February 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Right Place, Right Time

(Page 2 of 2)

WhiteFlash.com also relies on its live chat staff, comprised of seven experienced gemologists, to invite conversations based on what they see consumers doing on the site. Using a dashboard of analytics provided by Bold Software, agents can see referral web site information, such as whether the visitor clicked a paid search or display ad, or if she clicked a link on another web site. They also can see the visitor's on-site behavior.

The software analyzes the behavior and provides predictive information, based on the behavior of previous site visitors, to the agent about what the consumer might want from her visit. "It helps us to understand what we can do better to get people to talk with us," Bailey says.

Tread carefully

It's in these situations that it's important to leverage data about this consumer or those who behave similarly, says Gene Alvarez, vice president or research at technology research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. "If you are aware of this customer's activity, based on others who have behaved that way, you use the patterns to get that recognition and understand what to do next," Alvarez says. "The pattern recognition helps you to interject proactively at the right time in a customer session."

But that behavioral data also holds the potential for danger. Chat software programs often can be set to recognize a returning customer and show her name, location, purchase history, previous site behavior and chat transcripts. But just because a chat agent may have this information doesn't mean he should reveal it. "Being aggressive on proactive chat personalization to consumers who think they are anonymous could cross a line to negatively impact sales," Alvarez says.

E-retailers say they recognize this and tread carefully when it comes to revealing information that may make a shopper feel like she is being watched too closely. For example, OnlyNaturalPet chat agents can see the search terms the consumer uses to find the e-retail site, but if a consumer searched on "cancer drugs for dogs" agents would never use that information to start a conversation, Beason says. But it is good for the agent to know the customer's mindset, she says. Agents are trained to take cues from customers about how they wish to interact and to respond in kind.

At Bluefly.com, Nelson says regular chat customers tend to understand Bluefly agents will know what products they are looking at and often ask agents for their opinions. However, agents don't assume every consumer understands the agent sees what's on the consumer's screen. "If they don't ask us something like 'Do you like this sweater?' directly, we will of course ask for a style number just so that we don't feel big brotherly," Nelson says.

Like Bluefly, e-retailer Aveda.com tailors its invitations to consumers based on where they are on the site, but is careful about how it engages visitors. When shopping the hair care category, for example, a discreet window pops up for a few seconds that says, "Looking for hair care advice?"

The window is discreet, says Samara Gattel, director of Aveda Online, because its purpose is to invite a conversation like one a consumer might have in an Aveda salon. The style is designed to fit its brand image of being natural and laid-back. When a person accepts a chat, she fills out a short questionnaire with her name, e-mail address and indicates what she'd like to talk about. That enables the agent to address the customer by name, which can help get the conversation off to a good start.

The company has used the chat format since August 2008. Gattel says the firm doesn't do a lot of ongoing testing because its purpose with chat is to act like a friend or beauty consultant, not make a hard sell, and because the formula it uses seems to work. The company declined to reveal its chat acceptance rate, but does say that shoppers who chat with agents convert at a rate four times greater than shoppers who don't chat and visit the site three times as often, she says.

Results like that suggest that a well-phrased and well-time invitation to chat can help turn a visitor into a loyal customer.

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

Take the next step

Going beyond text, some e-commerce sites offer customer service in the form of digital characters that look a lot like the people in video games. Strategically placed, custom-designed characters provide guidance at sites like black light retailer TeknoBubbles.com and gambling site 888.com.

Designed and hosted by CodeBaby Corp., the characters pop up at points where the retailer wants to encourage the consumer to take the next step in the buying process, inviting a visitor to click on pre-set questions. If the consumer clicks on a question, the character launches into the answer in audio form.

For example, a tie-dyed, the-'60s-never-died hippie called Dr. Funk answers questions about what TeknoBubbles are and how the company's "secret formula, dude" sets its black lights apart from others. TeknoBubbles says 70% of site visitors stay on the site and interact with Dr. Funk while he explains product benefits. A test in November had one version of the site featuring the good doctor and the other without. TeknoBubbles sales increased 9% with Dr. Funk, the retailer says.

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