September 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

Getting Personal

Livening up online customer service: How live chat increases satisfaction and reduces costs

One thing the Internet didn’t do away with is the demand for customer service. Even though some early e-retailing visionaries saw a brave, new world where customers didn’t need to talk to retailers, that hasn’t happened. And so the challenge to online retailers has been how to fill customer service needs at an acceptable cost. Offering live telephone support is an expensive step backward from the lower operating costs that were part of the web’s promise. And in most cases, pure self-service doesn’t work.

Now a small but growing number of retailers are turning to live chat for customer service. “Live chat is right for the times because consumers still want that assurance of live communication,” says Jim Okamura, retail analyst with consultants J.C. Williams Group. “But it’s only starting to become really effective, so it has a lot of upside potential.”

Taking care of business

Forrester Research Inc. projects steady growth in consumer use of live chat in customer service. In 2003, 30% of online buyers turned to live chat for customer service, up from 19% in 2001, Forrester reports. Acceptance of live chat will grow “as online chatting teens grow up,” Forrester says, to 59% of online buyers in 2007.

“Live chat takes care of business,” says Scott Shulman, director of e-commerce at athletic shoe retailer K-Swiss Inc.’s K-Swiss.com. Although K-Swiss also offers self-service customer service options as well as easy access to telephone customer service agents, it offers live chat as a way of filling the gap between the two. With lower operating costs compared to using telephone call center agents, live chat enables K-Swiss to provide personalized service around the clock. “It makes our site more personal because customers can have their questions answered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he says.

The measures of the overall market use of live chat customer service may be small, but some retailers who have begun making live chat a prominent part of their customer service strategy say it has grown in popularity with customers. Although K-Swiss.com makes its 800 number easily available through a customer service link that appears on every page, the more prominently placed live chat button on each page is increasing as customers’ first choice for customer service. “Why not? All they have to do is click and get an instant answer,” Shulman says.

Double duty

Simply making the live chat option more noticeable than an 800 number will cause more consumers to naturally move toward live chat, experts say. “If you make the 800 number too available, the tendency of today’s consumers is to use it, but having a live chat button on every page instead will encourage customers to use that,” says Jim Tisdel, president and CEO of InterSight Technologies Inc., which provides K-Swiss’s live chat system as a hosted application. InterSight operates K-Swiss’s live chat from its own call center in Canada, where it uses customer service agents trained in the K-Swiss product line.

Most retailers put live chat to work first as a selling tool, deploying it at crucial times, for example, when a shopper takes an excessive amount of time in checkout and appears to need help making a decision before abandoning a shopping cart. Now more are giving live chat double duty: as both a selling and customer service tool.

That’s what Joel Skretvedt, director of Internet marketing and operations at Techno Brands Inc.’s Techno-Scout.com, hopes to accomplish at his high-tech-oriented consumer site. “We started on the sales side with live chat, but now we want to see if it’s good for a combination of customer service,
upsells and cross-sells,” he says.

Serving and selling

TechnoScout customers in a live chat customer service session are greeted by customer service reps trained to respond with coordinated responses intended to both help and sell. “We’ll offer to send them a manual for their product, but also offer them complementary products,” Skretvedt says.

There’s a further way that live chat can be both a customer service and a sales tool, experts say. By using the live chat tool as part of InterSight’s customer analytics system, K-Swiss builds customer profiles based on shopping behavior, clickstream history and conversations recorded in past customer service live chat sessions and telephone calls, Tisdel says. “Then when the customer comes back, the system’s business rules proactively engage her with an appropriate offer in a live chat session,” he says. The offer might be a coupon for a product in which the customer has previously expressed an interest, or an offer for free shipping to satisfy a concern expressed about delivery costs, he adds.

In addition, K-Swiss has used live chat as part of the customer analytics system to turn customer service communications into a merchandising research tool. “For example, K-Swiss learned that many of its customers had a high demand for children’s apparel, which they now offer on their site,” Tisdel says.

Despite live chat’s multiple abilities to help serve customers, it’s still misused or underutilized by many retailers. “Some web sites have a live chat service that says ‘We’ll be right with you,’ but that makes customers wait too long,” says Elizabeth Harrel, analyst with Forrester Research. “That can be worse than not having live chat at all.”

Estimates vary widely as to the costs related to live chat and other forms of customer service, though several vendors estimate the cost of an average live chat session at about $1, compared to estimates of average telephone customer service calls ranging from $6 to $20. Costs vary widely partly because of the diversity in customer service needs related to different types of products, experts say.

Moreover, Harrel figures that live chat costs nearly as much as, or about 90% of, telephone customer service calls. While live chat will provide savings in the cost of telephone lines, they tend to require higher salaries, she says.

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