A/S/L – and I’d like to change my order please

Student finance chat in actionOnline chatrooms seem somewhat passé now, and instant messaging is decidedly mainstream, at least for leisure use. But the number of companies using similar methods to communicate with customers remains stubbornly low.

Those which do try it generally do a pretty abysmal job. One trend seems to be to create a ‘virtual assistant’ – basically a front-end for a search engine that attempts to answer questions typed in plain English. The results aren’t usually very encouraging. Try asking Ikea’s Anna something. ‘How much is your cheapest sofabed?’ produces the following mine of information:

“We do our bit and you do yours to get high quality at low prices. Economically produced flat-pack designs, bought in bulk, keep costs down. So does leaving the planning and assembly to you. This means that together we can create a better everyday life for everyone!”

Nothing about a sofabed, and no prices. Rubbish. Still, if you click ‘turn sound on’, it does get read out by a non-Swedish sounding lady with a slight lisp.

Putting a real person on the other end of the keyboard seems as rare as ever. Strange really, as at first glance it looks like an obvious way to deal with simple queries quickly, and cope with more customers at once. Anyone who’s ever tried chatting in four or five instant messaging windows at once knows that’s much easier than holding four or five simultaneous phone calls.

When I think of internet-savvy companies willing to try new things, the Student Finance people doesn’t come anywhere near the top of my list. That’s why I was surprised to see an online chat option on its website.

I had a query about my years-old student loan, so I tried it. Sure – I had to wait about five minutes for someone to get to me, but as I didn’t have to hang on the phone listening to rubbish music, this was less annoying than usual. I carried on working while I waited, and when the chat window started flashing I punched in my query.

It worked pretty well. I got them to change my registered address and send out some previous statements. It was pretty efficient, and certainly less hassle than hanging on the phone.

I can see that there are still loads of things that would stop people using this. While I’m quite used to chatting online, there are many people who wouldn’t be comfortable with it. And had I taken a slightly more cynical approach to security, I might’ve resisted handing over my personal details in a chat window.

But I did, and it worked. I wonder if any other companies that I’ve had painful call-centre experiences with in the past would like to refine the concept a bit. I’d definitely use it.

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