Live chat software enables real-time instant messaging on your website between agents and customers. But this doesn’t just have to mean a popup text box: it can also include screen sharing, voice conversations, video and more. In most cases the software is browser-based, meaning that your customers don’t have to download or install anything, but it can also be implemented as part of a mobile app – with full functionality including screen sharing and on-screen pointers.
Live chat has proved popular with customers, who love its immediacy and lack of stress, as well as with companies looking to lighten the load on call centres and make customer service operations more efficient. If used intelligently, it also has considerable potential as a sales tool.
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If your web-based chat tool is properly integrated with your CRM, it can be a fantastic source of customer information. Adding live chat transcripts to your record of a customer's interactions gives you a whole new view of what they're searching for, how they use your products and where in your website journey they need help.
The simple fact that chat is text-based means you can apply all kinds of analysis tools to the raw transcripts – keyword matching, automatic translation, length of chat and more. And if your chat software supports surveys, you can take the opportunity to directly ask customers for feedback at the end of each session.
Customers like live chat. A 2013 report from eDigital Research found that live chat had the highest overall customer satisfaction rate of any customer service channel.
The research found that people felt more comfortable with live chat than with telephone support, appreciating the real-time instant response but without the perceived “hassle” of a telephone call.
Customer service and product support may seem like the natural homes for live chat, but it's also proven its worth as a sales tool.
In their report Making Proactive Chat Work, Forrester Research found that "44% of online consumers say that having questions answered by a live person while in the middle of an online purchase is one of the most important features a Web site can offer".
As well as being a useful support tool that aids completions for people in mid-purchase, customers’ positive attitude to live chat can also make them more responsive to cross-sells and up-sells during a session.
For technical support in particular, you'll often be walking customers through a step by step process. With online chat your agents can show example screens, link to pictures of parts or products for accurate identification, or even share screens and take control of the customer's computer.
Customers can also copy and paste important reference information like serial numbers or error codes from other applications into the chat session, reducing transmission errors.
To get the most from live chat it can't be a standalone function. It will always work alongside a range of other customer service channels, including self-service customer portals, online knowledge bases, traditional call centres, social media and more.
That means your live chat offering should be integrated with your help desk software, which in turn should be a seamless part of your CRM solution.
When agents can see a complete customer profile right in their help desk console, they have valuable context that helps them to answer questions better and respond to the individual customer’s needs.
When the session ends, that customer profile can be updated with a complete, accurate record of the live chat, including questions, responses, actions and more. So you get a richer picture of your customer, which can inform your approach across their whole journey from marketing to after-sales care.
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If you decide that live chat is the right solution, there's still the challenge of implementing it properly. There are two important things to focus on: finding and training the right agents, and knowing when live chat will be most useful to customers.
Customers’ expectations of live chat are high, so keep staffing at a level where you can deliver a good service. If you don’t plan to offer a 24-hour service, make the hours of availability very clear – perhaps on the chat window itself. You might also consider only offering the live chat option at times when there are enough agents available, avoiding the long waits that customers find frustrating.
eDigital Research’s Customer Service Benchmark 2013 found that 64% of consumers expected to wait 1 minute or less for an agent in live chat. They recommend making agent availability very clear to the user both before and during the chat session, with messages telling them how long they are likely to wait and also showing when the agent is typing a response.
In terms of efficiency, the number of live chat sessions you can handle in an hour is comparable to the number handled by a call centre; although a single agent can handle several chat sessions at once, web-based chat sessions tend to last longer than a comparable phone call.
It’s also important to have the right agents. Use experienced customer service staff, but also give them special training on live chat. They will need a different set of skills to agents working on the phone; accurate keyboard skills and a clear writing style may be more important than a friendly voice.
Remember that in some ways the customer’s experience of live chat is more like phoning a call centre than it is like making an email enquiry. They will expect agents to be able to respond to open questions, to help them diagnose their problem or issue, and to have answers to hand without delay. Being asked to hold is no more fun in a live chat than it is on a telephone call.
Where possible, you should also give agents the authority they need in order to resolve a customer's query themselves – for example, updating billing information, rearranging a delivery or upgrading customer's service level following a successful upsell. Given customers' preference for live chat, the more you can do in this channel the better.
Proactive live chat – where you prompt the customer asking whether they need help – is a great opportunity to leverage your website and customer journey analytics, helping you to choose just the right moment for a prompt to chat. Appropriate points for live chat in a customer journey might include:
- when a customer carries out a certain number of searches in the same session (suggesting they haven’t found what they need);
- repeat visits to the same product page in different sessions – this is particularly helpful for big ticket items where the decision process might take weeks or months;
- common drop-out points or known blocks in the purchase journey – a complex form, for instance, or a security validation process.
As with other context-sensitive communications, using this information to trigger chat sessions is a really smart way to tackle known customer pain points. Focusing your effort here can really pay dividends in terms of customer satisfaction and conversions.
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