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Online chat gives Optus sales a lift

Optus has reported a "huge uplift" in sales conversions since introducing a predictive live chat feature to its website, said Optus head of online, Chris Smith.

Optus introduced the live chat service - developed by an organisation called [24]7 - in 2010. This service aims to prevent customers from abandoning the sale or moving to a different sales channel by predicting when customers need assistance and opening a chat.

About three months ago, Optus and [24]7 added a capability to the chat service that lets a salesperson help finish the purchase. At the end of the chat, the [24]7 system "slides another window to the left and populates all the features and selections that [the customer] talked about in the chat session," he said.

After that, all the customer has to do is accept the contract, Smith said on Thursday.

The system uses "propensity modelling" to target customers who are "in the right buying behaviour," Smith said.

Since adding the chat features, Optus has seen "huge uplift" in both sales conversion and customer satisfaction on its website, Smith said. He did not reveal any sales figures to demonstrate the increase.

Smith estimated Optus has about 30,000 chat conversations with customers each month, just on the sale side.

Optus sees customer service as key to growth over the next few years and along with customer retention, it can't be ignored by any business, especially in a market as mature as telecom where companies are fighting over market share, he said.

Optus last week reported revenue losses in the third quarter. A business restructure has also resulted in large staff cuts at the telco. In contrast, Telstra recently reported a positive second half of 2012.

One customer support area Optus has sought to improve is the sales experience on its website, Smith said. Choosing the right combination of phone and service plan on the website had been an overwhelming experience for some customers due to the number and complexity of options, he said.

An additional benefit for Optus comes after the chat is over. "In those chat sessions, we can capture all that data and mine it," Smith said. The telco analyses the transcripts to discover problem areas in its business and the text mining is done in accordance with Optus's privacy policy, he said.

PV Kannan, the CEO of [24]7, said the convenience of services like live chat should trump any privacy concerns.

"It's very easy to say, 'too much data, too much tracking,'" Kannan said. "But if it's for convenience, our frame of reference changes."

"When we talk about data and tracking and things like that, it sounds scary, but if it is to quickly find things [or] to quickly understand you, then it's not such a bad thing after all."

Live chat is currently only available on the Optus website, but does work on tablets. Smith said Optus plans to add a mobile chat feature for smartphones in the future, but he couldn't provide a timeframe.

Kannan said customer service at many companies is "stuck in the '80s." While there is awareness of customer service gaps, addressing the problem is not always at the top of a business's agenda, he said.

Kannan discouraged companies from adding more customer support channels like social media. "Most people don't do a great job with existing channels, so why would you add one more?"

"The successful customers that do service really well" have "very little questions raised on social media because the [other] channels work," he said.

Smith agreed that social media is often a channel of last resort.

"It's a very powerful medium for taking customers from not being advocates [of the company] to being advocates."

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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