September 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Special Report: The growing popularity and power of live chat

Retailers can wring the greatest benefits from live chat when they focus on the nuances of its deployment, satisfying customers every step of the way.

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Just like shoppers entering a bricks-and-mortar store, shoppers visiting retail web sites are coming to expect knowledgeable, personable sales representatives who will proactively ask if they need help and who are easy to find when they do need help.

Since online sales representatives exist only behind a computer, telephone or e-mail address, it is not surprising that more consumers are taking advantage of live chat, a communication method in which a shopper and an agent type questions and answers into an instant message-type box that appears in the consumer's web browser.

A survey conducted by marketing research and consulting firm The E-tailing Group Inc. found that 67% of online shoppers in the United States and United Kingdom say they've interacted with an e-retailer using live chat, up from 58% in 2011. Even more revealing is that 35% of consumers surveyed say their first experience with live chat came after the retailer proactively extended them an invitation to chat—the online equivalent of a store sales clerk asking a shopper if she needs help.

For live chat to effectively help shoppers make purchasing decisions, retailers need to learn the nuances of deploying the technology. Those nuances include knowing where to locate the chat button throughout a web site, how to set customer expectations for chat when agents are offline or busy servicing other customers, when to proactively offer chat and teaching chat agents how to converse with shoppers in the appropriate tone and style.

"Chat is an important part of an e-retailer's business and it is not enough to just deploy it. Retailers must have a thorough understanding of how to effectively use it and integrate it into their business," says Jeff Mason, vice president of marketing for Velaro Inc., a provider of live chat software. "Too often retailers end up buying a live chat solution without understanding how to properly use it."

Enhance visibility and access to chat

Making a live chat button visible and accessible to consumers is key to effectively deploying chat. A chat button that is not noticeable or located somewhere other than where the consumer expects it to be can keep consumers from making use of the application when they need it.

One technique retailers can use to improve the visibility of their chat button is to locate it in the same corner on every page throughout their web site. In its live chat survey, The E-tailing Group found that consumers naturally look for the chat button in the corners of web pages. The survey was sponsored by BoldChat, LogMeIn Inc.'s line of live chat and click-to-call customer service services.

"Consumers also want chat buttons to be available on every page throughout the web site because they never know when they may need to contact a sales representative," says Ross Haskell, director of marketing for BoldChat. "Retailers can also include floating chat buttons that remain in place on the page even as the consumer scrolls down."

Offline alternatives

While many consumers expect retailers to offer 24-hour customer service to go along with the round-the-clock availability of their web stores, some retailers do not have the resources or customer demand to offer live chat 24/7. During the times chat is unavailable retailers need to let consumers know they will not be able to contact a chat agent. Failing to do so may leave consumers scratching their heads as to why agents are unavailable.

Simply removing the chat button during the hours chat agents are offline, or displaying a message on the chat button that says agents are currently unavailable but will be available again at a certain time, politely lets consumers know they cannot interact with a chat agent at that moment.

"If retailers don't let consumers know a chat agent is not available they will assume they can interact with them and be disappointed when they can't," Mason says. "It is always best to set customers' expectations before they try to contact a chat agent."

One of the risks of letting consumers know chat agents are not available is that customers may not follow up via other available service channels and simply leave the retailer's site. To help avoid this, retailers can tie e-mail capabilities to the live chat button, so a customer who clicks to chat during off hours can still submit his query without having to search the site for other communication options.

With the e-mail prompt, retailers can also set expectations with shoppers about when they can expect a reply, such as within 24 hours. "A lot of consumers that use live chat will likely turn to e-mail next if an agent is unavailable, so it's best to offer that option to them right away when a chat agent is unavailable," Haskell says.

E-mail may not be a good alternative to chat when the retailer sells complex products that are certain to raise a lot of questions in a consumer's mind, such as electronics. "With complicated products there can be a lot of lot of back and forth answering questions via e-mail, which is time consuming and tends to make the interaction fall down," Haskell says. "It's better to answer those questions in a timely, one-to-one environment, such as chat."

Proactive invitations

Despite more consumers feeling comfortable using chat to contact a retailer, one of the biggest challenges facing retailers using the technology is when to proactively offer chat, according to Mason. Without question, proactively offering live chat is a balancing act. Retailers that are too aggressive with chat invitations can drive consumers away and those that are too lax can lose a customer in need of help to a competitor.

Retailers also need to make sure a chat invitation does not interfere with what the customer is doing at the time and be sure that if the customer accepts the invitation there is a chat agent immediately available to converse.

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