Well-implemented proactive chat can offer compelling business benefits: increasing sales, reducing call center costs, improving customer satisfaction. Proactive chat availability is growing. But many companies continue to stumble in their implementation, compromising their ability to achieve these benefits.

I’ve recently had two unsatisfying chat experiences that are not unusual:

In the first instance, I was having trouble logging into my account when a proactive chat box appeared asking if I needed help. The offer of assistance began to ease my rising blood pressure. After requiring me to complete queuing questions including my zip code and the product I was inquiring about, I was told that chat couldn’t help me and directed to the 1-800 line.  Clearly the rules to trigger a chat invitation following repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to log in were misplaced. My blood pressure returned to its upwards trajectory.

In the second experience, I went online to purchase computer hardware. Unsure of what I needed, I searched FAQs until a proactive chat box appeared, offering me a glimmer of hope. Midway through the chat, the agent’s responses began to slow down until there was a nine minute delay. Nine minutes. As an analyst covering this space, I understand the staffing issues that may have caused this problem. Perhaps the agent was conducting too many concurrent chats; while 2 to 3 concurrent chats are usually considered best practice, some companies strive or staff for upwards of 4 or 5 chats. Or perhaps the agent was also engaged in a time-consuming co-browsing session at the same time as he was helping me, a significant risk in offering the two channels on a blended agent screen. As a consumer, the reason for the nine minute delay didn’t matter; I resolved my question by using the time to purchase my item on a competitor’s Web site. I am not alone: 57% say of online consumers say that they are very likely to abandon their purchase if they can’t quickly find the answer to their question (Source: North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009 [US])

Proactive chat is at the convergence of multiple functional areas such as Call Center Operations, eBusiness, IT, Sales, Website Design & Usability, and Marketing. As a result, implementing a successful proactive chat can be complex because it requires aligning the objectives and measurement across many areas.

But once proactive chat invitations are appearing on a website, the work is not done. A successful proactive chat offering is an ongoing process. I’ve heard from clients that the most subtle changes, such as an invitation box with rounded edges rather than square edges, can affect acceptance rates. These subtleties can only be discovered through ongoing experimentation and refinement in several areas including business rule triggers, staffing, and design.

I’ve recently published a report called “Making Proactive Chat Work” which outlines many of the steps to a successful proactive chat implementation. I hope it will be helpful and welcome your feedback.