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Chat Grows Up

Using online chat to enhance the customer experience

The utility industry is in a state of customer service transformation. Many utilities are being forced to reassess their customer service options as they learn to manage the volumes of new smart meter data, while at the same time, responding to customer inquiries about all of the changes. A TELUS-sponsored IDC Energy Insights report published last year found 35 percent of utility respondents were already noting an increase in customer call volume, while eight out of 10 utilities said they expect call volume to increase in the coming years. The changing energy landscape is definitely having an impact on utilities’ ability to manage and communicate with their customers.

Telephone agents are not the same as chat agents. Properly implemented, online chat can maintain the ‘human element.’

In the past, utilities have been able to manage customer service demands internally using in-bound phone support or paper correspondence — mainly the bill insert. The new energy economy is changing the customer-utility relationship, forcing customer service models to evolve. This offers a significant opportunity for proactive utilities to get ahead of the curve by effectively implementing new and complementary customer support models in the contact center.

With more and more consumers moving their conversations and business interactions to the web, online chat is emerging as a popular customer service channel. Online chat involves live, real-time two-way text communication over the Internet. Some online chat platforms are reactive, requiring the user to actively click a button on the host’s website to “chat with us”. Others are proactive, asking visitors to engage with a chat agent usually in the form of a pop-up window. With the need for utilities to better engage and educate their customers, the reasons for utilities to consider implementing online chat are compelling.

To start, online chat is growing, especially among younger consumers. A 2009 Forrester report states that one-fifth of both Gen Y and Gen X consumers located and engaged in online chat when they visited a company’s website. A growing number of first time users also recognize its advantages. According to an ATG Global Consumer Trends study, 90 per cent of U.S. consumers ranked click to chat as “useful to extremely useful”, and a 2010 Bold Software survey found 77 per cent of chatters agreed the technology positively influenced their attitudes about the company. By adding online chat to the customer service mix, utilities have a great opportunity to provide customer support in a preferred communications channel of their customers.

Gearing Up

According to the TELUS-sponsored IDC Energy Insights report, only 60 per cent of utilities reported having a web portal that customers could access for service, and only 10 per cent of utility respondents surveyed said they had implemented live chat. And utilities are not alone. Even with growing consumer preference, impressive ROI, and often very high customer satisfaction scores over other support channels like phone, online chat remains an underdeveloped channel. Another study commissioned by TELUS International earlier this year, examined the best practices for online chat sales of six Fortune 500 customer service leaders as selected by their American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) scores and/or Net Promoter Scores (NPS). At the time of the study, many of the largest retailers considered for analysis did not even offer a chat sales option.

Chat can address billing, power outages, and conservation strategies — all in real time.

This does not mean that chat is an unproven or risky customer service channel—in fact, quite the opposite. Properly implemented, many companies have come to see chat as a source of untapped potential, completely exceeding their expectations in terms of customer satisfaction and sales ROI. To provide some context, in a 2008 study by Forrester Research, reactive chat earned a 15 per cent return on investment, compared to proactive chat’s impressive 105-percent return.

For forward-looking utilities, online chat offers a lot of upside potential. Online chat enables a utility to deliver rapid, personalized and timely communications to customers—addressing billing issues, power outages, strategies for lowering energy consumption—all in real time. Depending on the complexity of the chat interaction, it is also an efficient and cost-effective channel, allowing agents to multi-task by handling several chat sessions at one time. And with the growing trend towards online customer service, it’s also a more suitable customer service platform for detailed, secure transactions than many of its social online counterparts like Twitter and Facebook.

The Human Element

The key to success is to implement online chat well. While the utility-customer relationship may be changing, the principals of good customer service remain the same. Properly implemented, chat can maintain the “human element” during the online interaction and enhance the quality of the total customer experience significantly. The TELUS International white paper identified three key areas that are most important for an ideal online chat experience: agent skills, chat system features and communications style.

1. Agent Skill: Agent skill is critical to delivering a positive customer experience. Training for online chat specifically is one of the most important things any company can do to maximize customer service. Telephone agents are not necessarily the same as chat agents. Chat agents must have the ability to construct a conversation flow in the chat environment. The new smart grid customer service agent will be expected to deal with a lot of real-time customer and system data. Knowing how to communicate potentially complex responses around billing discrepancies or energy management options in a text-based format will be essential. The best agents will be able to provide accurate yet easy to understand answers while following best practices: answering questions with the most important information upfront, avoiding technical jargon, including only one or two ideas per response, and for example, balancing the use of canned versus free-form responses to keep the interaction personal.

2. System Features: Another critical element is the chat system or platform itself. Understanding how a customer experiences a live chat session with your utility is a good start. The chat system should help set customer expectations in terms of queue position and estimated wait times. Basic things like font size and a notification when the agent is typing a response can make a big difference in a positive customer experience. Customers also need to easily link to security and privacy information and should have access to post-chat transcripts for their records. For utilities, features around security and encryption are critical given the sensitive billing and usage information available to utility agents.

Only 10 percent of utility respondents surveyed said they had implemented live chat.

Agents can very quickly lose the trust of the customer if they provide conflicting or inaccurate information. Ideally, the chat platform should support real-time collaboration and internal instant messaging between agents, supervisors and subject matter experts within the utility. If a customer has chosen chat as their preferred communications channel, it is important to find answers quickly in that same chat channel.

Finally, chat technology is becoming more sophisticated and chat agents need to fully understand the features available to them as well as their policies for use. This includes company policy on the more advanced chat features like page pushing, document sharing and co-browsing. Understanding the “bells and whistles” of the chat technology platform can help utility agents maximize the online customer experience.

3. Communication Style: Communication style is another critical element in conveying a utility’s brand and agent credibility. With grammar, spelling and sentence structure being so important, it is essential to invest in writing skills. And while smiley faces and emoticons are often accepted in a chat interaction, too many can appear unprofessional and detract from a utility’s brand. Brevity and staying on point is also an art, as is using the appropriate voice and tone. Voice should reflect the corporate identity of the utility and should conform to the personality of the site (e.g. informative, professional and innovative).

Voice should express the mood or feeling of the conversation (e.g. friendly, upbeat, conversational) in order to humanize the online experience. For a best-in-class chat experience, agents must work to personalize the chat interaction, keeping the conversation human—especially if you have a frustrated customer on the other end.

Ahead of the Curve

With well-publicized consumer push-back against smart metering, there is a big opportunity for utilities to get ahead of the learning curve and provide proactive customer service and education online. As the industry continues to transform, consumers will look for new and more effective ways to interact with their utility to understand the changes. The contact center remains an important focal point for delivering great customer service. Adding online chat to a utility’s contact center mix can be a big boost to winning over customers and greatly enhancing customer utility engagement in the years ahead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Douglas Hartman is Executive Director Energy Solutions at TELUS International – a top provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients, backed by TELUS, a leading Canadian telecommunications company with $9.8 billion in annual revenues. To improve its own chat practice for its contact center clients, TELUS International commissioned a benchmarking study – Best Practices: Online Chat Sales – examining 60 in-depth chat sessions of six Fortune 500 customer service leaders. Download the full study at: