Scott Clark – Oct 24, 2005

The IM-formation Superhighway – Chat for Business Explodes

Instant Messaging (chat) is the use of typed messages transmitted instantly between two or more people using the Internet. There are a number of programs in wide use for IM, including Instant Messenger from AOL (AIM) with around 60 million active users, Yahoo! Instant Messenger (YIM) with around 21 million, Skype, ICQ and others. All in all billions of IM messages are sent daily. Around 30% of all IM interactions are for business purposes, and that number is growing fast.

“Instant messaging could well be the dial tone of the future — albeit a silent one,” says The Wall Street Journal, noting than more than 200 million people are now sending instant messages through various IM providers. In their report, “IM: The Sleeping Giant,” technology consultant Gartner Group predicted that by 2005, instant messaging will surpass e-mail as the primary online communications tool. Advantages abound.

Unlike verbal conversation, you have a few seconds (or minutes) to assemble thoughts and a backspace key to save embarrassment, like a tape delay. If you need a moment to glance at notes or contemplate, the chat conversation will tolerate it better than a spooky silent stare at the coffee machine. IM has the flexibility to carry dense, conversational spurts or sparse, whole-day interactions equally well, and my experience is that people adjust to the pace automatically.

IM offers indication of presence and availability, which guides the actions of others in communicating with you, so we hope. Research shows that a ringing telephone requires 20 minutes of “recovery time” before the previous task level is, even if the phone call lasts two minutes. Some studies show receiving 5-7 phone calls per day can cut the productivity of a knowledge worker in half.

Another emerging application of IM is language translation where a person can communicate with someone else in their own language with a minimum in distraction. Translation happens immediately and conversations can flow easily. It offers a great tool for nurturing international relationships, as well as facilitating communications with those who cannot speak or hear.

Voice over IM, such as Skype and Google Talk, provides voice functions on demand. Quality is excellent and costs low, making it ideal for globetrotters or home office workers. A text chat can change to voice if that would better suit the conversation.

IM for website customer service is the biggest growth area in B2C IM, mostly via website buttons saying “click to chat.” Customers are becoming so comfortable with this that many prefer it. Forrester Research published results which gave some insight into the use of chat on business websites. In the Forrester survey, website chat users said that it was both faster (44%) and easier (34%) than using the phone. They also cited more time to formulate thoughts (33%) and improved personal feel over email (33%).

The problem is that many of the website Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) are unskilled in rapid-fire support. In the Forrester survey, complaints included unskilled staff who ask them to call instead (22%) and the use of “pre-fab” responses (17%). A comprehensive training program, and conducting Mock IM sessions with experienced “chatters” can help. The CSRs need resources for answering customers’ questions, such as pricing, stock and shipping data. Customers expect fast, brief responses rather than watching the “representative is typing…” indicator for two minutes, for example.

Many companies are delegating the role of customer message response to current employees depending on geography or skill set. Some have specific web page links that will connect with the most proficient person about the page. Some are routing inquiries to part-time home workers who are experts in a given area and are paid per interaction (and chat conversations aren’t as impacted by little Suzie’s tantrum.)

I just set up a web chat link that adjusts depending on the site visitor’s geographic location. Chats from the Southwest go to one representative, while Michigan clicks to another. If that person isn’t on-line, a “round-robin” algorithm transfers to the next closest CSR transparently. Soon, Australian and Irish operators will handle the overnight inquiries and visa versa, forming a 24×7 loop of service.

IM with customer monitoring can provide trained CSRs great knowledge of how to approach a chat with a given customer. Past page views and activity tell much about the nature of the visitor’s intent. Certain patterns may indicate frustration or difficulty, helping the CSR decide if they should intervene, usually with a “pop up” to ask the customer if they need help or if they’re having difficulty finding something. Co-browsing technologies built into some IM setups allow a CSR to help a customer find a page on the site by sending them links. Industry research shows that persons who have interacted using a live chat on a retail site are more than twice as likely to make a purchase and leave the website much more satisfied.