August 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Chat's next wave

New technology and old-fashioned retail smarts help web merchants maximize live chat returns.

Lead Photo

The more you know about your customers the better equipped you are to help them, says Peter Ye, solutions architect at Australian online-only retailer Cell Bikes. That's why, when Cell Bikes decided to launch live chat on its site earlier this year, it settled on technology from Velaro Inc. that readily exchanges information with the retailer's SuiteCommerce e-commerce platform from NetSuite Inc.

The combination enables agents to track whether a customer logging in to chat is a returning customer, and to see how he landed on the retailer's site. If he has bought from the retailer before, the agent can see what products he's ordered. And when the chat is over, the chat agent can save the details of the conversation to NetSuite directly from the Velaro chat window, so that the customer's questions or complaints are stored with his account information.

That makes for a better customer experience, Ye says. For instance, if a live chat agent knows a repeat customer landed on Cellbikes.com.au after searching on Google for "wheel set," the agent is prepared to answer relevant questions about bike tires, such as which sets are compatible with the rims the customer bought a year earlier. And, if the shopper previously had a question about maintaining his bike, the agent can see how the issue was resolved.

Retailers are working to improve these chat interactions because consumers are increasingly using live chat to get answers. 67% of U.S. and U.K. shoppers have used live chat in the past year, a 15.6% jump from a year ago, according to a recent survey by retail consultancy The E-tailing Group Inc. As more online shoppers use chat, retailers are increasingly looking for features that help agents quickly resolve customer service-related issues, and close sales.

"Having customer details on hand makes our live chat capabilities more effective," Ye says. He can see the impact in the number of unresolved cases, that is, when a consumer ends an interaction without stating that he is satisfied. The retailer has cut that number in half since deploying Velaro live chat in April.

Easier is better

The reason more consumers are using live chat is simple—shoppers find it convenient, says Lauren Freedman, The E-tailing Group's president. "It's efficient, it saves them time," she says. "They don't want to sit on the phone or wait for an e-mail that could end up in a black hole. With live chat they get answers immediately."

Retailers are anxious to make the process run even more smoothly, knowing that will cut costs and please customers. Young Living Essential Oils, a retailer that launched live chat several years ago, recently moved to streamline the process after finding that about half of its chats consisted of shoppers asking a relatively small number of questions, such as "When does my auto-shipment ship?" or "What's the cost of shipping?"

The retailer earlier this year began using adaptive messaging from LogMeIn Inc.'s BoldChat. The technology scans the consumer's message as she types to find the most appropriate canned messages from a library of responses. After clicking on an answer, the agent can edit the message to fit the flow of the conversation so that it doesn't come across as unnatural or stilted, says Darren Gilbert, a Young Living senior manager.

The technology has cut about four seconds off agents' response times, while also freeing up agents to handle more chats, Gilbert says. "The reason our customers are using live chat is to get their answer as quickly as possible," he says. "Adaptive messaging is helping our agents get those customers their responses more efficiently."

Moreover, now that the retailer's nine agents can answer routine questions quickly, they have more time to devote to more challenging questions, he says.

Chat on the go

Answering a service-related question often isn't simple for U.K.-based mobile phone retailer and broadband provider O2 thanks to its complex product mix. For instance, the retailer occasionally deals with situations that require a consumer chatting on his laptop to switch off the Internet, which would typically cause the chat to close. But the retailer works around that issue by using live chat vendor LivePerson Inc.'s Connect tool that enables the chat operator to send the consumer's mobile phone or tablet computer a text message or e-mail that contains a link; when the consumer clicks on the link it opens a chat window with the same agent that lets the consumer continue the conversation, now connecting to the Internet via the O2 wireless network.

Connect also enables an agent to move a text-based chat to a one-way video chat if the agent wants to demonstrate a particular product, for instance, or to a phone call if that suits the conversation. "It keeps the process seamless," says Ahad Miah, the company's digital service account manager. "We're giving agents the ability to use the best tools we have to satisfy customers' needs." Since adding the functionality earlier this year the retailer's internal customer satisfaction metrics have ticked up 10%.

O2 has found that consumers who use chat have higher satisfaction scores than those who seek answers via phone or e-mail. That's why O2 aims to make it easier for consumers to choose live chat. "We want live chat to be everywhere," he says.

The majority of its chats are proactive chats, which is when a retailer invites a consumer to chat. The approach aims to head off potential issues and keep consumers from giving up on a transaction. "We're monitoring what consumers are doing online and can see when they're sending out a distress signal or have clear purchase intent," says Sherif Zikri, the LivePerson account executive who oversees O2's account. "That's when we want to give them the option to chat rather than wait for them to chat."

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