What’s All the Chitchat About Chat?

BrandSource members add to the conversation

By Lauren Urbanek, AVBM and Alan Wolf, YSN

AVB Marketing execs will tackle the topic of live chat at next week’s BrandSource Convention 2022.

One can argue that live chat, the online tool for conducting real-time written exchanges with customers, is a natural extension of mobile texting.

In fact, once texting — and later tweeting and other social media postings — became commonplace or even preferred over face-to-face and phone conversations, chat took off.

For many retailers and shoppers, chat services became an essential communications lifeline during the height of the COVID pandemic, when some showrooms were ordered closed and customers feared those that remained open.

Since then, live chat and its text-to-chat offshoot have become entrenched as key components of the retail toolbox, and their greater immediacy over email has made them a favorite forum for consumers and merchants alike. For BrandSource members who employ it, there’s no looking back. But for those who are interested in chat but have yet to implement it, questions abound: Should I do it? How much work does it take? Who do I hire? What are the different options?

To help address these issues, the client services team at AVB Marketing (AVBM) queried some of BrandSource’s most successful members who are effectively managing the format. Their insights and guidance provide a road map for others who need some inspiration to jump into chat.

Why Use Chat?

Steven VanHoose, Big Sandy: “Chat is very important for our online sales.”

“Chat is very important for our online sales,” said Steven VanHoose, VP of Big Sandy Superstore in Ashland, Ky. “Customers have questions before purchasing online, or can’t talk on the phone at work but are able to chat.”

Tim Hillebrand, a principal at Pittsburgh’s Don’s Appliances, said chat enhances the online shopping experience. “With our website acting like a store, we need to create a customer experience like we have in store and be ready to answer all questions that arise,” he said.

For Colder’s principal Randy Felker, the better question is “Why would you not have chat?” — something he now equates with not having a business phone. “You can’t expect customers to always connect with you in ways that you want them to,” he said. “Many people will click to chat far quicker than picking up a phone or investing time in sending an email. You have to give them the options they want in order to engage with them.”

And engage they have, with Milwaukee-based Colder’s compiling nearly 31,000 unique chat engagements with customers over the last 12 months.

Tim Hillebrand, Don’s Appliances: Picked Package.AI for its delivery integration.

Jeff Johnson, digital strategist for Bekins, concurred. “Chat gives us another opportunity to greet customers, answer questions and provide more guidance through the appliance and electronics selection process,” he said. Having a chat function was especially critical during the pandemic, when the company’s home state of Michigan issued stay-at-home orders and e-commerce became paramount. “Chat provided another way for us to maximize leads through our website,” Johnson said.

For those concerned about possible pushback from the sales team, AVB Marketing’s own Michael Cox put those worries to rest, based on his experience as a former staffer at Pieratt’s.  “Once your salespeople start closing deals via chat in 15 minutes, they’ll get on board,” he said. “Our best sales guys loved it and would be answering these messages from home, sometimes even as they were heading to bed.”

Who Should I Hire for This?

At Don’s Appliances, “We have salespeople running our chat,” Hillebrand said. “We want them to have the appliance knowledge of a showroom salesperson and be articulate, have good writing skills and be able to use our website and videos to answer our consumers’ questions. They should be experts on everything on our website.”

Bekins similarly schedules its sales staff to monitor the chat box. “They simply log out when they need to greet a customer,” Johnson said. “A couple of employees outside of the sales team assist on occasion, and they often get a customer’s contact information so the correct department can follow up. We make an email address a required field.”

But reassigning sales staff doesn’t work for everybody. “No one wants to take a good salesperson off the floor,” said Big Sandy’s VanHoose. “And if you aren’t doing over $200,000 a month on your website, then it is really difficult to support.” Instead, “We approach this position the same as a sales position,” he said. “The job knowledge required is similar, with a focus on better typing speed and spelling, although the breadth of product knowledge required when covering multiple markets is actually much greater than in store.”

