July 20, 2004, 12:00 AM

Nudging web users toward the live chat option

More companies are experimenting with live chat as a way to augment customer service--and they’re figuring out ways to encourage customers to choose the live chat option.

Kurt Peters

Executive Editor

More e-retailers are experimenting with live chat to augment customer service. In addition to retail pioneers of the technology such as Lands’ End, enough e-retailers are interested in chat to push it onto the top 10 list of site features respondents to the E-Tailing Group’s recent merchant survey are most eager to add.

Chat is an easy transition from phone or e-mail contact for already technically-adept web users and younger ones accustomed to instant messaging. When it’s offered on a web site, “Tech savvy people immediately go to the chat interaction, plus the younger generation, where everybody is using IM now,” says Tony Pante, senior vice president of marketing and product strategy at CRM technology and services provider LivePerson Inc.

But how about everyone else? Because live chat can reduce the cost of phone or e-mail customer service at a higher volume of transactions, companies that use live chat are seeking ways to nudge online customers to use the channel. Internet Service provider Earthlink, for example, a LivePerson customer for more than three years, handles some 7,000 chat sessions a day. To encourage the use of chat, Earthlink’s web site periodically displays the estimated waiting time for customers to receive a response if they use chat versus the estimated waiting time to get an agent on the phone, says Pante.

“The chat waiting time is typically a lot lower, and that helps drive people to use chat,” he says. And like others that offer chat, Earthlink also communicates to customers already waiting on the phone that they can also choose to contact the company through chat. “It’s using other channels to promote the channel you want them to use,” adds Pante.

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