December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Web chat is the latest boom in e-service. But what does it do for your bottom line?

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From chat to talk

Not everyone is bullish on Web chat, if only because Web technology keeps moving. “I’d like to see the whole interactive arena stabilize,” says Christopher Merritt, a principal at Kurt Salmon Associates in Atlanta. “There’s a demand for click-to-chat because it’s one of the easier functions to add today. But if I do that, how long will it be before voice or video comes along?”

Maybe not long at all. Broadband connections, optical networking, and other developments could make chat look cheap inside of five years. Already, there are pioneers.

In September, of Beaverton, Ore., began rolling out of a voice-over Internet option, offering it as sales support for certain products and brands. The site also plans to add Web chat as part of a larger redesign timed for holiday shopping.

The voice-over Internet service, provided by Intel spinoff eFusion, connects customers into Cameraworld’s existing call center. When customers click on a telephone icon, eFusion’s system recognizes those with voice-enabled computers and gives them the choice of an Internet voice connection or a call back from a customer service agent.

“If people are going to lay down a couple thousand for a lens and want to ask a question, they want to be validated-and I want to be there,” says Walt Mulvey, Cameraworld’s chief operating officer. “Today, that makes me an innovator. In five years, this will be passe.”

For now, Mulvey acknowledges that the number of customers who can or will use voice-over Internet remains limited by both customer hardware and bandwidth, even with eFusion’s refinements to the technology. Mulvey says its too early to tell what percentage of his call center’s 31,000 monthly customers will be talking over the Internet with his reps. Nor will it matter, he insists: “I want to be first to offer this.”

Cameraworld, a discounter that also sells consumer electronics, also turned to the technology to help solve a business problem. Because it sells goods at prices sometimes far below suggested retail, it puts cooperative advertising dollars from Sony and other manufacturers at risk if lists those prices in plain sight. Sony, for instance, wants to protect mom-and-pop stores in Japan from discount pricing. Customers can find out an unlisted price simply by adding an item to their shopping carts-or they can call Cameraworld.

A talk with one of Mulvey’s 23 call center reps boosts the browse-to-buy ratio. “We close the sale on 25% of the people we talk to,” he says, “so if you can move someone from the site to the phone, the chance of a sale is that much greater.”

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