At Colder’s, chats are routed to the sales or customer solution departments, depending on the nature of the query, Felker said. Either way, “Written communication skills are a must. They don’t need to know all the answers — providing the training and knowledge is the business’s responsibility. But they must quickly and creatively engage with a customer through the written word, and know what and where the tools are to find all the answers.”

For Great American Home Store, “We have had the most success hiring people with software or website development backgrounds that also have a customer service background or service orientation,” said e-commerce manager Justin Bowen. “We then give them the same training that our salespeople get and have them manage the inbox as a group.” The Memphis-based business has four dedicated staff members answering chats and are assisted by the service team, which addresses returns and damage claims, he said.

What’s the Time Commitment?

At Don’s Appliances, new chat hires spend one month in training before conversing with customers. The company currently runs chat an average of 12 hours a day, and is looking to extend that based on website traffic.

“We want our website to do the same volume our average store does,” Hillebrand said.

Most members agree that the number of hours devoted to chat will vary with each dealer’s online traffic and sales volume.

“The time commitment can be as minimal as you want,” said Bekins’s Johnson. “It takes a minute to create an account, then you log in when you are available and log out when you are unable to chat.”

Johnson said the chats themselves only last a few minutes on average, especially if the customer query requires research and a follow-up call, chat or email. Bekins also assigns one employee to the task of creating profiles for the sales team. “We give each user their own profile as a security measure, to know who conversed with each customer and who is logged in at any time,” he said.

At Big Sandy Superstore, “We staff it the same as our store hours,” VanHoose said. “But depending on the volume being done on the website, it can be difficult to [justify] a full-time position. I would say you would need to be doing $200,000-plus a month in online business to carve out a full-time position for someone with talent.

“Outside of that,” he added, “you either piecemeal it, which is spotty and hard to grow, or outsource it to someone who can cover it full time.”

Great American Home Store’s Bowen believes the number of leads generated by chat will generally mirror a dealer’s email inquiries. “If you make it easy to chat, you will probably get close to the same amount” in unique chat customers, he said. “So you might see anywhere from 60% to 140% of your email lead volume in chats, depending on the site and how much volume you get.”

What’s Your Chat of Choice?

At Bekins, “We’ve found LiveChat to be the most affordable option for a basic chat on the website,” Johnson said. “It can provide additional integration, but we just use it for chatting. LiveChat allows us to see past chats for tracking, gives us an approximate GPS location of the customers on our site, shows how long they’ve been on the site, and which pages they browse.

“Even better, we can see what the customer types before they submit their questions, which improves our response times,” he said.

At Big Sandy Superstore, AVB’s version of ConnectQT won out after the dealer reviewed several options. According to VanHoose, the software saves the company money and, like LiveChat, allows associates to see what the customer is typing, which allows for quicker responses. In addition, the daily transcripts it generates provide coaching opportunities for chat agents and helps Big Sandy’s merchants discern marketplace trends based on customer inquiries.

In contrast, Colder’s prefers Podium for its robust platform, which accommodates text promoting, CRM management, data reporting, surveys and review capturing, Felker said.

Don’s Appliances’s Hillebrand said there are many good chat platforms to choose from, including past selections Broadly and Drift, although the company is currently using Package.AI for its delivery integration.

At Great American Home Store, the chat software of choice is Crisp, for its multi-platform integration and single user interface. Managing multiple channels like Messenger, text, email, phone, Facebook and online forms independently can be “a nightmare,” Bowen said. “I’ve been through that and it’s very frustrating at times.” In contrast, Crisp is “a consolidated, omnichannel platform that allows us to bring all these different methods of communication into one inbox, where they can be worked by a team of dedicated, knowledgeable team members.”

The Bottom Line

AVB Marketing encourages all members to consider chat, as it has proven to be a gamechanger for dealers who’ve implemented this tool. To help further guide you on your chat journey, AVBM has compiled a page that compares BrandSource members’ most popular chat solutions. You can access it at AVBMarketing.com/retailer-chat-solutions. AVB Marketing’s Jason Duong contributed to this article.

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, furniture, mattress and CE dealers.

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