|Wednesday, 01 February 2012 7:22pm|
Real-time instant messaging, or “live chat,” is poised to become part of the online banking experience
By Apryl Motley
Three years ago Northway Bank, an $800 million-asset community bank in Berlin, N.H., began the process of rebuilding its website. “We had a Web channel because someone said we should,” says Richard Olson, the bank’s senior vice president and director of consumer and small-business banking. “We undertook a real process to evaluate the Web as an extension of our communication with our customers.”
After spending six months evaluating the websites of larger banks and other community banks, Northway Bank decided that two important components would be part of its new website: online account opening and live chat. “Our market research showed that customers want to be able to get answers to basic questions quickly and efficiently,” Olson says. “We rebuilt our entire website so that it would be a place customers could go for quick access to information.”
ICBA Quick Poll
Does your community bank use online “live chat” instant messaging to communicate with customers in real time?
Yes – 2%
No – 98%
Source: ICBA NewsWatch Today poll, December 2011
Northway Bank makes live chat available on its website using software from LivePerson in New York City, a provider of chat-based services. Olson says that the majority of customers use live chat to ask basic questions about opening accounts, locating branches and ordering checks. “We use it to address very basic service questions,” Olson explains. “If it goes beyond that, we encourage them to call the customer service center because of privacy issues.”
At the same time, Northway Bank’s call center has evolved along with its website. “Our call center associates answer phone calls and chats interchangeably,” Olson says. “Whoever is available next will take the chat if it’s in the queue.”
Various metrics, including average wait time for customers, are tracked for both calls and live chats. “We monitor minimum, average and maximum chat handle times,” he notes. “Currently, the average chat time is four minutes.”
Olson acknowledges that while Northway Bank staff’s overall response to implementing the technology was very positive, live chat was an adjustment for them. “We were very methodical in rolling out information to them and making sure they were trained and able to use it at least one month before it was introduced to customers,” he says.
Customers have responded positively to the new channel as well, Olson says. “They like this medium, and use it repeatedly.”
In Northway Bank’s most recent biannual survey of customers, they rated the bank highest in online customer service. In addition, 19 percent of respondents use the bank’s website 11 times per month or more, and more than half of consumer customers and 79 percent of business customers use it at least once a month.
So far the bank seems to be getting a return on its investment in the Web channel, Olson says. Much of the cost Northway Bank incurred was infrastructure for rebuilding its website. “No major overhaul of internal technology was needed to support it,” he says.
Despite its potentially low cost of implementation, many community banks have not implemented live chat. According to Jack Fullen, president of Marietta, Ga.-based Beacon Software Inc., which offers community banks an Internet banking product with live chat, some community banks are concerned that live chat might hinder the close personal relationships they have with their customers.
“Customers feel free to pick up the telephone and get answers to their questions. If they offer live chat, it gets away from that personal relationship,” Fullen says. “The person who would use live chat tends to be a younger person of a different generation,” he continues. “It’s a change in thought process for community banks to understand who the customer is that would rather have an online chatting experience than picking up the phone.”
Two years ago Beacon Software began making live chat to community banks using its Internet banking software. Although there has been some interest, none of the company’s bank customers has implemented this feature. However, Fullen is optimistic that some banks may sign up for the service this year, pointing out that live chat and mobile banking are complementary services. “They are both components of the overall online banking experience,” he says.
Apryl Motley is an ICBA Independent Banker contributing editor.