February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Talk Isn't Cheap

(Page 2 of 3)

When Petco launched a new live chat system last fall from LivePerson, it decided to use LivePerson's live chat sales agents. But though the agents were skilled, they didn't have the access to information they needed to really help customers and close sales, says Katie Grisko, Petco's senior business systems analyst, who oversees the retailer's live chat operations. "They understood sales, but didn't have the tools and information they needed," she says.

Instead of building new network connections to LivePerson's agents, Petco switched its live chat sales operation to the already connected Sutherland. Petco now has 25 Sutherland live chat agents who can handle both sales and service. In addition to providing all live chat agents with access to Petco's customer history and inventory databases, "we've trained them to be more diverse, not really sales-focused," Grisko says.

Rather than emphasizing product sales, she adds, Petco's live chat agents are now better equipped to comprehensively address a customer's interests. "We found that it was a lot about knowing the customer, the pet type, and what works for the customer as a solution, instead of just focusing on a product," she adds.

The new arrangement works well, Grisko says. Although it's still a challenge to constantly familiarize agents with new products, the information agents can access from their computer screens has helped to both boost online conversion rates as well as provide some unexpected benefits for Petco's loyalty programs and its 1,000 bricks-and-mortar stores.

"We went into this live chat expecting to increase online conversion rates, and the incremental conversions and incremental revenue are both solid numbers," Grisko says, without providing details. "But we also found a lot of usage in support of stores and loyalty programs."

With their access to inventory availability, for example, Petco's live chat agents can assist customers who would prefer to see something in a nearby Petco store before purchasing it. And with the LivePerson software set to notice when an online shopper is having difficulty entering a correct log-in name or password to sign in as a loyalty club member, a live chat window will pop up and ask if the customer needs assistance in getting her log-in information. For security purposes, the live chat agent will send such information, if requested, to the e-mail address the customer has on file.

Even with access to tons of information in back-end databases, however, in some cases live chat agents provide the best service by passing a customer to a more suitable agent. At ApplianceZone, chat agents can see on their computer screens other agents that may be available to take over a session, though the typical route is to forward a customer to a supervisor. Shift supervisors can view other agents' chat sessions through the Bold Software interface, and may join or take over a session that appears to need extra help.

Bike experts for bike buyers

Backcountry.com, which sells skiing equipment and operates several sites for other types of outdoor sports gear—such as DogFunk.com for snowboards, HucknRoll.com for mountain bikes, and RealCyclist.com for road bikes—set up its LivePerson live chat system to route chat requests from each web site to agents specialized in that site's product line. "When chats come in from each sport site, the bike chats go to our bike experts," says Mike Sherwood, director of customer experience at Backcountry.com, a unit of Liberty Interactive Corp.

The routing system forwards chats as well as customer service phone calls based on the web page a customer is on, so that someone on a page showing mountain bikes is automatically routed to a bike expert, if one is available. The challenge for Backcountry is having enough available experts in any given area, though with 270 agents (half handle chat, half phones), the system has worked pretty well, Sherwood says.

One way it addresses any voids in the availability of experts is to rank all of its agents based on their level of expertise across multiple sports, with the highest rating a 10—for a multi-sport expert, for example, who rides mountain bikes, climbs and camps in the summer and skis in the winter. If a customer requests a chat session from a mountain bike page and no bike expert is available, the routing system will search for an agent with the highest score. "Our routing system will look for who's available who's a 10, and if no 10 is available, it will look for an expert who's a 9 or an 8," Sherwood says.

Top dog

Retailers also can learn from reviewing chat sessions how agents can better help customers. Using its LivePerson live chat system to run reports on chat sessions, and seeing which resulted in sales conversions and which appeared to leave a customer unsatisfied, Petco has been able to develop better ways to assist customers on particular products lines, such as fish aquariums and dog collars and leashes. "We realized that many agents didn't really know what a customer needed," Grisko says.

By reviewing chat session content regarding dog collars and leashes, for instance, Petco developed a flow chart that agents can use to match a customer's pet needs with the right products. Agents now use the chart to determine, for example, how big a dog is, whether the dog pulls on a leash when it's being walked, and whether a customer prefers a long leather leash or a retractable fabric leash. "This has helped conversion rates, but it has also helped to keep customers happier and probably results in a happier dog, too," Grisko says.

LivePerson's live chat software starts at about a few hundred dollars or less per month for small retailers, and runs up to several thousand per month for mid-size companies, according to Barry Lamm, director of excellence for LivePerson.

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