February 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Right Place, Right Time

E-retailers hone the art of offering live chat just when it's most likely to seal the sale.

Lead Photo

A customer with a shopping cart full of products is sitting idle on an e-retailer's checkout page. Seconds tick by. Is she fishing through her wallet for a credit card or having second thoughts?

Seven out of 10 consumers abandon their carts during the final stages of an online purchase, according to SeeWhy, an online marketing and analytics consultancy. So e-retailers are always looking for ways to save at least some of those sales.

One way is to invite the visitor to a live chat, in which the consumer and an agent type questions and answers into an instant message-type box. Relatively few retailers offer this kind of proactive chat—only 12 of 100 top e-retailers in a recent survey by research and consulting firm The E-tailing Group, compared to 43 that offer a live chat button visitors can click, if they choose to ask for help.

Perhaps more e-retailers should encourage chats, as many online shoppers like it. The E-tailing Group found 91% of consumers who accepted a proactive chat invitation say they got their question answered, versus 86% who initiated the chat, a difference that Lauren Freedman, president of the research firm, considers statistically significant.

And, while only 19% of online shoppers participated in a live chat last year, chat garners a 63% customer satisfaction score from those who did, higher than such customer service channels as e-mail, self-help and frequently asked questions, says Forrester Research. Forrester estimates each chat costs a retailer $5.

Given the cost, and the risk of driving away consumers with ill-timed or poorly phrased chat invitations, it's important to do it right. That means knowing when to offer a chat, training agents to be discreet about the customer lest it seem creepy, and constantly testing.

"It's a living, breathing thing," says Leslie Nelson, director of customer service at fashion e-retailer Bluefly.com. "What worked last year or six months ago or even three months ago might not work anymore. We are constantly evaluating how we can refine live chat to optimize the customer experience."

One-minute rule

Bluefly has offered proactive chat since 2007, and finds it so successful it will increase the size of its chat team by more than 70% this year, extend the hours it is available during the week and add weekend service. The web-only retailer, which uses LivePerson's live chat technology, doesn't want to interrupt a consumer that's doing well, so it continually tests when and where to offer a chat, using what it calls a quadrant system.

The e-retailer starts by testing four trigger points, eliminates the two weakest performers and then runs a longer test between the top two. The winner becomes the new trigger.

It also uses that process to test the language in the live chat invitation box. The purpose, Nelson says, is to find the best opening message for each consumer based on her behavior. For instance, a consumer shopping for dresses gets a different invitation than a consumer shopping for accessories.

For another online retailer, OnlyNaturalPet.com, the current trigger is quite simple: Whenever a consumer is inactive for 60 seconds on any page, the retailer of organic and natural pet products offers a chat. If the consumer accepts, one of six call center agents responds.

Settling on a 60-second trigger took testing, says Diann Beason, director of sales and services. Beason says the e-retailer introduced reactive chat in April 2010 and rolled out proactive chat shortly thereafter. When it tested popping chat invites at 90 seconds, customer response was low; at 30 seconds, many customers were annoyed.

"The responses were things like 'quit bugging me.' The moment you get a couple of those—and you realize that for every one person that complains there are 10 more just not bothering to complain, you know that it's not right," Beason says. "It may not have been a perfect test, but it was enough."

And a 60-second trigger may not be right for all e-retailers, she notes. Visitors to OnlyNaturalPet often spend a long time studying product information because they are interested in the ingredients or materials used, Beason says. What may look like inactivity is just how consumers shop the site. Beason says OnlyNaturalPet intends to test soon new triggers and messages based on shopping cart value.

Long chats

Jewelry e-retailer WhiteFlash.com uses a variety of triggers for live chat invitations, including the number and frequency of pages viewed and what's in the customer's cart or wish list. And how the invitation is worded varies based on what the e-retailer knows about the customer, says Ashley Bailey, web content manager.

For example, Bailey says WhiteFlash.com delivers a different chat invitation for a consumer who comes to the site after doing a Google search for a general term like "diamonds" than to a consumer who searched for a more specific phrase that shows she has a better idea about what she'd like to buy, such as "ACA ideal cut diamond." The e-retailer of high-end diamonds also uses Google Analytics, its customer relationship management database and the report services of its live chat vendor, Bold Software, to refine how to target customers with the right chat invitation at the right time, Bailey says.

Given that items on WhiteFlash.com typically range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars, most consumers interact with an agent before making a purchase. Bailey says live chat is the firm's most effective sales channel and that consumers who chat are 10% to 30% more likely to complete a purchase than those who don't. About 35% of extended invitations are accepted, she says. Proactive chats at the e-retailer tend to last at least 15 minutes but often go on for an hour or more.

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