As a distributor to hospitals, universities, hotels and other businesses in addition to retailers, Coca-Cola Refreshments maintains a large business-to-business distribution network designed to keep customers stocked with its refreshment products. And it lets its business-to-business customers research products and place orders on a dedicated B2B e-commerce site, MyCoke.com.

But that level of business connections produces a lot of questions from customers, and Coca-Cola’s answer has been to build an effective live chat system that gives customers and customer service agents an alternative way to communicate outside of telephone calls, email and in-person dialogue, says Marta Dalton, director of e-commerce for Coca-Cola Refreshments, a bottling and distribution unit of The Coca-Cola Co.

Coca-Cola has realized several gains in how live chat gives customers the information they need as it also improves the efficiency of its customer service department, Dalton said recently during a presentation on live chat strategies at the B2B Online conference in Chicago.

Dalton cited industry statistics from Forrester Research Inc. and eMarketer that apply to Coca-Cola’s operations showing the effect of live chat on buyers:

90% of customers consider live chat helpful;

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44% say it’s important to get questions answered by a live chat agent during the purchase process;

63% are more likely to return to a website that offers live chat;

25% of live chat users make 51% to 75% of their purchases on the web;

38% of live chat users said they made a purchase as a result of a chat session.

Coca-Cola breaks out its live chat management into multiple areas:

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Skill routing—with chat sessions routed to agents based on their knowledge of products or their fluency in a particular foreign language;

Virtual Agent—for automatically handling basic questions, such as finding an order number, and leaving agents free to answer more complicated questions;

Co-browsing—to let agents and customers view the same product pages to clarify how to place orders;

Reporting—for producing reports on agent performance, such as the time it takes to begin live chat sessions, the average length of session time;

Mobile support—enabling customers to engage in live chat sessions through mobile devices.

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The cost to deploy a live chat system can range widely, starting at about $50 per seat per month, Dalton said, declining to name the company’s live chat technology provider. But there are ways to ensure a company only purchases what it needs, she added.

The first step, she added, is to determine if a company’s customer base will use live chat and benefit from it. “Sometimes chat works and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. If customers are highly educated and highly technical, they may or may not need it.

Dalton also noted that Coca-Cola has chosen customer service agents with the strongest product knowledge to serve as live chat agents, and instructed them how to communicate with customers in a natural telephone style of conversation rather than the more abbreviated style of text messaging.  She added the company has found live chat most effective when its live chat windows “are proactive, but not annoying.” It accomplishes that balance by making live chat windows appear after a site visitor has been on a product page for four or five seconds, or on a checkout page for about 2.5 seconds.

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