When Online Chat Is an Effective Support Channel

Posted Thursday, May 15, 2014 in Customer Experience by Ronni Marshak

In this week’s article, I write about best practices in telephone support. As Patty Seybold and I discussed the article, she pointed out that, on occasion, she simultaneously called the customer support phone number and launched an online chat session. And, often, the agent chatting with her solved her problem before she was able to get through to a live telephone support rep. (Just a note, I really dislike saying “live” representative since it implies the alternative is a “dead” person rather than an automated system, but I use it here for clarity.)

I thought about this for a while, and realized that chat is, indeed, an effective and efficient alternative to dialing the telephone in certain situations. But it seems to me that talking to a person and texting with one can be very different experiences and sometimes aren’t really interchangeable.

Online chat is very useful when:

  • The issue you’re dealing with is easy to explain in writing. It is often hard for me to articulate all the details of the problem I’m experiencing, and I’m a professional writer! Crafting the words to best describe your issue can be daunting unless it is something pretty straightforward, such as “I can’t find tracking information on my shipment,” or “The item I want is not in stock; when will it become available,” or “I can’t remember how to access my account information.”
  • Moments of Truth in Customer Support ScenariosThe customer isn’t emotionally involved in the solution. Straightforward issues, like those mentioned above, don’t generally cause a customer to be highly agitated or frustrated—if not downright angry. The customer is looking for a factual bit of information or instruction, not for sympathy or to vent dissatisfaction.
  • The solution isn’t particularly unusual. The most effective support chats occur when the problem is common and the solution is familiar or well documented (at least for the online agent). Chat agents often handle multiple sessions at the same time, and extensive research impedes a swift resolution and takes too much of the agent’s attention, leaving other customers waiting for responses (without even the annoying hold music, although I suppose they could always hum to themselves).

Telephone support is the preferred path when:

  • The customer isn’t skilled at writing. Trying to explain a problem is difficult for many people to explain in writing, especially if English (or the local language) isn’t their native tongue.
  • The customer doesn’t really know what’s wrong, just that something is, and needs help figuring out the details of the problem. It’s always nice to bounce ideas off another person to get to the meat of the issue.
  • Emotions are running high. When the customer is upset, part of the solution is having someone to talk them down and to empathize. A live support person can not only solve the problem, but can more effectively help repair the customer relationship.
  • The problem is complex. Often, the resolution isn’t standard procedure and requires a creative solution. This is best handled with a more natural back-and-forth phone conversation between customer and CSR.

Online chat agents should be able to escalate to live phone support (bypassing IVRs and the need for the customer to make the call). When chat agents can’t handle the situation because they don’t understand the problem, don’t know how to resolve it, or the customer is too upset to handle the written conversation calmly (and is RANTING his or her responses), the chat agent should be able to get the customer’s phone number and pass it to a call center agent who can place the call immediately. So, as you are chatting, your phone rings, and it is customer support, ready to listen, empathize, and help.

Do’s and Don’ts of Telephone Support
Making It Easy to Navigate through IVR Hell and Get a Positive Telephone Support Experience
By Ronni T. Marshak, EVP and Senior Consultant, May 15, 2014



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