Text: Floris van der Veen, ceo LiveCom, www.livecom.net

“When I’m surfing the internet after work hours, I always check who’s also online. I stay in touch with my friends in Barcelona via Skype, Facebook and Live Messenger. Sometimes we throw in some images. That is more personal. I also chat with my sister on a regular basis. She lives in Australia and gave birth to a son recently. When he’s awake, she puts him in front of the webcam. This way, I can watch my nephew grow up almost live.”

This quote, from a 36-year old Dutchman, shows that (video)chat has been totally established these days. As far as technology standards go, Europe lags behind the United States a few years, but chatting – whether with images and sound or not – is something we all do. Who living in 2009 does not have a fast internet connection, a fairly good webcam and the knowhow to install a free chat programme? Even digital newbies chat with the same ease as they do using the telephone or email. At least, with family and friends.

Client contact settlement via chat: why?
Chatting with companies is something most people are not so familiar with. As opposed to America, where customers ask their questions via chat more often, European companies still find it scary to talk to their customers this way. The anonymity, the fact that it is easy accessible, doesn’t that cost more than it brings in? The benefits of live web chat are often still seen as disadvantages in the ‘Old Europe’.
The phenomena of ‘video chat’ seems too futuristic for most companies. Video chat slowly starts to persuade people in the United States, partly because the distances between people are often large. In the Netherlands the first pilots came to nothing a few years ago. Mail order company Wehkamp, and financials like ABN AMRO, MoneYou, Postbank and Rabobank – they all gave video chat a chance about three years ago. After a trial period of a couple of months they each came to the conclusion that client contact settlement via video chat is no sinecure.
No rocket science
The software was not the problem. Video chat is not exactly rocket science; the technology was right. But Dutch customers and call centre employees were not really waiting for video chat. This raises the question: is it still useful to investigate the possibilities of video chat in a business environment? The answer is yes. But video chatting in a business environment can only be successful when it offers an added value. Private persons use video chat because it’s cheap, easy accessible and personal; in a business setting it’s all about money.

Benefits: goodwill and transparency, nice in dark times
The biggest advantage of video chat is of course image. You push a button and all of a sudden you can see the person you’re chatting (or calling) with. This is a decisive factor for the benevolence that the client has for the salesman or call centre employee. This is shown by the famous “¬7%-38%-55% Rule” of Albert Mehrabian. In 1971 this psychologist came to the conclusion that direct (“face-to-face”) communication consists of tone of voice and body language.

According to Mehrabian, the sympathy for the person trying to transfer something (the messenger) is barely determined by what that messenger says (words: 7%), but by the way he says it (tone of voice: 38%; body language: 55%). That’s good news for video chat, the only client contact channel (apart from physically meeting the client) that gives body language a chance. When on the telephone, chatting, e-mailing of text messaging, body language is invisible. Those who manage to take on an open attitude during a video chat conversation, exude reliability.

Reliability is exactly what customers are looking for in bad economical times. Only a button with the text ‘Click here for live advice in image and sound’ can gain the trust of online visitors. Whether the video chat function will be used a lot, can thus be seen as inferior. Of course video chat needs to work perfectly, if not, video chat will lead to a bad reputation instead of an image boost.

Disadvantages: uncertainty in the call centre, and always delay
Not all call centre employees feel called upon to pose in front of the webcam like confident models. Their appearance – until then totally unimportant – is all of a sudden part of the branding of the company when video chat is used. A smooth look, nicely combed hair and a shirt-collar are highly appreciated.

Video chat may lower barriers for the client, but this is certainly not the case for the call centre. Especially when choosing for the one-way option. Video chat can take shape in a one-way or two-way form: at the second form, the call centre employee sees the online visitor, at the first form he does not. Then the employee reveals himself without knowing to whom.

Second disadvantage: even though every internet connection is sufficient enough to deal with video chat, there is always a small delay between the sent and received data. No matter how small that latency is, it can soon become irritating. And the technology for easy accessible video chat (without plug-ins) will not improve in a short term period. That revolution will keep us waiting for another couple of years.

Business video chat in practise
Video chat certainly is hip. So hip that even television companies in the Netherlands claim to use it. Viewers can mail questions to the editors and then the nicest questions are chosen, which the host or hostess then presents to the television guest. Image is of course present, but it is certainly not video chat.

When can video chat be used like it was meant to? When selling products where ‘giving’ is concerned like financial products no one feels anything for. Whether a customer chooses supplier x or y often has a lot to do with the ‘click’ between customer and supplier. When there is no click, the customer continues shopping. The products all look the same anyway. In that case, a positive experience via (one-way) video chat can be the deciding factor.

Image can also offer an added value when the online visitor wants to show the call centre employee something (or the other way around). Think about care: with two-way video chat the patient can show his swollen knee. On basis of that image, one can decide whether a visit to the general practitioner is advisable. The possibilities are endless.

At least, when the customer is ready for video chat, and that starts to be the case now. When co-browsing also takes hold, video chat will become really interesting. Then the offline world can be translated to the ‘online’ world. Seeing and hearing each other, giving a presentation, offering a folder or showing products… Without image these experiences miss an important dimension.