Live Chat: Small Volume, Yet CIOs Extol Value

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RAPID CITY, S.D.-Members may use live Web chat less frequently than other channels to contact the credit union.

Credit unions interviewed for this story say the number of chat sessions is about 3% of the telephone calls they get from members.

What's more, chat agents must be "specially trained," according to several CIOs. "Not everyone who can speak well can write well," explained John Madsen, VP-IT at $900-million Black Hills FCU here, which has offered secure chat behind the Internet banking login for four years.

And it's not clear whether chat helps to boost sales or cut costs, according to the CIOs interviewed.

Yet the CIOs told Credit Union Journal that they swear by chat.

"Members appreciate having yet another channel available to reach the CU as an alternative to a phone call," said Michelle Shelor, AVP-operations at the $1-billion Pacific Service CU in Walnut Creek, Calif. Some members are "uncomfortable discussing account matters while surrounded by their coworkers in an office environment," for example.

"Chat is particularly useful when members have questions regarding Internet banking because they can contact us from their computer desktop," Madsen added. "It's also very useful to members who are out of the country-they often can't use our toll-free number abroad."

"People accustomed to e-mailing or instant messaging are looking for an alternative, secure form of communication," said Heather Moshier, executive committee member, CUNA Technology Council and EVP-IT at $5-billion San Diego County CU, which deployed chat one year ago. "LiveChat provides members a quick and easy way to get information online with our exceptional customer service."

Chat agents are an elite force, said CUs. "It's a challenge to identify staff who would adapt well to live chat versus phone support," explained Matt Fagala, systems architect specialist at $660-million Vantage CU in Bridgeton, Mo., which began offering chat two years ago.

Agents must be able to field questions regarding several business units and operations. Good typing skills and multitasking are a must, he added.

The Skill Set Needed

"Agents replying to chats need to answer questions accurately and clearly," said Madsen. "They need to make sure they understand the member's need, which often takes additional questioning by the agent prior to offering a solution."

San Diego County CU asks members "why a product interests them instead of just quoting rates or application processes," Moshier said.

Pacific Service CU, which launched chat four years ago, puts chat agents through face-to-face classroom and on-the job training, said Shelor. Agents are assigned only the number of chats suited to their experience and to their ability to balance chats with phone calls.

Agents must keep control over the tone of the chat, CUs suggested. "Messages can get 'lost in translation,' " Shelor continued. "The member may feel the tone of the message is not helpful or friendly. We must be very careful with our choice of words, grammar and spelling so we provide a professional experience."

Chat sessions should approximate a conversation, Madsen agreed.

Agents have to know when to stop chatting and transfer the conversation to a more suitable channel, Fagala said. "Any back-and-forth discussions about a potential sale are better handled face-to-face or over the phone, but members will still try to ask them through chat." Chats that may last more than 10 minutes are converted to calls, he said.

Pacific Service, San Diego County and Vantage CUs deliver chat via LivePerson. Black Hills FCU uses prairieFyre.

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