December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

How co-browsing can ease shoppers` anxiety and reduce abandoned shopping carts

Every few months, something comes along to make Internet shopping seem more like real-world shopping. Internet retailers first thought that an e-mail answer to a customer inquiry was adequate. Then they thought that phone calls and live chat were enough. Now some are convinced that customers expect nothing less than a trip to the store replicated on the web.

Enter co-browsing. A customer calls the retailer’s service center or clicks on a help button; the agent links his browser with the customer’s browser, then leads the customer to the appropriate spot and product on the web site, all the while answering her questions. Just like in a store when the sales clerk leads a customer to the handbag display and discusses the relative merits of one brand over another.

“Co-browsing is a way for us to bring our service reps into the shopping process and reduce abandonment rates by improving our level of service,” explains Terry Nelson, e-commerce marketing manager for Dodgeville, Wis.-based “This is a customer service tool, not a sales tool.”

When e-commerce was in it infancy in the late 1990s, few retailers were concerned about providing the high-touch service that created a fiercely loyal customer base for such brick-and-mortar retailers as Nordstrom Inc. That’s because most Internet retailers were patronized by technologically savvy consumers easily capable of navigating the self-help features of their sites.

But with online shopping moving into the mainstream, Internet retailers are increasingly dealing with consumers who desire the same level of interaction they can find with in-store sales agents. Trouble is, providing that level of service has eluded many online retailers. Live chat, instant messaging and call centers can connect a customer to a sales agent in real time, but these applications fall short of recreating the experience of having a sales representative lead a customer through the store.

Hence, Internet retailers are discovering that consumers craving high-touch service, especially when shopping for upscale merchandise, will not hesitate to take their business elsewhere if their expectations are not met.

That’s where co-browsing comes in. Co-browsing applications, appropriately named because they link a sales agent’s and customer’s web browser in-real time, enable both parties to view the exact same page as they jointly travel through the retailer’s web site while communicating via a chat application or on the phone. Each party has the capability of controlling the navigation.

Reducing abandonment

Most vendors of eCRM software offer co-browsing modules as part of their product suite. But few retailers have adopted it yet. Lands’ End is generally considered to be the first adopter of co-browsing when it initiated the service for the 1999 Christmas shopping season. Only a few have taken to it since then, even though Lands’ End says co-browsing has reduced abandoned shopping carts (Lands’ End won’t say by how much).

The list of co-browsing vendors includes 11 major competitors (see chart p. 56). The price of installing a co-browsing system varies greatly, starting at $250 per workstation and going up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an enterprisewide application.

The allure of co-browsing applications, Internet retailers concur, is that high-touch service creates a comfort level that can influence customer loyalty. “Bringing the service that shoppers experience in the physical world to the online world helps advance brand preference,” says Nelson, who notes that there was only slight demand from consumers for co-browsing before Lands’ End introduced it last year.

High-touch service can also make customer-help applications less ambiguous. Using a visual component to guide customers directly to where they need to go can alleviate the frustration consumers can feel when communicating with a sales agent. “Instant consultation that enables consumers to find what they are looking for removes a lot of ambiguity from the customer service side,” declares Anne McVey, vice president of marketing for San Carlos, Calif.-based co-browsing vendor Hipbone Inc. “The more comfortable a customer is with a site, the more apt they are to become a repeat customer.”

Sales agents can also use co-browsing to help customers fill out data on order forms the customer may find confusing. Most co-browsing applications filter sensitive data fields on order forms from the agent, such as credit card account numbers and the submit order button, so the customer feels in control over the purchase process.

“A lot of people drop a purchase when it comes time to fill out the order form because of usability and security issues,” says Dave Packer, senior director of product marketing for eGain. “When consumers get help filling out a form, the aim is to make certain they understand personal data is secure and filtered from the agent.”

Reach out

The level of customer service provided through co-browsing, however, goes far beyond helping customers navigate a Web site or fill in a form. Co-browsing software can also enable consumers to meet friends at a web site and tour the site together while communicating about the merchandise they view.

“Anecdotal evidence indicates that women like to shop with a friend to exchange thoughts on merchandise and confirm their opinions,” says a spokeswoman for Brisbane, Calif.-based Cahoots, which offers a co-browsing application. “This is an extension of how people shop in the real world.”

And even beyond shopping with an agent or a friend, Internet retailers can use multi-browser access to initiate guided tours for as many as 100 customers, although managing such large groups can be unwieldy, vendors caution. Conducting such tours is considered a great way for online retailers to introduce groups of consumers to new merchandise. Such sessions are initiated by the retailer, who notifies customers about the product introduction via e-mail. Once the group is assembled, the agent takes them on a guided tour and answers questions via chat.

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