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5 keys to effective online chat

(MoneyWatch) When my company team suggested adding live chat to our website, I was resistant and skeptical, as I am obsessed with the quality and "humanity" of our communication with customers, and didn't think many people would use it anyway. But we set it up, and now a few years down the road I'm a believer. But like all tools, it's only effective when used properly -- poorly used, online chat is far worse than not offering the service at all.

Chat has become a tremendous resource for us. Customers use it all the time, and we can work as "virtual" store clerks, walking visitors through the site and helping them find what they need. The application (we use "click and chat," but there are many others) allows us to monitor customer activity on the site in real time, and even push customized messages to targeted visitors. It's a wonderful "hybrid" of the conversational nature of a phone call and the convenience, clarity, and written history of e-mail.

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Here are the five key rules we follow to make online chat a great experience for our customers, rather than yet another hassle or obstacle to them connecting with a company:

Be available, or say you're not: If your chat button says "live chat available" or "chat with us now," make sure it's true. More than a few times I've clicked on a "chat now" box and gotten a pop-up that says chat isn't available. That's like saying "operators are standing by" and then not answering the phone. Even worse, while browsing a site, I've had a pop-up materialize with a picture of a happy person offering to help, only to find out the happy person has already gone home and chat is unavailable. Most good chat applications let you set an automatic on/off schedule to suit your business hours, just like voice mail. One way or the other, make sure it never tells people you're available when you aren't.

Answer instantly: Chat calls for an immediate response, just like a ringing phone. If you don't have the necessary staff or can't make the commitment to answer chat requests immediately (or very close to it), you shouldn't offer the option. If your company is so big and/or has so much inbound traffic that you must have a chat queue, set wait-time standards, give accurate information, and keep it under control -- no one likes to be on hold. You can either handle your customers' communication needs properly or you can't.

Get to the helping part quickly: As I've said in past columns, customers want to deal with friendly people, but more importantly with friendly people who can and will help them -- quickly. So absolutely be friendly, say hello, be human and personable, type with a smile on your face (believe it or not, it shows). But jump into action for your customer with as little back and forth as is necessary.

Minimize boilerplate: Most chat programs will initialize a greeting with the customer's name already filled in. So if the customer entered "John Smith" in the chat request, the first response will be an automatic "Hello, John Smith, this is Mary, how may I help you today?" Obviously pre-programmed responses are efficient and not necessarily horrible, but if you have the option, look at the response before pushing the connect button, and tweak it to show there's a living, thinking person on the other end. In the above example, it's as simple as changing the obviously automatic "John Smith" to "Mr. Smith." Am I being ridiculously nit-picky? Perhaps -- but my column is called "Business With Class," and avoiding robotic processes or behavior is classy. Customers do notice these subtle touches.

If you have a callback feature, well, call back: Many chat apps give the visitor the option to request a callback when chat is offline. If you offer this service, actually provide it. Again, I have experienced this myself, leaving a message on an after-hours chat request and never hearing back. Make sure someone actually checks in the morning and responds promptly, and in the requested manner (phone or e-mail) if the option is provided.

At the end of the day, online chat is like any other form of communication in that it sets a certain level of expectation. If a customer licks a stamp and mails an envelope, he or she obviously doesn't expect to hear from someone all that quickly. If people email, they expect -- or at least should expect -- a reasonably quick reply. And if they call or request an online chat, the expectation is clearly for real-time assistance. As long as you can consistently meet these expectations, you're doing a great job communicating with your visitors and customers, and chat can be a real asset to your online presence.

Image adapted from Flickr user teamstickergiant

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