Live Chat Customer Support: Facilitating Relationships

In a previous blog post, I went through some of the pitfalls of communicating using chat in the customer support arena. Another area that is related to miscommunication issues and has many of the same causes for failure is in relationship building.

Since building relationships with your customers is what it’s all about these days, this deserves some attention in order to keep your customers feeling like they have a personal relationship with your company.

This is a difficult hurdle to a positive customer experience. Facilitating a relationship during live chat support requires skills and training that many CSRs may lack. It will be up to you to make sure they are ready and comfortable with this method of interacting with your customers.

To being with most online relationships have several different parts:

  • greeting rituals,
  • rapport building,
  • deference,
  • compensation for lack of nonverbal cues,
  • closing rituals,
  • and mirroring of conversational behavior.

Non-scripted interactions are best but some parts can be scripted to save typing time. Greeting and closing rituals are often scripted but you need to be careful as this practice may produce posts that seem robotic and cause the customer to question whether he is interacting with a real person.

The best scripts show the personality of the agent using them and feel very free-form and spontaneous. Beyond these two parts of the interaction, scripting becomes a hindrance to true customer service and support.

Rapport building is another important part of creating relationships. It includes:

  • self-disclosure – “Yeah, I’ve had that happen,”
  • offers of reassurance: “It’s OK, we’ll get it fixed,”
  • the use of interjections or humor: “Wow, I bet that’s frustrating,”
  • and informal language: “Let’s get you back on the road.”

Rapport building offers confirmation demonstrating interest and approval plus reassurance seeking behavior. In other words, customers need to feel as though the agent understands their problem and can act as a partner in resolving it.

This is common behavior in face-to-face interactions but for online communications it is very important to find ways to deliberately demonstrate these behaviors to sustain the conversation and build the relationship.

Rapport building also includes deference, which is showing courtesy and respect for each other’s experience, knowledge, and point of view. The CSR must be able to appropriately use polite expressions such as thanks, apologies, and self-deprecating humor.

The customer will hopefully show thanks, praise, self-deprecating remarks, apologies, enthusiasm, and an agreement to try recommended actions.

The most difficult area of any online communications involves the lack of non-verbal cues. When you are physically with another person, these cues are easily seen and responded to. Even during a phone conversation, the tone of voice can give clues to another’s personality and emotions. Online these cues are absent.

Over time several practices have arisen in an attempt to substitute textual cues for the non-verbal ones. This includes using various text characters, “emoticons”, different fonts, abbreviations, and ellipses to take the place of the missing non-verbal cues.

Now, emoticons may not be considered professional in certain settings or cultures. This is yet another area where you need to decide the policy for using them. If they are overused, the business will appear too casual or the emoticons may be confusing to some customers.

If the customer and the agent both understand, emoticons can enhance understanding but the agent must be sensitive to the customer’s perception and use of them. When in doubt, don’t use them.

Do you have any live chat experiences or practices that have helped you facilitate relationships with your customers or to aid collaboration between employees? Leave a comment describing the best (or worst) experience you have had using live chat either as a customer support agent or as a customer.

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