Thursday, October 09, 2008

The case for offering live customer support online

There are a variety of ways to simply and cost-effectively offer customer support online and,  given that it's not yet common in the Australian public sector, I thought I'd quickly outline my own thinking on the case for and against offering this type of service.

In this post I'll focus on text chat - the simplest mechanism for live customer engagement online.

There are also more complex approaches, including asynchronous voice chat, synchronous voice chat, video-conferencing, co-browsing and virtual presence. I believe that an organisation needs to come to terms with basic text chat before exploring these options.

What is text chat?
Text chat refers to the ability to send and receive text between individuals via the internet. In context of customer support, this approach commonly involves accessing a chat window within or as a pop-up out of an organisation's website.

Within the window the participants can type in their questions, comments and responses, review them and then send them to the other person in real-time.

This is different to email in that the exchange is real-time and is fully visible to both parties at all times.

Who uses text chat?, the main US government portal, uses a Java custom-built web text chat tool with set opening hours and a decent privacy policy regarding use.

The Utah and Virginia state governments makes good use of text-based chat, via a third-party service named Livehelper. This is a footprint free, low cost approach well suited to initial steps into the channel. Also using the tool is the US National Cancer Institute.

In Australia, there are few governments agencies using text chat at this time for customer or public engagement, with the National Library being a standout - supporting cobrowsing via a third party service, Questionpoint produced by the US Library of Congress and the Online Computer Library Center.

Others include the National Cervical Cancer Screening Program and the State Library of Victoria.

The Queensland government used to provide an online chat service for community consultation via Generate, using IRC (Internet Relay Chat), however discontinued this in 2004. A good presentation on the service, Ministers Online (PDF), is available from AGIMO.

Several government bodies, such as NSW Health, use it within elearning sessions and some, such as the NT Department of Employment, Education and Training, make it available for supporting remotely located students and teachers, however do not make it publicly available.

Benefits of text chat
There are a number of benefits in the use of text chat, both for customers and an organisation.

For organisations,
  • A single customer service operative can engage with multiple customers at once, each in a separate text chat window (my rule of thumb is that a person can effectively engage in one phone conversation or three chat windows - making chat a more effective use of resources).
  • Customers can be anonymous or required to self-identify (according to the needs of the organisation).
  • Text chat can be secured - making the information sent and received difficult to tap into and protecting customer privacy.
  • Text chats can be queued like phone calls, with a timer providing details of where the person is on the queue to be answered.
  • Text and web addresses can be pasted into the chat window to provide 'canned' answers for common questions, or to point to further information.
  • Customer service operatives can review the text they intend to send a customer before sending it (whereas on phone calls it is much harder to review the words before they leave a mouth). This lets them remove potentially emotive words or phrases that detract from the message.
  • The text chat is recorded, leaving a permanent (legal) record of the conversation and can be saved and stored in the organisation's CMS application.
  • The customer IP address can be logged for use if the customer is threatening or abusive. This reflects having their phone number - the customer is traceable.
  • Text chat logs are fully searchable by keyword, and can be organised into topics to support later analysis.
  • Chat doesn't need to be available all the time. The organisation can switch it on and off as resources are available (whereas phones are required to be 'on' at published business times).
  • Customers who refuse to call may engage via this channel, meaning that otherwise unraised issues can be addressed.
  • Chat can be managed from any staff location - even offsite. It is possible for home-based staff to provide chat responses, if the organisation allows this, much more cost-effectively than when attempting to route phone calls.
  • Customers can be sent on to an (optional) online survey addressing the quality of the chat when it concludes. This provides an effective interface for quality-checking the channel and each individual engagement.

For customers,
  • Text chat is less invasive than waiting on a phone line, requiring less attention and freeing the customer to go on with other things while waiting to have their 'call' answered.
  • Customers can engage in text chats more discreetly than they can engage in phone calls.
  • Customers can provide customer service operatives with links to or paste in the information they are having difficulty understanding.
  • Customers also receive a permanent record of the conversation for their own records - removing any ambiguity on what was discussed (as can occur with phone calls).
  • Having the exchange in text reduces the emotional context of voice.
  • Lower cost than a phone call where a free number does not exist.

Disadvantages and risks
  • Text chat doesn't provide the same number of conversational cues as voice chat or face-to-face meetings. However it is possible to escalate a text chat by asking a customer to call (or calling them) or come to an office.
  • The organisation or customer may perceive security risks in text chatting. Although these risks are generally equivalent to the those of a telephone conversation, chat is newer and some people have greater trust issues with it purely due to their lack of familiarity with it.
  • It may not be possible to get sufficient information about the customer to exchange certain information. In this case the customer service operative can escalate to phone or face-to-face.

Reasons to not introduce text chat
  • It is an additional service to manage (though can normally be managed via existing resources).
  • The customer need for this channel is undefined (and will remain so until a pilot is run).
  • As it is online, the channel is less established and not as well understood by organisations (and will remain so if not trialled).
  • An organisation may receive more customer enquiries (as the barrier to contact is lowered).
  • It may require ongoing ICT support (though options exist to fully outsource a text chat function and indeed this is the more usual practice).

In brief
Text chatting can be a more efficient use of customer service operative time while simultaneously supporting more flexible information sharing than phone-based communication.

It does not replace phone use, instead supplements it by providing an alternative customers can choose to use to engage an agency. It can be managed through existing call centres and generally through phone and written correspondence policy and be easily run as a pilot before a more complete implementation.

Due to chat logging, both the organisation and the customer can have an accurate record of the contact. This can be stored with the official customer record for later reference in a way that is difficult to achieve with phone based communication.

The primary risks are around security and staff written communications ability - both of which can be managed.

Security can be addressed through appropriate communication of the risks to customers, allowing them to choose whether they wish to engage in this manner, similar to the warnings at the start of phone conversations "This call may be recorded". As chat doesn't replace other engagement channels, customers are not disadvantaged if they do not wish to use it.

Staff's ability to manage the channel can be addressed through training, selecting staff already competent at written customer communications and by placing appropriate guidelines in place (as commonly exist for phone or written correspondence).


  1. This is excellent article Craig - Online live chat is something we in the Victorian Government are investigating at present to offer on our main portal Victoria Online.