June 22, 2011

When it comes to financial products, consumers have choice. There are many options and if one service provider fails to meet customer needs, the penalties for changing to a new institution are not significant. A 2011 U.S. Retail Bank New Account study from J.D. Power & Associates reveals that retail banking consumers are shopping for, and switching banks at an increasing rate, with new customers being more discriminating and diligent when selecting their new bank.

As a regulated industry, it's a challenge to differentiate between institutions based on products and features. This has forced many financial institutions to put customer service at the forefront to differentiate their customer experience from their competitors.

At the same time, the financial consumer is changing as younger generations of socially savvy customers emerge. A 2010 American Bankers Association study shows that consumers under the age of 55 prefer Internet banking versus any other method. These customers expect real-time, responsive customer service -- most of which has to take place online in order to meet their preferred communications channels and their desired convenience for anytime banking.

As a result, banks and credit unions have invested millions in their online banking platforms and millions more convincing consumers to use them. It makes sense to do everything possible to encourage adoption, reinforce usage, help customers find answers, and reduce application leakage -- all within the online environment itself.

The Customer Service Opportunity

One untapped area with lots of potential is online chat. Online chat is not new. Several financial services firms have offered online chat for years, with varying degrees of success when it comes to customer satisfaction. Surprisingly, many financial institutions have yet to fully embrace it as an essential tool to optimize the millions already invested in their Internet presence.

For financial services firms, online chat has many advantages, including the ability to:

  • Serve customers in their preferred communications channel;
  • Address customer issues in real-time in the online environment;
  • Attract a hyper-digital generation that will not pick up the phone or visit a branch for service;
  • Foster continued use of Internet banking;
  • Increase applications and/or reduce application leakage (for loans, mortgages) by assisting with the completion of online forms;
  • Take social interactions (via Twitter, Facebook) into a more private and secure online setting;
  • Reduce expensive calls into the call center; and
  • Achieve higher customer satisfaction scores over other channels.
  • Best Practices for Online Chat A recently released benchmark study, "Best Practices: Online Chat," commissioned by TELUS International, examines the online chat practices of six Fortune 500 customer service leaders as determined by their American Customer Satisfaction Index and/or Net Promoter Scores. Even when evaluating the chat interactions of customer service leaders, there is room for improvement. Launching online chat effectively is essential to brand reputation and customer experience. As the study indicates, it can also be a source of differentiation by focusing on three key areas that make up the total online chat customer experience: agent skills, communications style, and chat system features.

    From the study, agent skill is the most important factor to optimize the chat experience. Skilled agents are able to provide accurate responses, manage their customers' expectations, control conversation flow while resolving issues within the chat channel, and not rush customers off of chat sessions to hit efficiency metrics.

    This is followed by chat system features which include the ability to encrypt sensitive information, provide estimated wait times, provide agent typing notification, request post-chat transcripts and utilize advanced features like co-browsing. Security features such as encryption and number masks in the chat window are vital to the banking industry where customers need assurance that their sensitive financial information is protected.

    Finally, communications style involves brevity and staying on point, correct grammar and spelling and the appropriate voice and tone to support corporate brand. Financial institutions in particular can benefit from balancing a personal communications style with a professional approach.

    With so much web-based opportunity and so much invested in online financial systems, adding online chat to the customer service mix makes a lot of sense. It's also a great complement to the social media support channels getting most of the attention these days. Bottom line, ensuring effective online chat deserves serious attention to improve and differentiate financial customer service in the years ahead.

    Emily Millar is vice-president, client relations at TELUS International -- a provider of contact center solutions to global clients, backed by TELUS, its Canadian telecom parent with $9.8 billion in annual revenue.