Five Ways to Move Beyond Chat

1. Use technology to make it easy to find people, not just Web sites. Mobilize your sales and service teams by putting them anywhere buyers are looking—on your Web site to be sure, but also on social media sites, in emails, even through clickable links embedded in PDF sales collateral.

2. Stop tracking and interrupting visitors. Instead, put visitors in control. Let them initiate the engagement process with whom they want, in the manner they prefer, without giving up anonymity until they're ready to. Encourage on-demand interaction by making it easy for visitors to choose with whom and when they engage.

3. Build trust with specific, known vendor reps through rich online profiles. Humanize the experience and establish authenticity and transparency by presenting pictures, names, job titles, and other credibility-building assets.

4. Maintain the consistency of your brand through a uniform, branded profile design. Make your brand stand out through rich interaction capabilities and a more inviting approach to engagement.

5. Enable people to interact in any manner they choose, using any device, from anywhere on the Web.

The bottom line: Customer-engagement technology humanizes a company's brands by bringing its greatest assets—sales and product professionals—to the forefront of a transparent selling process, not hiding them behind a curtain of automation. After all, customer experience is what gives brands meaning. When that experience is impersonal and inconsistently useful—which can be a consequence of relying on live chat—a brand can suffer. When technology is instead used to cultivate one-to-one relationships among employees and customers, the brand image is enriched.

Many businesses today chant the shopworn mantra, "Our people are our greatest assets" or something to that effect. Using customer engagement technology is one way to give that saying real meaning.

Lief Larson is president and product director of Workface, Inc., a technology company that helps businesses market their products and services by promoting their employees’ expertise and helping their staff engage with prospects online and in real time.

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