October 1, 2010, 11:40 AM

Texting the Talk

Losing the ‘you knows’ but not the personal touch is the challenge in training agents in live chat.

Use of live chat by online retailers will double this year, in large part because it’s less expensive than taking consumers’ phone calls as chat agents can respond to more than one customer at a time, according to Forrester Research Inc.

But for chat to pay off, agents must learn how to communicate effectively and quickly as they type their responses into text windows. It’s not easy.

“Chat is a hard job,” says Jim Allen, CEO of ApplianceZone.com, an e-retailer of appliance replacement parts that employs 10 full-time live chat agents. “You have to screen people and let them know what they are about to get into. You can’t stress how hectic and fast-paced chat can be.”

As e-retailers like Allen get more experience with live chat, they’re learning how to select, train, monitor and motivate chat agents. They’ve come to recognize the subtle differences in providing service via text versus the telephone, and are helping agents communicate effectively without the benefit of tone of voice or the verbal emphasis that works well on the phone.

There’s a clear payoff for e-retailers who use chat well. Forrester estimates the cost of an average chat at $5, versus $6 to $12 for a customer service phone call. And 63% of consumers who have used live chat have found it satisfying, second only to phone service at 69%, but ahead of e-mail and self-service web site options, according to a June 2010 report titled “Selecting Online Customer Service Channels To Satisfy Customers and Reduce Costs,” by Forrester analyst Diane Clarkson.

E-retailers also are realizing profits from chat. ShopNBC.com has used live chat as a tool for selling higher-margin items since 2008 and an analysis by Forrester conservatively measured ShopNBC.com’s ROI at nearly 300%. It also concluded that customers who chatted spent an average of 38% more than customers who did not.

“Live chat is cost-effective but underemployed,” Clarkson says in her report. But more e-retailers are adopting it, she adds. A Forrester survey of online retail executives in the fourth quarter of 2009 found that while only 28% were offering live chat at that time, another 26% planned to add it within a year.

Typists wanted

As those retailers introduce live chat, they’ll first have to select chat agents. Build.com chose four agents from its pool of phone and e-mail customer service representatives, picking those who could communicate quickly and clearly—and type at least 45-50 words per minute, says Diane Lawrence, sales manager at the e-retailer that operates eight home improvement and furnishings e-commerce sites.

“We have so many different sites and every chat is different,” Lawrence says. “An agent will handle a plumbing question in one chat and furniture in the next. Agents have to have the confidence to move quickly, understand what is being asked and provide the right assistance.”

The ability to multitask also is key at ApplianceZone.com, which did away with telephone-based customer support in March 2008 in favor of live chat. The retailer’s 10 agents handle an average of 10,000 chats per week, an average of 1,000 apiece that is far more than the 150-200 phone calls an agent could handle each week, Allen says.

Allen puts his agents through a two-week, supervisor-led training course. Learning how to use chat software is often the easiest part of training, especially if new agents are already familiar with communicating online via instant messaging and e-mail, live chat trainers say. New hires at ApplianceZone.com spend most of the training period participating in real chats under a supervisor’s direction as a way to learn the intricacies of conducting a successful chat.

Learning to set the right tone in live chat is crucial, and chat trainers say they spend the most time on honing this skill. In a two-hour training session with new agents, 90 minutes is spent teaching agents how to phrase their questions and answers and when and how to use canned responses, says Eric Neal, director of account management at ATG Optimization Services, which trains retailers on how to use the live chat and click-to-call technology provided by e-commerce platform vendor Art Technology Group Inc.

Barry Lamm, director of the center of excellence at LivePerson Inc., a live chat technology vendor, says his training sessions follow a similar tack and teaches chat etiquette through hands-on simulations of agent-customer interactions. “The most important leap is in making agents realize that customers don’t hear their tone of voice, and that they have to establish a tone of chat and make sure they move it forward with momentum,” he says. He especially trains agents to be careful of throwaway expressions, such as “to be honest with you” or “as I said before” that can be misconstrued negatively in a text exchange.

Formality isn’t necessarily required, however. Depending on what the web site sells and who the target audience is, a more casual interaction may be preferable, says Tom Davis, president of USA 800 Inc., a call center outsourcing provider that employs about 80 chat agents. “If it’s a younger kid asking a question in text lingo, we invite our agents to abbreviate right back. That’s one way to build that relationship with that person to let them know they are talking to someone who knows what they are talking about,” Davis says.

Live chat agents also must know how to steer a chat so that the issue gets resolved or the browsing customer converts. Chats take an average of nine to 12 minutes, Lamm says, so it’s important for agents to stay engaged with consumers, even if that means responding with canned messages. For example, an agent can use a pre-programmed message such as “I’m researching that answer for you” to keep customers from losing patience, or “What else can I help you with today?” to indicate the original issue is resolved and conclude the chat.

Manage and motivate

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