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Michael Ellison
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Chat Tools: An Important Component to Customer Service

With instant messaging and other "chat" types of communication becoming more commonplace financial services firms need to adopt this technology into their customer service offering.

Instant messaging is now widely used in both personal and professional settings. Convenience is the great appeal of instant messaging - it allows people to multitask and carry on multiple conversations simultaneously. Aside from chatting with friends, work colleagues are communicating with each other and businesspeople are making deals - sometimes in different parts of the world - without even saying a word. It has become a common customer service communication channel in a variety of industries. From the customer's perspective, it is a pressure‐free way to get answers to simple questions.In the financial services industry, individuals have come to rely on quick and easy contact with customer service representatives. In a research study conducted by Forrester Research, individuals that researched credit card products online, but did not apply online, were asked why they did not complete an online application - the most common answer was "Wanted human assistance to validate my decision." To underscore the importance of live chat tools, consider these statistics we recently saw posted on LivePerson's (a provider of online live chat tools) website:

• Chatters are twice as likely to return to a site within a day • Chatters are three times more likely to buy from a site • Chatters' orders are 35% larger

We recently evaluated the chat tools available among the leading retail brokerage websites in an e‐Monitor Report, a topic we last reviewed in April 2006. The report focuses on the accessibility, usability and design of live chat tools, along with our recommendations to firms.

When we last covered this topic, only 17% of e‐Monitor firms offered live chat tools. That number has since nearly doubled to 33% of the firms we track. Of those firms, two‐thirds offer tools provided by the same third‐party vendor, LivePerson, while two firms - Fidelity and Vanguard - offer proprietary chat tools.

In our view, accessibility is one of the more important aspects of live chat - after all, a live chat tool is not very useful is users can't find it. Only one‐third of firms provide a link to the tool on the main contact page, while two‐thirds link to it from the online application.

We also focused heavily on the types of questions the live chat tool can support. All but one - Vanguard - are available to answer general product and service questions, while 33% also allow clients to ask account‐specific questions.

Follow‐up features, such as emailed chat transcripts and links to print, are important and are added conveniences for users. Two firms - Banc of America and Fidelity - provide a convenient link to print directly within the chat window.

We were most impressed, however, by optionsXpress. Among the stand-out features of optionsXpress' chat implementation are:

• They provide a ubiquitous link to chat throughout the site • Clients can actually place a trade with a broker via chat • They are the only firm to send an email to users with a transcript of the conversation

With instant messaging and other "chat" types of communication becoming more commonplace financial services firms need to adopt this technology into their customer service offering.With instant messaging and other "chat" types of communication becoming more commonplace financial services firms need to adopt this technology into their customer service offering.

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