May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Technology investment for now and the future

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There is a difference between being proactive and intrusive, Castro-Miller cautions. “Live chat is meant to be a form of assistance, not a nuisance,” he says. “If a shopper declines the offer to launch a chat session, don’t keep coming back to them. They know chat is available and will engage if it is needed. The offer of assistance will be appreciated even if it is declined.”

Customers also expect items to be in-stock when they shop online. Retailers that can transparently fulfill the order through one of their stores when the item is out of stock at the warehouse can dramatically boost sales and customer satisfaction.

Unlike ordering online and picking up in-store, fulfillment through the store makes in-store inventory seamlessly available for sale online. An e-retailer can fulfill orders from the store closest to the shopper or a store where inventory is aging on the shelf.

“The last thing a shopper wants to see from an e-retailer is that an item is out of stock or on back order,” says Sharon Gardner, co-founder and president of VendorNet, provider of web-based supply chain management solutions. “There is no reason multichannel retailers can’t leverage their store inventory to supplement their online inventory. Having the option to use store inventory to fulfill a purchase for an item out of stock in the warehouse increases customer satisfaction and helps retailers move in-store inventory before it ages on the shelf.”

Flexible pricing, volume discounts

The so-called last mile in the customer service chain is shipping, the cost of which has been rising in recent years as private carriers such as FedEx and UPS continue to pull more package delivery business away from the United States Postal Service.

Determined to win business lost to these package carriers, the U.S. Postal Service has licensed select desktop mailing software vendors to provide applications that enable retailers to prepare packages to U.S. Postal Service specifications, print mailing labels and postage in-house, and arrange for an on-site pick-up.

“Shipping is a growing cost for a lot of retailers and FedEx and UPS have a lot of surcharges that increase the cost of shipping through them,” says Harry Whitehouse, chief technology officer at Endicia, a Newell Rubbermaid Inc. company and provider of desktop mailing software. “The USPS offers flexible pricing and volume discounts and will pick up packages at the retailer’s shipping center, so it is in the retailer’s interest to expand their shipping options, especially if it reduces costs, and there is no drop-off in service.”

For retailers, the first steps of engagement in customer service are making the shopper aware that assistance is available if needed, and delivering customer assistance when needed. As a result, live chat is fast becoming a major part of the retailer’s value proposition. More retailers are taking the time to make certain the technology is in harmony with their site design and prominent enough so that shoppers know it is just a click away, without being a distraction to the shopper.

“Live chat is a tool to save a sale if the customer service agent senses the shopper needs assistance to make the purchasing decision or guidance to the product that meets their needs,” says Castro-Miller. “Online shoppers may be more impatient than ever, but retailers ought to look at live chat as a way to overcome that issue, rather than be afraid of it.”

BoldChat’s live chat application includes chat invitation acceptance tracking, operator productivity reports and service-level reporting. Service agents are able to follow shoppers’ navigation paths through a site via a tracking cookie. The information can tell service agents whether the shopper entered the site directly, through a paid search or banner ad, or organic search results.

In addition, customer service agents can see the pages the shopper has viewed in the current shopping session and whether the shopper is a repeat customer. Service agents can call up a repeat shopper’s live chat history to provide insights into prior problems they encountered and how they were resolved.

A must-if done right

Service agents can use the information about a shopper’s movement through the site to decide if an invitation to a chat session should be offered to help close the sale.

“Live chat is a must-have technology if a retailer can do it well,” says FitForCommerce’s Wu. “Service agents that enter a chat session blindly without any idea of the problem the customer faces are going to come across as unprepared and lose the customer. In-store sales associates can see if a shopper is having trouble making up their mind or wandering around the store to find something, so they have some sense of what the problem is before offering assistance. It should be the same for online service agents.”

One aspect of live chat that retailers overlook is that it is an information-gathering tool about customer expectations. Information gathered by Bold Software includes identifying the pages on which shoppers initiate a chat session and under what circumstances they accept an invitation to launch a chat session. These data can help retailers identify potential flaws in their site design or content that prompt customers to launch a live chat session.

In addition, live chat is a feedback tool. Savvy retailers will use the technology to ask shoppers if the site design, product inventory and level of service provided meet their expectations, and if not, what could be done to improve customer service.

“Store managers and sales associates will take the time to get customer feedback about their business when engaging a customer, so there is no reason for an e-retailer not to do the same. All it takes is one or two quick questions,” Castro-Miller says. “More consumers are expressing a desire for live chat, so they aren’t likely to shy away from questions about their shopping experience during a chat session.”

A recent consumer survey commissioned by Bold Software revealed that 58% of respondents said they were positively influenced to make a purchase if a retailer offered live chat on their site.

“We have had clients report sales increases between 20% and 40% after installing our product,” says Castro-Miller. “They have also reported less cart abandonment and abandonment at checkout.”

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