February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Talk Isn't Cheap

Online retailers get more out of live chat when they put more information in agents' hands.

Lead Photo

In one 40-hour work week last year, a single customer service rep at ApplianceZone.com, a fast-growing retailer of parts and accessories for household appliances, racked up 1,693 live chat sessions with online customers—the high for the week. It appeared to be a stellar performance, even at a retailer whose customer service reps routinely handle as many as 10 to 15 live chat sessions simultaneously.

But there was more to those performance numbers. ApplianceZone, which has grown more than 10-fold since 2007 to surpass $12 million in sales by 2010, invites customers after each live chat session to take an exit survey to rate the quality of their chat experience. The live chat rep, whom ApplianceZone did not name for publication, brought in nearly 300 completed exit surveys. The feedback wasn't all good.

"This rep had the high chat volume, but her overall quality score was low," says Jessica Staser, vice president.

The problem? The rep came across too often like a robot, as she sped through sessions providing many canned answers.

"Customers said they felt like they were talking to a computer," Staser says. "A lot of customers said the person on the other side of the chat session was robotic."

The anecdote illustrates why retailers, while benefitting from the power of live chat to offer personal service to many customers, must also provide their reps with the right mix of skills and information to do their jobs well. It comes down to a blend of information and ongoing improvement of agent skills, enabling chat agents to provide customers with the assistance they need in a friendly, personable way.

Power to the agents

Like other retailers using live chat, ApplianceZone provides its live chat agents, as well as agents engaging customers via phone or e-mail, with extensive information that flashes onto their computer screens. The information, stored in back-end databases, covers order and shipping status, available inventory, product details, current promotions, and, for repeat customers, their past shopping behavior and content recorded in prior chat sessions. Agents may also have access to a shopper's clickstream activity on the retailer's site and product recommendations based on each customer's expressed interests and shopping history.

To help live chat agents handle large volumes of customer sessions, retailers often provide a repository of canned answers for addressing some of the most common questions—such as what's the retailer's return policy or how to track the status of an order. Contact centers often refer to such a storehouse of information and scripted answers as a "knowledgebase." C3, a contact center services provider whose clients include the car rental company Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Inc., uses database technology from Israel-based nanoRep and live chat system provider LivePerson Inc. to let agents access from their computer screens information stored in a knowledgebase.

While an agent is either on the phone or in a chat session with a client, she can search the database for similar questions and answers compiled from past chat sessions. "Our agents can now reach into the database without putting someone on hold," says Ken Condren, C3's vice president of technology. "In the old days, they would have to put the customer on hold while they asked their supervisor for help." The nanoRep database is designed to improve with age, as new content from the LivePerson chat system is automatically added to it. C3 can cost about $100 per month per agent for a team of 25 to 30 chat agents. NanoRep's monthly fees for its knowledgebase range from $199 for 1,500 customer service answers per month to $990 for up to 30,000 answers per month.

ApplianceZone has built up a knowledgebase with Bold Software, its live chat system provider, which also provides software that updates the knowledgebase with comments recorded in chat sessions. (Bold Software was acquired last month by LogMeIn Inc., a provider of Internet-based customer support for personal computers, smartphones and other devices.) Bold's live chat software starts out as low as $9 per agent per month, the company says.

Not wrong, but ...

The knowledgebase is part of the ApplianceZone's overall administrative database, which it built in-house to provide access to information from multiple sources, including the order management system, inventory records, product descriptions and shipping systems. The database also connects with some 30 drop shippers that ApplianceZone uses to fulfill orders.

In the case of the errant live chat agent, however, ApplianceZone discovered during a review that she had over-relied on canned answers, Staser says. The answers weren't inaccurate, but the agent should have sensed in a number of cases that the customer needed more personal and helpful service—to ensure the customer could find the right parts for her particular model of dishwasher, for instance, or to track a shipment that the retailer had to place on back-order with a manufacturer.

Such reviews of live chat agents' performance can also show that they need to get better at gathering the information a customer needs. The review process, Staser says, is an important part of an agent's ongoing skills development. "We print the chats out and go over each one with the agent," she says. "It could be that the agent did not know a certain research process, or that she felt a canned response would work just as well."

In other cases, retailers have learned the hard way that agents without connections to the right company information can leave them without the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. That's what retail chain Petco Animal Supplies Inc. discovered when it launched a new live chat system for its Petco.com e-commerce site last year.

Going holistic

Petco, like other retailers with live chat, trains its customer service team to handle sales as well as service inquiries from customers. Petco for years has relied on Sutherland Global Services to provide customer service and sales agents. Those agents are trained in Petco's products and policies and have direct network access into the retailer's back-end databases for order status, product details, and in-store as well as online inventory availability.

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