September 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Special Report: The growing popularity and power of live chat

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"Proactive chat is more art than science because there are so many variables that can influence when to offer it," Mason says. "The best route to learning when to send chat invitations is by testing situations for offering it, such as after a shopper has been on a page for a certain length of time or if they are toggling between two pages, and then track the results."

Retailers may also want to consider offering a chat to consumers who have loaded their shopping carts with costly items. In some cases, a chat may cinch a high-value sale that would otherwise be lost. "A lot of retailers don't think about using chat as a way to keep from losing a sale, but a simple offer to answer any questions customers may have after they have loaded up their carts, but have not yet proceeded to checkout, can help ensure a sale," Mason says.

Freestyle or scripted?

Although chat can be a more timely form of customer interaction than e-mail, one mistake retailers want to avoid is having chat agents rely too heavily on scripted messages. Sending messages that read like a form letter can make consumers feel as though they are communicating with an automated program as opposed to a live agent.

"Scripted responses to questions, while efficient, can turn the customer off," Haskell says. "It's better to start with a scripted message and then fit it to the situation to make it more personal."

Live chat vendors recommend retailers create a library of ready-made invitations and responses to common situations and questions and regularly revise them based on customer responses. Ready-made responses about limited-time promotions also will have to be cleaned out after the promotions expire, Haskell says.

BoldChat's live chat program allows live chat agents to search ready-made messages manually and also automatically presents those messages to agents based on a natural language processing algorithm.

One of the advantages of scripted messages is they allow chat agents to interact with more consumers at once and interact with them at a faster pace. "In most cases an agent can pull up a scripted message while chatting with other customers and do so faster than they can type a response," Mason says. "As long as the message fits the agent's personality, it won't seem so scripted."

Retailers also want to make sure that responses to common questions, such as "What is your return policy?" have consistent answers from all chat agents. "That seems obvious, but some agents can answer a question like that inaccurately. If returns are accepted up to 30 days from the date purchased, say it. Don't say items can be returned in 30 days," Mason says.

In addition to offering proactive chat, Velaro's chat program allows retailers to push pages to consumers, co-browse with shoppers, monitor shoppers' movements across the web site and set the criteria used for alerting agents about which shoppers to monitor, such as when a shopping cart reaches a predetermined value.

A social twist

While the benefits of using live chat on their web sites are obvious, what many retailers do not realize is they can expand their use of chat agents to help manage social media. Many consumers already comment about retailers on Twitter and Facebook. Rather than sit on the sidelines, retailers can join the conversation by monitoring social media feeds that mention their names and decide whether a response is warranted.

BoldChat's latest innovation is the incorporation of tweets in the same interface chat agents use to engage with web site visitors. Tweets can be automatically assigned to agents, routed and reported on.

"Many consumers use Twitter to ask customer service questions, so why not have a chat agent respond directly?" Haskell says. "A Tweet is only 140 characters, and chat agents are generally excellent at multi-tasking. Retailers can just as effectively use social media for customer service as they do marketing."

With consumer adoption rates for live chat expected to reach 75% by 2013, according to The E-tailing Group survey, retailers have much to gain from learning how to use it effectively.

"Communicating one-on-one with consumers is key and chat is one of the best communication tools retailers have," Haskell says.

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