Providing excellent customer service may be the best way for small business owners to compete with larger players in the market. "Historically, the advantage that small- to medium-sized businesses had over the big-box stores was treating customers like people instead of numbers, while offering great expertise in their market," says Lauren Schneck, marketing director at Live Help Now.
But with the shift to online shopping, some of that advantage faded and left smaller companies with fewer opportunities to give customers the level of interaction they crave. Today, live chat platforms fill that void, giving small businesses a way to provide the personal touch online.
Not surprisingly, Schneck believes that live chat restores that competitive edge to SMBs. "Customers still want personal, attentive answers to their questions and to be reassured that their purchase will fit their needs," she explains.
When Does Live Chat Make Sense?
The most common way chat enters the picture is when a customer has filled their online shopping cart but they have a question they need answered before they're ready to complete their purchase. "A chat button there lets shoppers connect with a customer-service person and get that last question answered," says Jeff Mason, vice president of marketing at Velaro. While it may be just one button, he says it's a tool that "can drastically increase online sale conversions."
Chat-based support can also be useful at other times in the sales cycle. Companies have three primary ways for customers to contact them with questions—email, phone and chat (plus in-person support if the business has a storefront). But those options bring some problems. "People often don't like email, because they can't get an immediate response," Mason says. And while customer-support reps can only effectively deal with one phone call at a time, they can "typically handle about three to four chats simultaneously," Mason says.
Important Live Chat Features
Having a mobile component built into a chat platform is becoming increasingly important in our shop-from-my-phone world. Another feature that small businesses find tremendously useful is the ability to create canned responses: snippets of text they can quickly select and insert into a chat session. "You can turn the phrases that your chat representatives say most often into prepared or canned responses, so that operators can save time on repeat questions," Schneck explains. Canned responses are also a great way to ensure customers receive the same answer no matter which rep handles their chat.
Mason says a good report-generating capability is also a crucial feature. "If you want productive chats that work effectively, and you want to ensure that your chat agents perform the way that you expect them to perform, then you need some reporting." Reports can tell business owners how many chats they're having, how long customers are waiting in the chat queue before they're connected to a rep, and how long it takes to complete chats.
"You also want to be able to store and review chat transcripts," Mason advises. For example if customers report terrible (or great) service, it could be a trigger to review how a particular chat went. Past transcripts can also help establish best practices for support reps to follow, and they can be a good tool for training new customer-support staff.
Schneck encourages SMBs to contact potential chat solution vendors using the vendor's chat-support option. "The best way to size up a chat support software provider is to see how they treat you as a customer," she says. Look for knowledgeable, responsive chat reps. Also, be sure to take advantage of any trial periods or demonstration options. "Any reputable chat vendor will offer a generous free trial so you have ample time to customize the tool to fit your website's branding and to get accustomed to it before going live," Schneck says.
Hire the Right Chat Agent
The amount of chat traffic you get will likely determine whether you can get away with rotating staff through the support role, or if you need a dedicated chat agent. No matter which route you choose, Mason says the right skill set and good training are vital. "A lot of people initially think there isn't much to engaging with somebody via chat," he explains. Chatting isn't just a gussied-up version of texting. Proper grammar usage and providing clear, concise responses are both important qualities in a chat agent.
"You have to make sure your agents are trained appropriately, so they're communicating in a way that supports your brand image," Mason says. A company selling t-shirts probably wants to project a different brand image from one selling financial services, and good training will ensure that comes through correctly in a chat session.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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