August 31, 2011, 3:53 PM

Sponsored Supplement – September 2011

Now that many online consumers are comfortable engaging agents in live chats, it's time for retailers to take full advantage of this cost-effective method of communicating and selling.

Human beings are social animals—and yet some interactions with other people make us anxious. Consider that 13% of consumers recently told the Pew Internet Research Project that they sometimes pretend to be on a cell phone to avoid a face-to-face interaction with another human being.

Those human foibles help explain why so many consumers have embraced live chat, choosing to type text messages into a box on an e-commerce site and receive text replies, rather than calling or e-mailing. Live chat provides immediate replies, but can avoid phone conversations some shoppers might find awkward, such as a weight-conscious shopper asking where on a retailer's site to find plus-size apparel. For some, typing that question into a chat box might be a welcome way to get the information they need without directly speaking to another person.

Whatever the reason, the statistics show that a growing number of consumers are taking advantage of live chat. In fact, one in five called it their preferred method of communicating with a retailer, in a recent survey by The E-tailing Group, a research and consulting firm. Further, 58% of U.S. online shoppers surveyed said they communicated with an online retailer via live chat the prior 12 months, up from 54% a year earlier.

Beyond avoiding embarrassment, live chat offers several advantages, for both the shopper and the retailer. For example, unlike an agent speaking on the phone, a live chat agent is using her computer to communicate with the online shopper, which means she can push product pages, images or video instantly to the shopper's screen to guide him to the products or information he seeks.

That powerful feature helps explain why consumers who engage in live chat are four times more likely to purchase than consumers who don't chat, according to The E-tailing Group.

"Consumers that use chat are more responsive to product recommendations, cross-sells and up-sells because they intend to buy," says Diane Buzzeo, CEO and founder of Ability Commerce, provider of integrated e-commerce and personalization solutions. "The important element of any live chat strategy is to remember that shoppers engage through it because they are not seeing what they need to make a purchase or they don't know how to get where they want to on the retailer's web site. That creates a fabulous sales and service opportunity."

Agent all-stars

Taking full advantage of the sales opportunity starts with training agents so that they can quickly and confidently provide the information the shopper wants, and to recommend related products the shopper may not have thought of.

"Having knowledgeable service agents is crucial to success in live chat, and the foundation of the agent's knowledge begins with training," says Ross Haskell, vice president of marketing for Bold Software LLC, provider of the BoldChat live chat product, as well as click-to-call and e-mail management applications. "A primary reason retailers that don't use live chat have not installed it is that they are uncertain how to recruit, train, manage, and incentivize their agents. They realize training differs from standard call center training."

Bold Software, which sponsored The E-tailing Group's survey, found that many of the responses to survey questions related directly to how well the agent was prepared to handle customer inquiries.

"A lot of responses were focused on how empowered chat agents are to offer incentives and how knowledgeable the agent is about the products and services the retailer offers," says Haskell. "The key takeaway is that retailers are focusing less on the technology itself and more on quality of agent training, because they recognize consumer expectations of live chat are growing along with the number of consumers engaging with it."

Part of properly training service agents on live chat is to help them understand that chat will make it easier for them to respond to customer inquiries, and is not just one more task. For example, with live chat an agent can conduct several chats at once, handling multiple customer queries simultaneously in a way that's not possible on the telephone.

"There can be some staff pushback to the addition of live chat, because agents may view it as extra work," says Kurt Bager, CEO of Netop Solutions A/S, provider of remote engagement solutions for communications and customer service. "Agents need to understand how live chat can help them better manage their workload just as much as they need to understand how it benefits consumers."

It's also important to find the agents who are best suited to live chat. Rotating agents between live chat and the call center helps retailers spot which agents to assign to live chat. "An agent that is great on the phone may not be as successful in servicing consumers using live chat," says Bager. "It is important to determine to which communications channel an agent's skills are best suited, so that the best agents are fielding live chats and using the technology to its fullest potential."

Netop's Live Guide is a live chat application, delivered in a software-as-a-service-based mode, which means Netop hosts the chat technology that connects with the retailer's site through an Internet link. The Netop technology allows retailers to initiate two-way text chat, two-way audio and two-way video. Agents can also redirect a shopper's web browser to guide him to the appropriate page on the retailer's web site to answer his questions or find a desired product.

When to ask

While retailers naturally must be ready when customers ask to chat, online merchants can benefit even more from live chat if they develop the sense of when they should reach out to a web site visitor who seems to need help. The difficulty in determining when to offer a chat invitation is that there is no sure-fire way to know whether the consumer genuinely needs help at that moment, unless she asks for it.

A consumer who appears to be undecided because she is lingering on a page too long, for instance, may actually be multi-tasking, such as taking a break to answer a phone call.

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