November 15, 2002, 12:00 AM

A mystery shopping test finds live chat wanting

Web Mystery Shoppers recently tested live chat at some retail sites. Researchers found sites were slow to link customers to live reps and responses often took longer than expected.

Intrigued by the growing, though still small, acceptance of live chat online, researchers Web Mystery Shoppers recently tested some retail sites. What researchers found was not encouraging. Sites were slow to link customers to live reps and responses often took longer than expected, partly as reps looked up answers and, in at least one case, partly because the chat mechanism was backlogged, thus delaying posting of replies. “All the sites I tested were ones that had been recommended to me on a web marketing discussion list as being good examples of live help,” says Tema Frank, president of Web Mystery Shoppers, which operates She would not publicly identify the sites she tested.

At a financial services site, a researcher waited 24 seconds for a response. The researcher asked, “Does your toll-free number work from anywhere in the world?” Nearly two minutes (110 seconds) passed before she received an answer. To the rep’s credit, when he told her no, he also gave her a number she could call collect from anywhere in the world. A follow-up question elicited another 90-second pause before an answer came.

At a major retail site, the researcher waited 60 seconds until the rep came. The researcher asked about shipping times and rates to Canada. An information page showed up on the researcher’s screen within seconds, but another 15 seconds later, the message from the rep stating she was pushing a page to the customer finally appeared. The researcher asked about the lag and waited 31 seconds for another answer. “I`m sorry, I really do not know why that happens,” the rep replied. “Sometimes, the messages are slow to post. We may be on a slow connection.”

Researchers visited another retail site that had just touted its live chat. But in spite of the home-page notice of its availability, three attempts failed to connect to a customer service rep. Further, the service required a customer to supply name and e-mail address before launching the chat. “I consider one of the cardinal sins of Live Help to be demanding that consumers input their name and e-mail address in order to chat,” Frank says. “Would you give your name and phone number to a store clerk before asking a question? I think not.”

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