September 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

Can We Talk?

(Page 2 of 2) is on its second go-round with chat. The first time, back in 2002, live chat was an intriguing gizmo, but it actually made more work for the customer support staff, says CEO Scott Perry. Rather than replacing phone or e-mail, it gave customers the idea to use all three at once, in hopes that at least one message would get through. It was confusing for the staff and expensive for the company.

Getting the idea
Perry decided to channel everything through the telephone. He removed the chat and e-mail links and left it at that, until last March, when he decided to take another chance on chat. Now there’s a chat button on the site menu, so that it appears on every page.

This time, the customer base was more sophisticated, and got the idea. About 75% of chats are sales-related, and those often occur when the customer has filled his cart and has one last question before he pushes the checkout button. The other 25% involve problems with existing orders.

Perry has become more sophisticated, too. A few months after getting chat going with an application service provider, he looked at his costs and decided to bring the software in-house. On the recommendation of a competitor, he purchased a package from Kayako Software, Punjab, India, for $599-about the cost of paying for one month of ASP service for his six customer service representatives.

In addition to having chat on the main sales site, Perry has created a separate site,, for customer service. Visitors can either initiate a live chat or submit a trouble ticket that gets assigned to one agent until it’s resolved. The Kayako software integrates all those functions, so that even if the customer’s agent is out that day, any representative can pick up on the customer’s problem and have the complete history of the exchange at hand. “It’s a much more efficient way to handle things,” Perry says.

CompUSA started offering customers a chat option in June 2005. The first two months were a rich learning experience: mainly, the company learned just how many customers had questions during the shopping and checkout process. Particularly frequent were questions about training classes, extended warranties and other service products, which was a sign that the information on the site wasn’t enough for customers to make a decision to buy those services, says senior e-commerce director Hurlebaus. Chat feedback also led the company to beef up information on many of its product pages.

The best news: Customers who clicked the chat button on a product page were eight to ten times more likely to end up buying something than non-chatting customers, and their average order size was 30% higher. Customers making chat inquiries during checkout were four times more likely to see their purchase through to “Buy.” And those who have chatted are more likely to turn into repeat customers.

The accidental chatter
CompUSA’s chat vendor is InstantService, Seattle, and the company tracks its chat performance with analytic software from Coremetrics Inc., San Mateo, Calif.

At Jackie Cooper Imports, Internet manager Amy Dean handles all the chats that come in (though an assistant monitors the chat screen if she’s on the phone or away from her desk, and summons her if a chat customer appears). The dealership became involved with chat somewhat by accident, because the CEO of its chat vendor, SmartMax Software Inc., of Tulsa, happened to have bought a car there. He and Dean fell to talking about the company’s SightMax chat product, and the sale was made. The product has been installed for about a year, and now she says she wouldn’t be without it. Originally the chat button appeared only on the home page, but a recent redesign has put it on every page. She says the software has more than paid for itself.

“People who do a live chat are serious buyers,” Dean says. She gets one to five chats a day, and 80% of them are looking for a vehicle. (The others are existing customers who want to schedule service or have other questions.) “Some are not very Internet-savvy and want me to tell them what we have. Others know exactly what they want.” Inquiries come from all over: she has sold to customers in Canada, New York and California. While some of them might have gotten in touch by e-mail if the chat option hadn’t been available, “there are definitely some customers that I wouldn’t have gotten without chat,” she says.

Who is that lady?
Occasionally she’ll invite customers to chat. If they click the “decline” button, Dean’s chat screen display turns their IP address red, so that she knows not to bother them again. “Most of the time they don’t accept or decline,” she says. “They just close the box.”

Like all relationships, those between chat representatives and their customers can take unexpected turns. The fetching blonde that’s the face of chat for the SightMax product has caused Dean some embarrassment. Not only does the occasional car shopper ask her for a date, but one day she ran into one of her customers when she went out for pizza with a crew of salespeople from the dealership. Seeing their matching Mercedes polo shirts, he asked if any of them knew Amy Dean. When Amy ‘fessed up to her identity, he said accusingly, “You don’t look anything like your picture.”

Elizabeth Gardner is an Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer


Click Here for the Internet Retailer Guide to Live Chat Products and Services
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