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Avoiding live chat pitfalls 

Offering live chat services on your site for pre-sales inquiries and customer support is a great idea that has certainly increased sales and retention for many online businesses, but beware of the pitfalls.

I've had a few conversations lately via live chat on various vendor sites where the experience hasn't been all that positive; and the follow is a summary of the most common issues that can negatively impact on the customer experience.

Live chat response times

The biggest problem I found, aside from initial "on hold" time was the duration between responses. The last conversation I had dragged on for 15 minutes and it really should have been a 5 minute conversation maximum. I don't believe this had anything to do with the competency of the operator, bandwidth issues or server response time, but more a case of the live chat operator handling multiple chats at once. 

Multi-tasking is a great skill to possess, but if I'm having a conversation with a salesperson, I expect them to focus on me. It avoids miscommunications and well, it's just good manners - it makes me feel valued and I'm sure many other online shoppers feel the same way. When you're at a supermarket checkout and the checkout operator is chatting away to friends; how do you feel?

Situations like these are often not the operator's fault; upper management sets quotas and targets that can be sometimes unreasonable and that puts a great deal of pressure on customer service officers. 

Put people before profit and it will pay off - attempting to put profit before people is one of the reasons why there's such high turnover in call centers and tech support teams. In these situations, not only are the employees copping it from the clients; management is nagging them at the other end to be more productive. It's not what you'd call great working conditions. The cost of staff turnover can be so high that it's more economical to improve conditions in order to keep your trained staff.

At the risk of sounding sexist, if you do expect your live chat staff to handle multiple chats at once, the job is probably much better handled by a female. I don't think there's much doubt that women are generally the superior multi-taskers whereas men tend to be more single goal focused.

Your live chat software should also have a feature whereby if a chat window is minimized, whether it's at the client or live chat operator end, the associated task bar button should flash if response has been submitted by the other party; or if there's been an extended period of inactivity. This helps to flag the customer/operator of a current conversation that might otherwise go unnoticed; especially in instances where the operator is attending to multiple conversations.

Live Chat Software

- Boosts sales, a great marketing tool -
- Helps to reassure your visitors -
- Makes ecommerce more "human" -
- Track visitors on your site in real time -

Learn more about the benefits of using live chat software in your online business, read a review and try out a free service!

The use of canned text

Another issue that needs addressing in many live chat implementations is canned text. Canned text is basically pre-programmed responses meant to save typing time; but often these snippets are used incorrectly and it's quite easy for the client to tell that the operator is just regurgitating information. I know of some companies who don't allow their live chat operators to use any "original" responses - it's all copy and paste canned text.

In a few conversations I've had, I've suspected that I'm not communicating with a human at all, but a souped-up AI (Artificial Intelligence) program. Canned text is useful, but it should be checked carefully before hitting the send button and customized where relevant - superfluous information in a canned response only serves to confuse and frustrate. 

Non-English speaking operators

This is an increasing problem in all forms of support these days - the utilization of staff who have English as a second language. These people are often outsourced overseas due to the major difference in labor rates. Bear in mind that cheap does not equate to good and if the person you hire isn't familiar with the many odd nuances of the English language and dealing with semi-illiterate inquirers, it can wind up costing you more money in lost sales and clients. 

The reason I make mention of semi-illiteracy is that when people are learning English, they are learning the correct spelling of words and grammatical rules. I've seen some live chat operators totally stumped when an inquirer spells a word incorrectly or if their use of proper grammar is somewhat lacking.

Having said all that, I would like to clarify that not *all* ESL (English Second Language) live chat and customer service operators aren't up to the task. In fact, I'm communicating with a couple of foreign CSO's now that have a better grasp of the English language than I do; it's rather humbling :). 

If you do intend on outsourcing live chat operators overseas, be sure that you test these people thoroughly first in a live chat environment, including asking curve-ball questions that are very poorly structured, grammatically incorrect and with words spelled incorrectly. If they are able to make sense of such questions, you're onto a very good thing :).

Browser compatibility/buggy software

An especially annoying issue I've struck a few times are live chat implementations that crash browsers or suck up such a great deal of my system resources that it slows my computer down to a crawl. The other pet peeve is broken image links and other improperly configured aspects of implementations. Your live chat installation is one of your front lines for sales, so be sure everything is working as it should and test regularly.

Lack of transcript

I finished a live chat session with a company a few weeks back and at the end of it, I wasn't offered an email transcript and the message thread in the chat window couldn't even be copied. I have no idea why this was the case, but I'm guessing the company has concerns with accountability and liability. If a customer has had an in-depth conversation with your live chat operators, chances are they'll want and *need* a chat transcript for future reference - this should be a standard feature.

Live chat is a powerful marketing and support tool; it's a great compromise between email and telephone. The early days of live chat software were met with suspicion, but for some online shoppers, it's now the communication medium of choice when making pre-sales inquiries. Simply offering live chat services on your site is only the first step in using this tool to boost sales - the success of the service is all in the execution. 

Related articles:

Learn more about live chat software

Learn more about IM and live chat etiquette

Dealing with aggressive clients in the online world

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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