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“A lot of online retailers are discovering that one-to-many service can be an effective way to enhance the value of their site,” says Bob Weinberger, director of marketing for Cisco Systems Inc.’s Internet communications software group. “How an online retailer interacts with customers separates that retailer from the competition.”
The sophistication of co-browsing applications varies by vendor and customer needs. Low-end applications enable sales agents to push predetermined pages at consumers while communicating with them, rather than leading the customer through the site. Page pushing is intended to handle simple inquiries, such as where on a site to find a specific product.
“It is a great way to answer questions that don’t require a lot of time,” says a spokesman for Seattle-based REI.com. “Internal surveys show a positive customer response to pushing them the right information, especially when they can’t find something.”
Some co-browsing applications, such as Brightware’s Brightware 2001 suite of help applications, enable sales agents to push pages to consumers without having to view them first on their browser. That feature speeds response time to customer inquiries while allowing agents to handle more inquiries.
“Efficiency is a consideration of co-browsing because co-browsing is a time consuming process,” says Brian Tuller, senior vice president of marketing and business development for Brightware. “Online retailers might want to consider using page pushing for general inquiries and more advanced co-browsing features to service their best customers.”
Many retailers prefer not to segregate their service applications by customer type. “Customers ought to have the opportunity to escalate the level of help as needed,” counters Lisa Metcalf, director of customer support for Needham, Mass.-based Smarterkids.com. “Most of our customer contacts come after they have filled the shopping cart, which is a critical time.”
Higher-end applications allow agents and consumers to travel through the site together as each takes turns leading the tour. Known as co-navigation, this capability allows consumers to comparison shop with the help of an agent, while enabling agents to guide consumers to pages so they can suggest cross-sell or up-sell items.
“Page pushing is great for buying books and CDs, but more collaborative efforts are needed when buying complex products like apparel,” insists Landsend.com’s Nelson. “Questions about fit and color require more interaction with the customer.”
While Landsend.com, which helped develop its co-browsing application, has quickly become a leader in use of the technology, most Internet retailers are still learning how to apply it.
“There is a lot of trial and error with how to use it,” says Kelly Sprang, analyst with Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis Inc. “Blindly pushing pages when a customer is struggling with the site is not going to work. The key is to link the technology back to a knowledge base about the customer.”
“Knowing where the customer has been makes routing decisions easier and faster for sales agents,” says Lawrence Byrd, vice president of strategy for Freemont, Calif.-based Quintus. “The next time a customer requests help, whether through co-browsing or another application, the service agent can refer to that customer’s service history to improve the servicing session.”
Co-browsing experts predict the next generation of applications will include such features as white boarding-the ability for agents to highlight data of a specific page view for the consumer-and video technology. “The advantage of white boarding is that agents can show consumers the information they need faster,” says eGain’s Packer, who adds eGain is developing such an application.
But as retailers have learned over many years of serving the public, the customers will dictate what they want. “Enhancements are going to be determined by whether they are useful to customers and if they make customers more comfortable with the site,” Packer says. But also as many brick-and-mortar retailers know, high-touch service is what keeps customers coming back.
Peter Lucas is a Chicago-based freelance business writer.