Most web chat (or
instant messaging / IM) sessions act by offering a live assistance option to
the process of web browsing. Like email, it has been around for many years, but
only very recently has started to grow volumes to the extent where it has become
a mainstream channel for customer-business interactions. With the advert of AI
/ virtual agent technology, web chat is primed for strong growth.
Web chat has often
been used as a ‘point of crisis’ channel, for example, to convert an online
shopping basket into a sale by providing timely service, or if a browser is
paused on a webpage too long, perhaps as they can’t find what they are looking
for. In such cases, there are two main benefits to the business in providing
web chat: revenue maximisation, and the avoidance of unnecessary calls.
Web chat can also act
as a safety net for the customer if an online self-service attempt fails. An
analogy can be made with voice self-service, where a failed session is often
ended with the customer ‘zeroing-out’ - pressing zero to get in touch with an
agent. Failed web self-service sessions may end with a phone call being made,
but web chat can avoid a number of these, which is a cost saving for the
business, and better for the customer as well.
Web chat is
experiencing strong growth in its availability in the UK, although volumes on
average are still only around 4-5% of all customer/business interactions. There
is no reason why the user uptake of web chat will not continue: it works well
for customers as providing an immediate response, and with multiple concurrent
chat sessions per agent, it can be a lower cost channel than voice for the
business to support, although cost differential between phone and web chat are
not dramatically different, as so much of the web chat work carried out is
still non-automated. Solution providers report that web chat is currently being
trialled by numerous businesses, often at a limited, or departmental level so
they can assess the suitability of the channel for a company-wide rollout, and understand
what needs to be done to ensure full implementation is a success.
One form of
value-added web chat functionality is the Virtual Agent, which may appear to a
browsing website visitor to be a human agent, offering web chat. However, it is
an automated piece of software which attempts to answer the customer’s request,
including sending relevant links, directing them to the correct part of the
website or accessing the correct part of the knowledge base. If the virtual agent
cannot answer the request successfully, it may then seamlessly route the
interaction to a live web chat agent who will take over.
Most virtual agents
encourage the visitor to engage with them using natural language, rather than
keywords. The virtual agent will parse, analyse and search for the answer which
is deemed to be most suitable, returning this to the customer instantly. Many
virtual agent applications will allow customers to give all sorts of
information in any order, and either work with what it has been given, or ask
the user for more detail about what they actually meant.
The virtual agent
application is different from standard search functionality, ignoring bad
punctuation or grammar, and using longer phrases rather than just searching on
keywords. Sophisticated AI-enabled applications attempt to look for the actual
intent behind the customer’s question, trying to deliver a single correct
answer (or at least a relatively small number of possible answers), rather than
a list of dozens of potential answers contained in documents which may happen
to contain some of the keywords that the customer has used.
Through ‘listening’ to
what the customers actually say - perhaps through a mixture of large quantities
of audio and text – the initial set-up configuration can achieve a good
accuracy rate, which really benefits over time as a positive feedback loop is
established. Solutions that gather and differentiate customer requests and
results from multiple channels, noting the difference between them, have an
even better success rate.
When the virtual agent
application has low confidence that it has returned the correct result, it is
able to escalate the customers query seamlessly to a live chat agent, who then
has access to the self-service session history, enabling a greater chance of a
successful resolution without repetition. The eventual correct response can be
fed back to the automated virtual agent and the knowledge base underlying it,
which will make it more likely that future similar requests can be handled
successfully through automated agents.
Web chat cost
The mean average cost
of a web chat is £4.24, around the same as a phone call (£4.27) and a little
higher than an email (£3.87), but we would expect to see a greater differential
from a channel that can be at least partially-automated, and which offers the
opportunity for multiple concurrent sessions.
How are web chats
40% of respondents
using web chat offer the option immediately to all website visitors, with 60%
only doing so at some specifically-triggered point in the interaction.
Of these 60%, the most
frequently used trigger for web chat was when a visitor went to a specific
page, with other triggers being when a customer was on a page for a certain
amount of time, and at the point of sale, although these latter options are
much less frequent.
One of web chat’s
traditional strengths is seen as the ability to have agents handle multiple
chats concurrently (of course, it only seems this way to a customer, as the web
chat agent uses the time that the customer is typing their response to handle
other chats). Some vendors have stated in the past that agents could run five
or six concurrent chat sessions: the reality seems to be that two sessions is a
reasonably consistent average, with a peak of three or even four if required,
but which is not possible on a long-term basis.
that the typical wait for a web chat session is usually somewhat less than that
of a phone call. 24% of contact centres have an average wait time for web chat
of lower than 10 seconds, with a further 28% stating that the average wait time
is 10-20 seconds. Maintaining this level of accessibility for customers will
reinforce their positive experiences of web chat, and will encourage customers
to keep using the channel, not only when contacting a specific business, but
also in general.
Improving web chat
As the cost of web chat is similar to other
channels such as email, voice and social media, there is considerable room for
increasing efficiencies and lowering costs.
Whereas only 5% of web chats had any automation
involved in 2015, this grew to 19% in 2018, mainly as a result of initial
handling by automated chat bots which may then hand off to live agents where
Further comparing the experience
of web chats with telephone calls, 51% of web chats take longer than 3 minutes
to complete fully, as agent multi-tasking and the time taken to type differs
from the experience of handling a phone call.
Comparing web chat and
telephone side-by-side, the customer will usually experience a longer overall
length of interaction over web chat: 7% of calls take over 10 minutes, compared
to 15% of web chats.
The excessive length
of many web chats offers a major opportunity for improvement, both in terms of
cost reduction and customer experience, and more sophisticated, AI-enabled chat
applications are being trialled and implemented in many UK businesses. We would
expect the slow growth in chat volumes to escalate significantly as more
customers experience accurate and rapid responses to their online queries.