7 Live Chat Practices That Delight Customers, Reduce Returns, and Grow Profits

As George Orwell might say, some brands’ live chat channels are more equal than others.

How wide is the performance gap? Our StellaService Ecommerce Index studies show progress across the board since 2014, but for many brands, there’s a lot more work to be done. In terms of speed and quality, a select few companies have set a high bar.

If chat isn’t a priority for your brand, or you don’t offer it, consider this. Just two years ago, 98% of the Index brands offered email, while 85% offered live chat. By January 2016, chat had overtaken email, 90% to 87%.

Why the shift away from email? Unlike email, chat offers real-time answers and solutions to help customers make their purchase decisions. It’s a low-effort endeavor for both customer and agent. Our mystery shoppers’ anecdotal reports suggest service via chat is a far more satisfying experience. And mobile-toting, text-loving millennials prefer chat over every other service channel.

Of course, to make your customers happy and transform your contact center from a cost center to a profit center, you have to do chat well. Really well. How? By adopting the seven practices that distinguish our Index’s best performers.

1. Offer Mobile-Optimized Chat

Customers who prefer the convenience and ease of live chat expect to be able to chat from any device. Despite this fact, only 40% of Index brands offer mobile chat, and even fewer offer mobile-optimized chat (meaning, the chat box fits/moves with the device and creates a seamless user experience). Given the risk of alienating younger, tech-savvy customers, mobile-optimized chat should be a top priority for every brand.

2. Make It Easy to Find and Readily Available

The Index brands we studied varied widely in terms of chat location on the website, designated chat hours, chat availability (which, in 11% of cases, was less than 50% of posted hours), and how long it took to connect with a live agent.

Based on what we found, here’s what we recommend:

  • Don’t make customers hunt for chat. Otherwise, they’ll resort to another channel. Help and home pages were the locations of choice for more than two-thirds of our Index brands, followed by product page (25%), checkout (4%), and shopping cart (3%). From the customer’s perspective, help and home pages make the most sense.
  • Offer live chat 24/7, and mean it. Only five companies in our Index were available to chat more than 99% of the time, although more than half of the Index brands (61%) had greater than 90% availability. Even if you can’t offer 24/7 service (as of now, only 26% of Index brands do), at least be available for your posted chat hours.
  • Respond to chats quickly. In 2014, the best-in-class time to live agent was, on average, 20 seconds. In the past two years, we’ve seen more than a third of the Index speed up to 5-15 seconds. If it takes your agents more than 60 seconds to respond (the case for 19% of our Index brands), you should work on reducing your customers’ wait.

3. Reach Out Before Your Customers Do

Exactly half of our Index brands have proactive chat capability. If customers linger on product or checkout pages, these companies can prompt them in order to move the sale along (Do you need help? Can I answer any questions? Is there a reason you’re stuck?).

Proactive chat is a great engagement tool for brands, and it’s an effective way to get customers over the finish line. But 97% of the time, when we shopped companies that were equipped for proactive chat, we had to make the first move. If you’re looking for an opportunity to distinguish your brand’s chat channel, this one’s ripe for the picking.

4. Master the Basics

As part of our brand study, we focused on missed opportunities that degraded the quality of the experience. Did agents display inadequate product or policy knowledge? Did they fail to resolve issues? Did they forget to answer an initial question, forcing the customer to repeat it (something that’s increasingly likely to occur as chats run longer)?

Stumbles like these can make for a poor customer experience. Make sure your agents have the knowledge and training they need to engage professionally, locate information quickly, properly address customers’ questions, and recommend solutions that are tailored to customers’ needs.

5. Give Customers More Than They Asked for

Our shoppers also focused on chat highlights, or brands’ efforts to go above and beyond answering the original question. The three chat practices below afford two big benefits: 1) your customers will know you care about serving them well; and 2) you’ll see returns plummet as careful listening and tailored suggestions lead to satisfying purchases.

  • Probe to uncover the “why” behind the chat. We were surprised to find that only 19% of Index brands attempted to learn why the customer reached out. By asking questions to get a sense of context (“What will this gym bag be used for?”), agents can point to more suitable products or answer relevant questions customers might not know to ask.
  • Provide a solution with options. Many customers will ask whether a specific item is in stock or on sale. Regardless of whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” agents should be ready to present additional options so customers can compare product specifications and make a more informed buying decision.
  • Educate the customer further. This was the most popular highlight among the brands we studied (occurring 58% of the time), and it usually involved product comparisons/specifications and policy questions. When agents offer helpful insights and tips to make the customer’s purchase decision easier, or make the buying process easier, it’s a huge win for brands.

6. Offer to Complete the Transaction

Offering to complete the transaction (OCT) is by far the most underutilized chat practice, despite its profitability. Although two Index brands led the pack with an OCT rate of 39%, the Index average is just 6%.

Even worse, OCT rates tend to decline over the holiday season. Seasonal workers may not feel comfortable asking to complete transactions, and some retailers instruct seasonal workers to avoid closing sales during the high-volume holiday season.

We strongly suggest you bake OCT into every front-line training program. If you make closing the sale a priority for your permanent employees, your seasonal hires should be willing and able to do the same.

7. Provide a Transcript

Fewer than two-thirds of our Index retailers provide customers with transcripts of their chat sessions. Among those brands that do offer them, fewer than half offer multiple options—some combination of printable downloads, emails, a save button, and/or a copy button.

Giving customers a record of their chat is certainly a best practice; we believe it should be standard practice. Your customers will appreciate your brand’s transparency and accountability; they’ll also appreciate having transcripts for future reference. For a best-in-class experience, allow customers to save their chats in a variety of formats.

Which Brands Are Leading the Pack?

In each of these best practice categories, we found some clear winners. For a complete rundown of our key findings—including standard industry practices, performance data, who’s best in class, and where the greatest opportunities lie—check out our recent webinar, “Chat as a Service Tool.”

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