Connecting With Customers Through the Keyboard

Don’t let your fingers get ahead of your brain if you add a chat service to your website.

Connecting With Customers Through the Keyboard

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Customer: Hi, I’m having a problem with my bill. I’m being charged $50 more than what I expected. Could someone please help? I’m finding this very frustrating. Thank you.

Chat Agent: Hello! Glad you are chatting with me this morning! This is Matt. What can I do for you today?

Customer to Himself: Huh? Well for starters, Matt, you could read what I typed before asking what you can do! Furthermore, you can take that smile off your face.

Website chat communication with customers is becoming a popular alternative for small businesses today, even retailers and gunsmiths who understand that more consumers would rather tap out inquiries on a keyboard than pick up a phone. Providing exceptional service via chat involves more than simply choosing a technology platform. Chat is a distinct communication channel with its own set of rules, and if you choose to implement a chat system at your company, you need to prepare service representatives to use it effectively.


Step One

After you’ve chosen a chat platform, or while that activity is in process, determine who on your team is well-suited to serve customers online. Chat service providers should be able to type, and they should have a basic command of English spelling and grammar. And depending on your location, it may be helpful to have a bilingual representative who is fluent in Spanish to answer questions from Hispanic customers.


Step Two

Once you have a team in mind, identify some rules to guide their chats. The following questions are examples of basic considerations you should know the answers to before your representatives start typing.

• How many chats should an agent handle at once? (In the beginning, nobody should attempt more than one, and even experienced  agents shouldn’t divide their attention among more than three.)

• What topics can and can’t be addressed via chat? Company owner preferences and industry regulations may limit what your representatives can and can’t say.

• When will you move customers to a different mode of communication if chat is not appropriate?


Step Three

Sometimes companies implement chat, and the tone of what’s typed takes on a stilted or off-brand look and feel. For that reason, it’s important to think about what on-brand messaging looks like before rolling out the chat platform.

How should a chat start if a customer has already shared information? What words and phrases align with your brand? What words and phrases should providers avoid?

How should representatives address angry or frustrated customers? In what way should greetings differ?

A good way to start thinking about your company’s look and sound is to start chatting. Visits sites that use chat. Think about each experience: what you liked, what you didn’t, how you felt about brand, and so forth.


Step Four

Be prepared for the obvious. Anyone who has worked in service usually starts to notice patterns. For example, if the provider is an online retailer, close to the holidays, the website may receive more inquiries about delivery times. If the provider is a utility, representatives may realize they receive more inquiries about billing on certain days of the week. In the case of a sporting goods store, you may get specific inquiries right before opening day of hunting season.

The point is to plan for the expected. Just as telephone service agents in most industries should know how to handle the top 20 or 30 customer requests without having to reference a lot of documentation, the same is true for chat. Consistency is essential. This is especially true when it comes to the basics.

Before being set loose with a keyboard, go through both systems training and role-playing to address common inquiries.


Step Five

Determine the extent to which you wish to use canned responses. Prewritten text has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it’s quick, it’s not written in the moment, and it’s had the opportunity to be proofread by one or more people. On the other hand, canned text can sound canned. Furthermore, representatives sometimes choose prewritten responses that don’t get to the heart of what a customer is asking.

So what’s a small business to do? The answer to that question varies. No matter the option chosen, canned text should sound conversational. If you wouldn’t say what’s written in the course of natural speech, it probably isn’t right. Chat is supposed to be a dialogue. It’s not a brochure, the text from a website, or worse still, verbiage from a policy or legal document.

One way to help maintain a conversational tone is to keep your text short. Long sentences usually equate to a longwinded or unnatural feel.

A good place to source potential prewritten responses is from your representatives’ actual chats. If your office is like most places, some people will show a natural gift for chat. Why not leverage their strengths and skills?


Step Six

Learn from your failures and your successes. When service goes wrong, most strong businesses address the shortcomings. Beyond fixing what’s broken, the best companies also invest time in figuring out what went right and why. They then replicate the good.

As with any service interaction, chat can go well, or it can go poorly. The key is monitoring, course correcting and standardizing success. Customer service representatives and their supervisors should regularly review chats. What can we leverage? Where are the opportunities? What was on-brand? What was off-brand?

The trick is to systematically ask and answer them. The more methodically you evaluate your chats, the quicker you will capitalize on what works and eliminate what doesn’t.


Step Seven

Chat training is not a one-and-done activity. Needs change, technology evolves, and staff turns over. Ideally, you should focus on one or two best practices a week, evaluate the prewritten text twice a year, and spot-check transcripts daily.

Chat is no longer a novelty, and more customers expect their service providers to offer it. No matter where your business is in the chat-implementation process, there is always room to improve the way you connect through a keyboard.


Kate Zabriskie develops customer service strategies and training programs as president of Maryland-based Business Training Works. For more information, visit


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