When selling expensive business-to-business products or services, many marketers use a sales team to guide prospects through a host of options and close a sale.
Business information provider Hoover’s relied on a system of online Web forms that funneled prospects interested in their online subscription service to outsourced call center representatives, who would then attempt to call prospects within 15 minutes of receiving a form, prequalify them and then pass them off to a skilled in-house sales representative.
The system worked fine, but with one catch: “Even within those 15 minutes between submitting form and getting callback, there’s a very large attrition rate. We were looking for way to not lose that connection with the customer,” says Marybeth Gavin, Sr. Marketing Manager, Hoover’s.
Gavin’s team wanted to engage customers during that 15-minute gap while interest was still hot. But they still needed to appropriately qualify those Web visitors as business customers who were a good match for Hoover’s corporate subscription options and not simply consumers or students looking for some quick company data.
They wondered whether a live, online chat feature could supplement existing Web forms and telesales, while providing that immediate connection with visitors in the midst of a potential subscription decision. CAMPAIGN
Gavin and her team set up a three-month pilot program to test whether instantaneous online chats could deliver better results than even a phone call within 15 minutes of a prospect’s visit. Here’s how they developed and tested the chat channel:
-> Step #1. Identify best leads to trigger chats
The key to capturing leads who might otherwise slip through the Web form/phone call system was knowing when to initiate a chat. Invitations needed to pop up at just the right time to appeal to visitors who were interested in a subscription, but not be so intrusive as to drive off potential customers.
This meant outlining a series of business rules to govern when the system would automatically alert representatives to initiate a chat. To define those rules, Gavin and her team consulted with the sales team, who had their own insights into what indicated a prospect’s readiness to buy.
Together, they settled on the following chat triggers:
o When a visitor clicked three links within the site
o When a visitor spent more than 1.5 minutes on a page
o When a visitor abandoned a Web form
“One of the things we thought is that a lot of visitors really don’t know how much we have in our subscription packages. So, if they’re looking at a page for a couple of minutes and have gone several pages deep into a site, our thinking is that this behavior was an interest trigger and we wanted to accommodate that.”
To avoid annoying potential subscribers, they established a rule that limited chat sessions to one invitation per person, per visit. If a user declined the chat invitation, it was not offered again.
-> Step #2. Embed code to track user behavior and trigger chat system
Next, they tagged every page of the Hoover’s site with a special code that would track visitor behavior and launch a chat invitation window when users met one of the three triggers.
For the test, the team only activated the chat option on three sections of the site, chosen as locations where users were most likely to contemplate a subscription. Those locations were:
o Subscription options page
o Any page with a Web form (for abandoned forms)
-> Step #3. Initiate chat once business rule is met
With the system architecture in place, they began inviting users to chat when their online activity met one of the business rules. An outsourced team was trained on the system and educated about Hoover’s subscription options.
At appropriate times, a window that looked like a standard instant messaging channel popped up on the page, asking users if they wanted to chat with a business rep. Gavin’s team developed scripts that kept the initial conversation focused on broad information about Hoover’s offerings, not on sales conversion opportunities or specific product features.
The goal was to prequalify visitors and funnel qualified leads from the outsourced group to Hoover’s own sales reps.
Initial chats included the following information:
- A general opening question, such as, “Hi. What questions can I answer for you?”
- A brief conversation leading to an invitation to speak with a Hoover’s business information consultant, the company’s term for a sales representative.
- A question to determine whether the prospect was a business customer or a consumer.
- Five pieces of important customer information that sales reps needed to continue the chat and make appropriate recommendations for subscription options, including:
o Company name
o Email address
o Phone number
When this information was collected, it was automatically fed into Hoover’s CRM system to make it available to sales reps when they continued the online chat. The entire chat transcript was also sent along to sales reps so they could follow the flow of the conversation.
-> Step #4. Hand off qualified prospects
When users said they would like to speak with a business information consultant, the external representatives sent an alert to Hoover’s in-house sales teams. A flashing light on the sales team’s computers indicated that a prospect was in the chat queue and that a sales person could immediately log in and take over the conversation within the existing chat window.
Gavin’s team retrained the sales reps who used to field phone calls from the prospects prequalified in the Web form process. The new training included some basic protocol for online chatting, including the need to pay attention to proper spelling and to not use chat shorthand or slang words, such as “yeah” instead of “yes.”
Once sales reps took over a chat, they saw the prospect’s contact information, as well as the previous chat transcript. They introduced themselves with a simple greeting such as, “Hi, let me see where you’ve been on the site.” Then, the sales rep asked more specific questions about the prospect’s needs and began discussing Hoover’s various products and subscription options.
“The goal is to engage the visitor so they want to pursue a phone conversation within a coupe minutes of chatting.”
For the test, Gavin’s team created a set of special incentives to encourage sales reps to engage chat prospects, including financial bonuses for closing chat leads and for funneling prospects into certain subscription options.
The online chat channel has “pretty much blown away” Hoover’s other subscription marketing efforts, says Gavin. Once the pilot program was completed, the chat option was turned on throughout the site and it's now a standard feature. “In our acquisition marketing group, lead generation is the big deal. Volume is the big deal. When we started doing this, close became the focus rather than quantity of leads.”
30% of the chats initiated are passed along to the sales team, and the channel has become one of Hoover’s best conversion vehicles. Subscriptions generated through chat have boosted Hoover’s average order value 11%. Gavin suspects that the initial incentive program may have helped boost the value of those orders, but even after eliminating the incentive, order value increase has been sustained.
Thanks to that high sales value, the chat implementation paid for itself in a month and started making money in its second month. Now, Gavin calculates the ROI for the project at 5 to 1.
Even more compelling is the impact on the typical sales cycle. Previously, Hoover’s sales cycle averaged 25-30 days. Thanks to the chat option, sales reps now close 51% of subscription sales within eight days, and 50% of those are completed in one day or less.
“There wasn’t a whole bunch of back and forth with the chat channel. A user indicates interest, gets in the queue and in some ways their needs are pretty much fulfilled immediately. In our other system, if you miss that call in the first 15 minutes, you’d try to call back six times. By the time you got someone on the phone, their interest may have waned and they’re not as engaged as they were.”
Working with the sales team from the beginning was a crucial success factor, Gavin says, and the sales staff is just as happy with the system as Gavin’s marketing group. In fact, many of Hoover’s senior sales reps have jumped into fielding online chats, rather than just the previous telephone responders, who tended to be junior members of the sales team.
Thanks to the seamless reporting, using an outsourced team to prequalify leads has also worked out, with one important lesson. The group Hoover’s uses is based in India, and Gavin learned that chats initiated by reps with non-Americanized names, or even less common American names, such as “Zeke,” did not get as good of a response. So they worked with the outsourced group to develop more standard, Americanized names for all chat agents. Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from Hoover's online chat system:
LivePerson Inc. - the chat software vendor behind Hoover’s system:
24/7 Customer - the outsourced team handling initial chats: