Live chat is a common online customer service tool and it appears that consumers are becoming more comfortable using it.

We recently published some stats which show that 53% of UK online shoppers have used live chat, up from 41% in 2011.

Furthermore, 31% of online shoppers from both the US and UK said they would be more likely to purchase after using live chat. So aside from being a customer service tool, it also has the potential to be used as a sales channel.

BSkyB has been using LivePerson’s live chat tool on its website for sales and customer service for several years.

To find out more about the benefits of this service and when it should be deployed in the customer journey, I spoke to BSkyB’s director of e-experience Wendy Schratz…

Why did you first decide to use live chat on Sky.com?

We initially deployed live chat about five years ago in our sales environment to try and help online conversions. We ran that successfully for three or four years before getting interested in using it from a customer service perspective, which was where LivePerson came into the picture.

We had been running quite an ambitious programme to make our online services work much harder for customers, as we were extremely heavily telephone oriented and had upwards of 50m phone calls a year, so around 1m each week. 

The aim was to take advantage of what online was capable of so customers would see it as a viable alternative to the call centre.

Our online self-service initiative was having mixed results, so we introduced live chat to help us figure out how we could improve the online service.

But what we found was that putting a person into the equation online is extremely powerful and makes it more likely that the customer journey produces a good end result.

It fills quite a unique need where customers either want some extra personal help and support or just some emotional reassurance knowing they’re talking to a real person. And the advisor can use everything that’s available online to actually show them an answer rather than just telling them the answer. 

Which is where it wins out over the phone, as it has a niche where it can be used if something is a bit more complicated and the customer needs some reassurance.

Does it have a benefit in terms of web development? So, for example, if customers are constantly getting stuck at the same point it helps to identify that as an area where the site needs to be improved?

Absolutely. As the conversation is written down it’s much easier to analyse what the customer is talking to us about, and see what is working and what isn’t working.

And we are about to deploy proper text analytics across not only our live chat but also our community forum posts, email and anything other customer conversations that are written down.

That will enable us to find sections of the site that don’t work from a customer point of view. And it’s so much easier to do than the equivalent in a call centre.

You said you want to take the strain away from call centres, but don’t you still need someone constantly available to answer the live chat questions? So really the resource is just shifting from the call centre to live chat?

Actually, live chat tends to be more effective for answering customer queries which helps to reduce the need for people to pick up the phone. For example, one of the aims is to get people more comfortable using the self-service tools on the website so they are less likely to phone the call centre.

So, if a customer visits the website for the first time then if they do have any problems we can use live chat to show them around the website and answer any questions for them.

The next time they have a question they will hopefully be more confident and are more likely to come back online and use the self-service tools.

The other reason is that for some queries live chat is much better at solving the customer’s problem. So imagine that you had a problem with the speed of your broadband or a problem with your Sky box.

To solve the problem it’s likely that you’ll have to go away and turn things on and off on the box or play with the settings.

If I’m online with you I can show you information on the screen, such as diagrams or pictures, which makes it much easier to understand than if I just tell you over the phone.

At what point in the customer journey is live chat deployed?

It’s a mix at the moment, and part of the reason is that we’re ramping up the number of people in our training centres that are able to use live chat.

In sales, we have a number of triggers on the page that are driven by things such as time on the page, so if it looks like you are stuck or you are considering something we will proactively pop up a chat window and ask if we can help.

So we proactively offer live chat in sales, but in customer service we always have the option available in the help centre in case the user is confused or has a query.

Eventually I want it to be a central part of our contact options, so customers have the option to access live chat all the way across Sky.com.

But obviously to get to that point I need to have enough resources to cope with the demand.

What are the most common questions you get from customers over live chat?

What we find in sales is that people typically want to be reassured that they’ve bought the right thing, or they want us to shortcut them through to what they want rather than them having to do it themselves.

That’s easy to do, and we can then just give them back control of their basket at the checkout so they can complete the transaction.

So, from your point of view, are there any instances where it’s not a good idea to offer live chat?

There probably are if you took a purely cost driven point of view. You could run some analysis and work out which are the things that customers are likely to struggle with and selectively give them help with live chat.

I’m not doing that because we see such a great experience on the back of live chat that I am prepared to take a bit of ‘inefficiency’ for the benefit of being able to make customers confident that whenever they visit the site they can always chat if they want to. 

And it’s my job to make self-service so easy that people see it as the best option to resolve their problems.

Because why would you bother phoning a call centre to wait to chat to someone if it’s twice as quick to go online and fix it yourself?

I want to be able to headline it as a channel that’s always available to you so I can put it in marketing materials and reassure customers that are nervous about using the website that someone will always be available to help them.

So do you see it primarily for customer service benefit or as a sales tool?

Without question it is uplifting our sales conversions. On the sales side I suppose it’s more mature and we’ve learned more clearly when we need to offer it and when we don’t.

But it also improves the customer experience significantly when we offer it in service, so it has applications for both.

What are the costs involved from your point of view? Is it something that’s affordable for smaller businesses?

Well if you compare it to the cost of answering a telephone query, in customer service each individual live chat tends to have a longer duration than phone call, but you can do more than one at the same time.

So broadly what we’ve found is that you can do a similar number of live chats per hour as you can phone calls.

So it’s neutral in terms of what it costs you, but where we get a big upside is in building people’s confidence online so in future they may self-serve completely. 

And you get an uptick in first contact resolution and customer satisfaction which we think comes from being able to show and tell not just tell.

Then hopefully the customer will think better of us, stay longer with us and do more business with us. So if you factor those effects in, then we believe that it’s going to be a positive investment in place of the call centre.

One survey I’ve seen asked consumers what would encourage them to use live chat, and the top answer was if they received some kind of incentive, like free shipping or a gift. Realistically, should companies be that eager to encourage live chat that they should be willing to offer customers free stuff?

I think there might be a benefit to encouraging customers to go online in the first place, but once they are on the website if you present them with the opportunity to chat I think it sells itself.