October 28, 2004, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Live Chat: The new reality of online customer service

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24-7 InTouch also engages the customer as she`s shopping the site. "We offer proactive chat," Fettes says. "If a customer goes through the sale process, but then stops on the credit card page for 60 seconds, we`ll automatically engage her."

Retailers can decide to engage customers to whatever degree they wish, Fettes says. "If they understand their web sites, they`ll know that customers with a certain behavior are the most valuable and they`ll engage them at the right time," he says. "Or they can go all the way to engaging every customer who leaves the site."

24-7 InTouch encourages all clients to install an analytics program so they understand how customers use their sites and what constitutes a valuable customer.

Live chat is becoming widely accepted enough--and phone support expensive enough in relation to some products` cost--that many web sites are stingy in displaying their phone numbers, Fettes says. He cites a customer that sells spyware blockers. At $29.95, there isn`t enough margin to support $6 customer service calls, although there is enough margin to support less costly chats. "Many don`t put telephone support on their site at all, or they bury it," he says.

24-7 InTouch`s primary audience is smaller retailers who don`t operate their own call centers. Until recently, its main offering was a call center. It had a live chat product, but "it was very basic, it was not proactive chat," Fettes says. It has struck a deal with Instant Service to offer its live chat option and began marketing that service six months ago.

Personality shining through

Successful live chat requires agents to have different skills from call center agents, Fettes says. A good call center agent has good verbal skills, is articulate, knows how to control the length of a call and possesses typing skills for order entry. The good chat agent is skilled at multi-tasking, not only for handling multiple customers at one time, but also for executing different tasks for customers at the same time. A good chat agent also is technically astute because he helps customers navigate the web and uses internal systems to answer assistance questions. "Chat agents might deal with six chats at one time and that`s the whole point of chat," Fettes says.

Chat agents also must be able to communicate personality through live chat, Locascio says. "The customer wants to know you`re a human and not a machine," he says. "With the best chatters, you can feel their personality."

While he won`t reveal details, Fettes says customers can employ 24-7 InTouch at a small fee with a small commitment until they see how their customers react to live chat. "We`re very flexible and don`t require huge minute packages to get started," he says.

For 2005, 24-7 InTouch`s big push will be around live chat, Fettes says. "We expect live chat to double as a portion of our business in the next 12 months," he says. "And then we`d like to see it keep getting bigger after that. We see live chat as inevitable."

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