September 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

Getting Personal

(Page 2 of 3)

Others put the cost of live chat far below telephone reps, mainly because live chat agents are trained to handle multiple chat sessions simultaneously. “A live chat rep can usually do a minimum of three sessions at a time, but I’ve seen them do eight,” says Tisdel of InterSight. “But even if they do only two at a time, that cuts the cost in half.” He figures an average live chat session costs $3-$5, compared to $10 or more for an average customer service telephone call.

More sophistication

Retailers are getting more sophisticated in their use of live chat reps, dividing them into two separate groups specializing in either sales or customer service, says Robert LoCascio, CEO of Live Person Inc., a provider of live chat technology. He notes that 25 of Live Person’s major customers, including Hewlett-Packard Co., AT&T; and, have rearranged their live chat staffs into two groups and that they’re experiencing positive feedback from customer service

“This a huge shift,” he says. “At one time, it was click to chat. But live chat reps have different personalities and different skill sets, just like reps in a call center. With more skilled customer service reps, they get more effective live chat customer service sessions. They handle issues more effectively than reps more skilled in sales techniques.”

He adds that while the separation of reps has shown improvements in customers’ rankings of their customer service experience, it’s also helping companies increase sales conversion rates by delegating sales sessions to reps with the strongest selling skills.

In spite of some retailers’ enthusiasm for the technology, live chat is only part of the continuum of customer service, and retailers must design their customer service programs to provide for escalation from one level to the next, says Greg Gianfronte, CEO of RightNow Technologies Inc. A customer who can’t get an answer via a self-service function should find it easy to move up to live chat. And the same if live chat doesn’t work. At K-Swiss, for example, a live chat option appears on every self-help customer service page. And if a live chat session can’t answer a customer’s question, the live chat rep at InterSight will suggest that the customer call a K-Swiss customer service agent, Tisdel says.

Next: virtual live chat

While live chat is still gaining in recognition among retailers as an important tool that offers quickly available personalized service at less cost than telephone calls, there’s already another version of live chat in the works-virtual live chat.

Designed with natural language recognition technology, live chat’s virtual cousin will be designed to provide automated text messages based on keywords in customers’ written questions, Tisdel says. He adds that the virtual system can be programmed to forward questions it can’t answer to a regular live chat session or a telephone sales agent, he says.

Tisdel says InterSight expects to make its first virtual live chat tool available in the first quarter of next year.


When you can’t afford live chat

Vendors and researchers are touting the benefits of live chat customer service. But some retailers prefer to concentrate more on improving their online self-service customer service as a way to satisfy customers while limiting operating costs. “We’ve given live chat some serious thought, but it’s not economically feasible for us right now,” says M. Karl Leeds, president and CEO of Educators Furniture Inc., which operates the retail web site

While keeping an eye on the benefits of live chat, Leeds and other retailers are finding other ways to jazz up their customer service outside of, or in conjunction with, costly telephone call centers. Leeds worked with design firm 10E20 Web Design to deploy a system of online forms customers fill out to request product literature-a constant customer demand when it comes to products like wall storage units and computer workstations.

In the past, customers would try to explain to a telephone rep how they planned to use and expand their purchased products, often stretching calls too long, Leeds says. Now, with the online forms, customers can avoid telephone agent assistance altogether. But if they still need to speak to an agent, the form provides the agent with an organized summary of the customer’s request, saving time. “Our phone calls have gone down substantially and we’ve reduced customer service operating costs,” Leeds says. And more satisfied customers have led to more repeat business, he adds.

Retailers that use online customer self-service effectively should be able to hit a high rate of inquiries handled through self-service, saving on the costs of customer service departments and giving reps more time to answer fewer inquiries. Greg Gianfronte, CEO of RightNow Technologies Inc., says he knows of retailers who get self-service customer service rates as high as 97.5% by using tools and strategies that predict the information customers need. “So only 2.5% of customers have to get to a human to get an answer,” he says.

For example, he says, product research shows that when a customer inquires about a purchased power drill, it’s often because he’s broken the drill and needs a manual. So when he searches on a web site for a replacement manual, a well-designed customer service-oriented result will provide a prepared statement about where to find a repair center as well as how to acquire a manual, Gianfronte says.



Site analytics-another way to trim customer service calls and e-mails

Before implementing a customer service analytics system from web site developer WebSideStory a year ago, retail supply firm had difficulty keeping up with its e-mail and telephone customer service operation. When customers came to a page or link that didn’t function properly, they’d call a telephone rep or send an e-mail. “We were getting 10,000 e-mails a day,” ABC e-marketing analyst Dan Gudema says. “I can’t even say how we handled them.”

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