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02:55 PM
Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter
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Online Chat Outreach: Financial Firms Are Testing Proactive Help Feature

Financial services firms want online chat to succeed because they believe it provides convenience to the online user while making the interaction more efficient and less costly for the firm.

For the past year, behind-the-scenes chatter has suggested that financial services firms have had a strong interest in deploying proactive online chat. While online chat has been around as a customer service option for several years, in most cases it has received lackluster use. Online users are unaware of its availability or don't have specific experience with it to recognize any advantage over picking up the phone.

With lukewarm adoption to date, many have envisioned and discussed an improved iteration of online chat that senses when an online user needs help and proactively reaches out, un-solicited, to the user to aid them and remove obstacles to online task completion. Vendors such as Proficient Systems (Atlanta) and LivePerson (New York) have developed these capabilities, and some success has been realized by several large banks with regard to online lending applications. GEICO Insurance (Washington, D.C.) has recently added this pro-active help feature to its online auto insurance quote and many, both inside and outside the insurance industry, are looking on with interest.

GEICO's new feature works as follows: when a user who has initiated the online auto insurance quote process reaches the coverage selection page and delays proceeding, a pop-up window appears in the center of the user's screen offering to connect them with an insurance specialist who is there to help. If the user opts to proceed, a new window opens where the user can "chat" directly with an insurance specialist. The experience is highly personalized, and the customer service rep's first name is used while the user can elect to use a nickname or just go by "customer." The rep quickly determines how he can be of assistance and goes on to address any and all of the user's points of confusion or hesitancy.

This approach works for several reasons. First, it is focused on two specific points of decision-making that involve the greatest confusion or uncertainty: selection of complex coverage levels and choosing whether to buy the policy or not. GEICO can assume that a reasonable delay may suggest a need for help. The proactive nature of the outreach is positive because the carrier can control the situation, not relying on user action to get beyond the obstacle. The assistance takes place directly on the screen and does not draw the user away from the task at hand -- finishing the quote and moving on to purchase.

For insurance carriers, proactive online chat works because they are able to address inquiries at the point of pain in a cost-effective manner. Unlike the one-on-one nature of the phone or branch visits, online chat representatives can maintain a handful of conversations at the same time. While human review of questions ensures that answers are accurate and can be customized, the availability of canned template responses allows for a more efficient and reliable approach to answering common questions. At the end of the interaction, the sales agent provides the customer with an electronic business card that they can easily have emailed to them for future use. If implemented correctly, the end result is a cost-effective and timely customer service interaction that leaves the user with a sense of convenience and satisfaction derived from attentiveness.

However, the process is not without flaw or potential for a negative experience. In limited testing of online chat offerings, Watchfire G—mezPro analysts found that several hiccups occurred. In one instance, after first being presented with and accepting an offer to engage in online chat, a screen quickly appeared, saying that the Sales Agent was no longer available and asked our analyst to e-mail his question. In a separate instance where proactive chat was tested, the chat was successful and our questions were answered quickly. However, throughout the chat with our sales agent, "Sean," the conversation was interrupted with confusing template messages from an automated moderator. In a quick exchange that involved 15 combined messages entered by the customer and sales agent, the moderator posted 17 mostly unnecessary messages ("Please wait while we connect Sean to the chat session," and "We are sorry to keep you waiting," etc.).

Additionally, in responding to our questions, the sales agent asked several questions that had earlier been answered in the initial online application. For ideal optimization, the customer service rep would be able to move through the interaction with a full understanding of any information already provided by the user.

GEICO's implementation of proactive online chat has piqued the curiosity of many inside and outside of the insurance industry. The reluctance of many to deploy similar functionality to-date has been due to concerns over how to know when the user needs help and should be approached. Many firms, having had poor experiences in the past with online chat, are reluctant to make initial capital expenditures until they see proof of better adoption and performance.

Further, firms are hesitant to push proactive chat until they are confident that it will be deployed in a manner that successfully addresses obstacles to task completion. An experience that lures the user away from highly critical tasks (online applications, online purchases, etc.), but then annoys the user or fails to resolve their confusion could actually increase the chance that the user abandon the task altogether. So it is with anticipation that many firms watch the GEICO experiment (as well as examples from the lending space) closely. Should this new feature demonstrate higher adoption levels than non-proactive chat and result in higher close rates, it could be a sign of future technology expenditures.

Tim Carpenter is an insurance industry analyst with Watchfire GomezPro in Waltham, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected].

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