March 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Growth curve

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“The chat customer is extremely detail-oriented and very knowledgeable about merchandise and our company,” Manno says. “It’s best to be direct, extremely resourceful and respond expeditiously when chatting with her. By studying this customer profile, we have improved our chat response time as well as our chat service level.”

The retailer has shortened the length of an average chat by over 4% in the past year, largely by identifying more opportunities to use preformatted answers. And over the same period, it more than doubled its chat volume by making chat links more prominent throughout the site.

Boost sales?

The next step is to see if chat can boost sales. Soft Surroundings began offering proactive chat a few months ago, with the offer triggered by a visitor’s behavior on the site. For instance, the retailer might invite a shopper to chat if she lingers on a page for an extended time, or abandons her cart after spending significant time in the checkout sequence.

The rules triggering a proactive chat are so far few in number, and the program doesn’t yet integrate with customer data that links a shopper’s behavior on a page to her prior behavior, purchase history or the behavior of other shoppers. Until it gains more experience with proactive chat, Manno says the retailer will proceed cautiously in adding that kind of complexity-and adding to agents’ workload.

“We don’t know what kind of chat volume to anticipate once we start rolling out a number of proactive chat rules, so we’re taking it slow and seeing what kind of manpower we might need to handle that volume,” he explains. In addition to the so-far small volume of proactive chat exchanges, his in-house team of Internet agents already handles reactive chat, e-mail and, when necessary, phone calls from customers.

Manno also notes that creating the rules that trigger proactive chat invitations requires a lot of coding, and that the work to implement proactive chat had to be balanced with the demands of a recent web site redesign.

“We are still trying to get the final coding completed,” Manno says.”We are not there yet, But we are aware of the possibilities and excited about them.”

Hot prospects

For larger e-retailers, the future of live chat might look something like the program at Unlike many chat implementations that start in customer service and then extend into sales, launched chat specifically to grow sales, boost conversion rates, and reduce order cancellation and returns.

The program launched in November 2008, completely outsourced to a partnership of vendors LivePerson and 24-7 INtouch, which together provide everything from the technical platform to the agents.

What makes ShopNBC’s program noteworthy is how the retailer is deciding which site visitors to target for a proactive chat invitation. Instead of just launching an invitation because a customer stays on a page for an extended period, or toggles back and forth between pages, LivePerson technology analyzes the conversion rate of previous shoppers who exhibited particular behavior.

It creates customer profiles that fold in that information as well as other behavioral data, such as time spent on various pages, prior average order size, and customers’ location and demographic information, to categorize visitors into various profiles.

The profiles indicate which current visitors might be prime candidates for a chat and which ones agents should leave alone. Agents can see which visitors are identified as “hot leads,” and LivePerson technology balances how many hot prospects there are with the availability of agents so the retailer does not offer more chat invitations than it can handle at peak shopping periods.

Forrester’s study found that ShopNBC’s chat program increased conversions by guiding shoppers through the sales process to reduce cart abandonment. It also increased average order size, with customers who engaged in chat spending on average 38% more than other customers. Chatting also reduced returns and order cancellations by about 12% and increased return visits, with shoppers who’d completed a chat-assisted purchase more likely to place an order on return visits to the site, Forrester found.

Chat for all

Initially, ShopNBC offered chats only on high-priced products. Based on first-year results, however, it extended chat to all products late last year, and it’s experimenting with adding chat to customer service.

Carol Steinberg, senior vice president of e-commerce, marketing and business development at ShopNBC, says the chat program improves the customer experience. “They are getting their questions answered while they are sitting there and thinking, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’” she says. “They get the information at the time they need it so the sale is closed and they become happy customers.”

The experiences of ShopNBC and these other retailers show that there’s more to chat than just a quick way to answer questions. But, as with many things in life and retailing, getting more out of chat requires putting more into it.


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

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