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Let's chat. Do you want to improve customer service?

Mon, 02/28/2011 - 7:00pm
Brent Allison, Vice-President, Service Provider, Telus International

It is a transformational time in the multichannel world. Advances in multimedia services and broadband technologies are playing a role in dramatically reshaping the competitive landscape. The dramatic rise of Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's U-verse, both ranked in the top 10 TV subscription services in less than three years, highlights the rate of change. Given their growth, both AT&T and Verizon are expected to be among the top five TV service providers in the coming years. This has significant implications for all aspects of the cable industry, including people's expectations around customer service.

Competing with telecommunications companies is not new. In fact, it's a historical understanding in most cases. With a flattening rate of growth of TV subscribers, and significant capital investments made by both sides on network technology, the final frontier may be fought in the customer service arena. As telecommunications companies make an aggressive move into the pay-TV business, it is becoming increasingly critical for cable operators to meet customers' demands. No longer enjoying total dominance in their markets, many are forced to compete with telecommunications companies in all areas of their business.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, major cable providers have customer satisfaction scores in the 60s, lagging behind their telecom rivals with scores in the 70s. To survive, many cable companies realize the need to step up their customer service game, especially with telcos making significant headway in subscription television services. With more choice available to consumers, and less differentiation in terms of technology, any gaps in customer service could lead to increased customer churn.

EXPANDING CUSTOMER SERVICE CHOICE
Despite the challenges, there are several growing customer service trends on the horizon that present significant opportunities for cable companies to better engage their customer base. Customers today are more eager to connect with companies on their own terms using their preferred communications channels.

One of the most significant areas of growth we see in the customer service world is the growing demand for online chat services. While the phone remains the channel of choice for many older customers, a growing number of young consumers are choosing online chat to assist with billing issues, purchases, upgrades, and technical support.

Online chat has proven to be a profitable service channel as more and more people move their transactions online. According to a series of recent studies, one-fifth of both Generation Y and Generation X consumers found and used online chat when they visited a company's website.

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 in a 2010 Bold Software survey, 77 per cent of chatters agreed that the technology positively influenced their attitude towards the business they were interacting with. Meanwhile, it is generally found that Customer Satisfaction Ratings (CSAT) are usually higher after using online chat as opposed to phone support.

At the same time, although chat is an increasingly popular channel, many large companies (both in the cable industry and in other industries) still have room to improve the online chat customer experience. In a recent study, Telus International, a provider of contact center outsourcing solutions, worked with SPOT Consulting, an independent third-party organization, to establish a set of benchmarks for an ideal chat sales session. Sixty in-depth chat sessions were conducted with six Fortune 500 customer service leaders. The goal was to provide a framework for offering best-in-class chat support and sales. The study identified three key areas companies should pay attention to in order to maximize their online chat presence: agent skills, chat system features and communications style.

KEY BENCHMARKS TO SUCCESSFUL ONLINE CHAT
Agent Skills. When it comes to agent skills, the study reviewed average response time, setting of expectations, accuracy of response, direct objective responses, conversation flow and agent patience. It was clear the best online chat agents displayed an ability to move beyond standardized procedures and scripting to personalize the consumer's experience.

Best-in-class agents were able to respond quickly (within 30 seconds) and proactively solve problems with accurate solutions or seamless transfers to other departments. They were also empowered to offer incentives to keep customers from defecting.

Chat System Features. Another equally important area to consider is chat system features. A robust online chat presence needs to consider posted hours of operation, chat transcript availability, typing notification, and providing queue position and wait times. You also need to ensure the information you are transmitting stays safe, so encryption technology becomes critical.

The benchmark study demonstrated that the best chat providers had a number of elements in common. Their automatic data encryption was secure and had a one-step process for transactions, meaning payment for bills didn't require entering credit information multiple times. The ability to customize and personalize the interface was also important. This included the ability to adjust font sizes, colors, the appearance of dynamic icons, and the ability to access hyperlinks shared by agents in real-time.

Ongoing availability of agents throughout the hours of operation without system lags or dropped chat sessions was another key requirement for success. Finally, best-in-class chat allowed for real-time collaboration and internal messaging between agents and various departments. For cable companies, that means addressing continuity in customer service, a big challenge given that many cable companies have expanded by acquisition which has created a decentralized structure.

COMMUNICATIONS STYLE
The last important element for companies looking to successfully implement online chat was communications style. The study looked at five variables including brevity and staying on point, grammar, spelling and sentence structure, voice, tone and terminology. The best agents were professional and consistently applied proper grammar and punctuation. Responses were clear and concise, often including links to explain complex issues. Once engaged, agents were very personal and their tone and style were reflective of the company's brand and values.

With cable and phone companies scrambling for every customer, a key differentiator will be customer service. By ensuring agent skills, communications style and chat systems features are optimized, cable companies can better meet the needs of the next generation of TV consumers online. By successfully implementing an online chat platform with all of the key attributes of success, these companies can take advantage of an emerging customer service channel that's only expected to become more important in the future.

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