Why it’s never been better to talk
Live chat, the ability to have a real-time dialogue with visitors to your website, is no longer a creaky gimmick. In the right circumstances, and executed properly, it can revolutionise online help and sales conversion rates.
A few years ago I was sniffing round the website of the Printemps department store in Pari. Clicking a link I found myself having a live web chat with a chap who, it turned out, was on roller skates, had a web camera in his hat and a laptop computer slung in front of him. I asked him in bad French to find me some Meccano, and after a few minutes a fuzzy picture of a box on a shelf appeared on my screen. That was my introduction to live chat – not surprisingly, I thought it was a bit of a gimmick.
I’ve changed my mind. I now think it could be the next big thing on the web, because it can do what e-mail, phone and FAQs so rarely manage: give decent service. That ‘can’ is an important proviso: successful chat is more about organisation than technology.
In case you don’t know, live chat is a system that lets you ‘talk’, by typing, with someone sitting in a call centre. Vendors say we are increasingly used to doing this, because so many of us are using instant messaging. Anyway from the user’s point of view, chat is better than e-mail because – as long as it is working – someone has to answer you almost immediately (as opposed to next Tuesday if you’re lucky). And it doesn’t waste as much time as a phone call, especially one that consists mainly of a Vivaldi concert. I have used live chat a fair bit to get technical help: the way the agent can ‘push’ a relevant page on to my screen is really quite neat. But the real excitement among companies is as a sales tool, where it is said to have a Viagra-like effect on conversion rates.
When other systems come up short
To see why chat should work, we have to look at why other systems don’t. Potential customers come to your site but have a problem doing what they want (buying, applying etc). Maybe it’s a technical problem to do with the site, maybe it’s to do with a product. What to do next? Well, most sites will push them to an FAQ section. This may be a good way of deflecting enquiries, but may also be a good way of deflecting sales. Some sites, including Amazon, try their hardest to stop visitors going any further, while others offer e-mail or a phone number for the still-stymied. Phone can work well for the customer, but only if the company has a red hot call centre.
This is where I switch sides, and look at the company’s viewpoint. Telephone centres are expensive, not least because agents can usually take only one call at a time. Move them to India, and a raft of new issues (accents, stroppy unions etc) raise themselves. Use a chat system and according to Iain Case of LivePerson, a big vendor, a trained agent can handle four to six conversations at a time (also, of course, no one can hear their accent). Best of all, conversion rates – the proportion of visitors who buy – should go through the roof. Flightcatchers.com, a joint venture between travel group Polani and software vendor Vytec, saw its rate go from 6-7 per cent to 45 per cent, according to Vic Cheema, Vytec CEO.
Choosing who gets to chat
So, should you simply put a chat button on your site? Risky, Mr Case says: “99 per cent of people ignore it, and of the rest, 75 per cent are people you don’t want to talk to.” The refinement, pushed by both Vytec and LivePerson, is to introduce chat only to visitors you think are worth approaching. As soon as visitors arrive at Flightcatchers.com, they are monitored in the call centre and given a “traffic light”, according to their value. Red means they have specifically requested help, while amber is the subtle one: the system has spotted that the visitor is trying to book but failing, or that they are spending ages in one particular area. At this point the agent can trigger a pop-up box that might say ‘I see you are having trouble – can we help?’, and the chat starts. LivePerson is similar, though it can also introduce a chat button more subtly, overlaying it unobtrusively on a page.
Three keys to successful implementation
In theory, it seems to me, live chat is marvellous for everyone: it gives better service to customers and lower costs to the company. But it raises its own issues:
- You have to train agents to think text as well as phone, and maybe separate them completely (LivePerson’s Mr Case recommends this).
- You have to get your rules right, otherwise you will either be swamped or fail to do much for conversion.
- Most subtly, you should be contemplating privacy issues. “We have people demanding to know how we got into their PCs,” Mr Cheema says. “We explain we are not in their PCs, they are in our website.” Which may be correct, but is unlikely to provide much comfort to the techno-baffled customer. Be open now, explaining how the chat system works, and you may well avoid accusations of Big Brotherliness later.
First published on 10 March, 2004