March 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Smarter Service

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Despite the efficiency of online chat only a quarter of businesses in the Datamonitor survey offered it, and Ryan says it doesn't make sense for every business. "Chat's success depends on the demographics of a retailer's customer base." Datamonitor doesn't provide data on the demographics of consumers who engage in chat. However, Bold Software, which sells live chat technology, released a survey last year showing consumers who have engaged in an online chat with a retailer tend to earn more than other shoppers and are more likely to be older than 30 and college-educated.

Chat also has another benefit over service by phone—the chat dialogue can be translated. That's one reason why Jenson USA uses Parker Software's WhosOn web chat technology, says Justin Christopher, the retailer's marketing and sales director. About 15% of the retailer's sales are international. And because its high-end bicycles have long sales cycles, consumers—particularly those who will have to deal with an international shipment—want to ensure the product meets their expectations, he says.

To overcome language barriers, the chat pop-up includes a language translation feature so consumers who speak one of 17 languages, including French, Swedish and Korean, can type in their native tongue, which is then translated for the agent. The service may help explain why international shoppers make up 48% of chatters, despite representing only 30% of site traffic, says Christopher.

The web chat offering, which costs about $250 a month, bolsters the retailer's international business by reassuring shoppers who live outside of North America, says Christopher. "Chat allows someone shopping on our site from France to get the answers they need without having to place an international call," he says.

That type of reassurance demonstrates that customer service is a crucial element of online shopping, says Ryan. Roughly 60% of U.S. consumers shop online at least quarterly, a percentage that is likely to rise, according to Forrester Research Inc. As that percentage continues to rise, so will the number of consumers seeking assistance to make a purchase, check the status of an order, cancel an order or add items. To keep customers happy, retailers will have to stay abreast of the latest techniques for offering great service at the lowest possible cost.

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