February 22, 2008, 12:00 AM

Since talk’s not cheap, retailers must know when to offer online chat

In order not to waste agents` time, web merchants offer live chat when it’s most likely to lead to a sale. Certain types of web pages and product categories are most productive. And certain visitors can be excluded from chat offers.

In order not to waste the time of customer service agents, web merchants are learning to offer live chat when it’s most likely to lead to a sale. Certain types of web pages and product categories are most productive. And visitors who can’t make a purchase, for instance because they’re located abroad, should not be offered chats.

Orvis, a multi-channel outdoor gear and apparel retailer, invites customers to chat only when they are on certain pages, such as customer service. “We have a lot of stuff on the customer service page,” says Brad Wolansky, vice president of e-commerce. “If 15 seconds go by and you’re still on that page, you’re probably looking for something and haven’t found it.”

Orvis also offers chat to customers lingering on the checkout page. But the retailer does not offer chat on product pages, where visitors may linger reading reviews, examining photos, watching videos and comparing products. “Sitting there for a long time is not an indication you have a problem,” Wolansky says. “I don’t want to bother you.” Wolansky says customers who chat convert 15% to 20% of the time, roughly triple the rate of e-mail.

Home Depot limits offers of chat to certain product lines. “Customers generally need assistance in making decisions on high-value, complex products. Appliances are a very good example,” says Yaron Yaniv, senior program manager, customer relationship management, at Home Depot.

Retailers should not waste agents’ time on customers they can’t sell to. The web site of Ted Baker, a U.K. apparel retailer, does not sell to U.S. visitors, and thus does not offer them chat, says Martin Newman, head of e-commerce. The geographical location of the customer can be detected by the IP address.

Once engaged, customers will stay on a while-chats averaged 8.11 minutes in an E-Tailing Group mystery shopper survey last fall-and, to keep costs in check, agents have to learn how to gently say goodbye.

Chats go on in part because customers, once engaged with a knowledgeable human being, often think of additional questions to ask, says David Lowy, director of best practices consulting at Talisma Corp., a provider of chat technology.. He suggests four ways agents can bring a chat to a close: try to cross-sell or up-sell, which often leads the customer to end the chat; offer a friendly “Have I answered your question today,” a subtle hint the chat is ending; less subtly, say the chat is over and invite the customer to return if she has more questions; and offer more information through e-mail, a less costly channel.

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