Chat's Customer Experience Promise

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Companies often deploy chat for its cost savings potential, but soon come to realize its ability to improve the customer experience.

Companies today are searching for ways to save money while providing optimal customer experiences. As a result, an increasing number of organizations are turning to live chat and virtual assistants.

With such benefits as contact center deflections, increases in agent productivity, and gains in customer satisfaction, chat makes sound fiscal sense while serving as a tool to enhance the customer experience. In fact, a recent Forrester Research study estimated the average ROI for proactive chat is105 percent.

Jeff Brown, executive vice president of sales at Next IT, says that more and more companies are buying in to the concept of chat and virtual assistants after finding that static FAQs and video tutorials aren't always tailored to customers' individual questions and needs, thus failing to offer a deeply engaging experience. As a result, the thinking is now, " 'How do I extend my brand reach out to where I can engage clients and have a dialogue with them?'" Brown says.

That focus on customer experience is a primary reason companies are now evolving their use of chat from a reactive tool that helps online customers with questions or moves them through the checkout process when they get stuck, to a more proactive approach that entails making customers aware about individually tailored products, services, or discounts when they first land on a site. "People don't want to just be cross-sold to; they want to be aware of the value-add," Brown says.

Two companies in very different industries, Aetna and HauteLook, demonstrate that the value of virtual assistants and live chat reaches far beyond helping with navigational issues. They've become valuable proactive communication tools to help improve the customer experience.

Aetna's Ann understands customer' needs
She averages 20,000 chat sessions per day, answers 80 percent of customers' questions, and works 24/7. Sorry, she's not for hire; she's Ann, Aetna's virtual chat avatar, who helps members gain access to claims information and clinical data.[CG1]

Steve Schneider, head of member enrollment and communications solutions at Aetna, says that the cumbersome registration process for the members' portal, which resulted in high abandonment rates, served as the catalyst for the decision to deploy Ann. Analysis showed that customers needed help beyond the FAQs and videos posted on the site. "We [offered self-service] in the past with some success, but nothing that moved the dime significantly on customer satisfaction and customer success rates," says Schneider, who explains that customers struggled with some of those traditional methods when the answers weren't clear to them.

In January Aetna brought its first virtual assistant online with the help of Next IT. Schneider calls her an interactive entity, complete with a personality and the ability to understand people's questions in multiple ways. Ann accesses the organization's entire knowledge assets and its knowledebase to solve customer issues over multiple service channels, such as the website and contact center. A team of analysts analyzes customer feedback from all the touchpoints customer use to interact with Ann, discerns common issues, and then continuously programs Ann with updated resolutions to ensure she's responding accurately to issues.

Upon deploying Ann, Aetna eliminated its outsourced helpdesk. Then, after an immediate uptick in registration due to her assistance, the insurer expanded Ann in February to help with the entire website. Since then, Schneider reports, there's been a drop-off in customer complaints, a 70 percent success rate in helping people with issues, a decrease in call volume per member, and an increase in customer satisfaction as measured by Aetna's latest quarterly satisfaction survey. "People in general are being much more successful and not getting frustrated," he says.

Over the next 12 to 24 months, Schneider plans to expand Aetna's virtual assistant strategy to become a mechanism to proactively communicate with members and give insightful messaging when they log in to the site. For example, Ann could potentially alert a customer that she has met her deductible and then explain what that means for that particular member. Schneider also is examining how to deploy Ann in the mobile space and how Aetna can leverage Ann for pre-enrollment purposes. "Applying for insurance is an arduous process, so we're looking at how she can actually help with the stickiness around that process," Schneider says.

Chat offers HauteLook customers channel choice
When it comes to making buying decisions, HauteLook customers have demonstrated that they prefer to leverage live chat when they have questions about products they're about to purchase.

The daily deals site for fashion and lifestyle brands launched chat from RightNow last October as a way to improve its customer experience. Chris Purpura, director of member care, says that the company first featured chat on its help pages, product pages, and "Getaway" pages (for travel deals).

Purpura soon realized that customers preferred chat over email when asking questions and also when making buying decisions about high-end products, like Uggs boots, for example. "We surveyed our members and they said the response with chat is better than with email," Purpura says.

The preference is not surprising, because in retail, Purpura explains, email responses typically take anywhere from one to five days. Live chat, on the other hand, allows customers to have interactions without leaving the site or picking up the phone.

And because Hautelook runs so many different product deals every day, the company needed a more dynamic tool than FAQs to disseminate information to shoppers. "Anyone can post FAQs, but having people [on chat] gives that extra, 'Hey, we care enough to want to be here for you," Purpura says.

HauteLook employs 30 at-home agents (many of which are fashion institute graduates), and half of them are designated chat and email reps. The average rep handles 120 chats per day, a cost savings seen through a reduction in phone calls.

The investment is paying off. On the Getaways pages alone, recent analysis showed a 13.5 percent conversion rate of all chat sessions into new purchases. Additionally, chat has surpassed email as the preferred channel of online communication, although phone still reigns as number one.

As the company plans for growth, Purpura is in talks about whether to bring the chat and phone agents into a 24-7 support model. Purpura also wants to continue to make chat personable and to find ways to make it as conversational as the phone so that chat may at some point match or surpass the phone as customers' preferred service channel. He adds, "I like to think that in any organization the way you treat people matters and the phones and chat are the way to do that."


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