August 31, 2011, 3:53 PM

Sponsored Supplement – September 2011

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"Knowing when to proactively offer chat is as much a balancing act as knowing when to ask a customer in a store if they need help," says Ability Commerce's Buzzeo. "Retailers want to be proactive in offering chat, but they don't want to be overly aggressive. It is important then for retailers to understand their customer base and their customers' behavior patterns, and the complexity of their products when setting up the rules to proactively offer chat."

Pushing invitations to chat too aggressively can interrupt the shopping session and turn consumers off, causing them to leave the retailer's site. As part of its survey Bold Software asked respondents if they have ever left a web site after receiving an invitation to chat. While the majority had not, one in five respondents answered yes.

"Some of the reasons cited were that the invitation took over the entire screen, completely interrupting the shopping session and preventing the shopper from doing anything else until they responded," says Bold Software's Haskell. "Other reasons cited included receiving repeated invitations throughout the shopping session after declining the initial invite or receiving additional invites after they have already engaged in a chat session. Those are the types of mistakes retailers want to avoid and can address in the application's programming rules."

To avoid agents coming across like pests when extending invitations to chat, it is recommended that retailers make live chat buttons visible throughout their web sites, using large icons featuring photos of agents wearing a headset so there is no mistaking what those chat buttons are offering. "If a retailer wants to move consumers to live chat, they need to prominently advertise it across their entire web site, not just on a few pages," says Netop's Bager.

Pages that should have highly visible chat buttons include navigation pages, shipping and return policy pages, the shopping cart, the checkout page and all product pages. "Encouraging customers to engage in chat is no different from making them aware that help is just a phone call away by promoting a toll-free number," adds Bager. "The more prevalent the chat button is, the more consumers are apt to be aware of it and make use of chat as needed."

Spelling help

Even the most intelligent and genial agent is liable to misspell a word occasionally as she types. And any errors can raise questions in the shopper's mind about the professionalism and attentiveness of the agent, and the reliability of the retailer. That's why it's important for retailers to make use of the tools that minimize misspellings in agents' typed responses.

One way to avoid errors is to program hot keys to automatically type out phrases the agent often types, such as her greeting, name and the way she asks how she can help the customer. Putting those phrases at the touch of a single key on the agent's keyboard can reduce typographical errors and help the agent respond more quickly to customer queries.

"A lot of consumers will ask the same question and having hot keys that can automatically type in the answer is a great solution," says Buzzeo. "Why have an agent typing the same response over and over and risk an error when they can respond by hitting a hot key?"

Monitoring chat sessions to identify commonly asked questions can also help retailers identify why consumers are repeatedly asking certain questions. That information can clue the retailer in to information that needs to be added to an e-commerce site, or made more prominent. "Monitoring chat sessions is a fabulous tool for making the web site more informative and reducing commonly asked questions through chat, which frees agents up to service shoppers with more complex questions," says Buzzeo.

Ability Commerce's chat application allows agents to push pages to a shopper's screen, manage multiple chat sessions, and transfer complex questions to an expert representative directly from the chat session. It also lets supervisors monitor live chats for training purposes and maintain a transcript of each chat session.

Round the clock?

As more e-retailers go global, one of the biggest questions they face is whether to have customer service available 24/7. For most retailers the answer depends on how much traffic a site generates outside of normal business hours. If traffic is heavy, customer service inquiries are sure to be plentiful, and not having agents available to field those inquiries can cost sales.

"Offering live chat 24/7 makes a global presence more practical, and a lot of orders can be gotten that might otherwise have been missed," says Bager. "Chat agents can work from home, so that can provide retailers flexibility in hiring staff to service chats outside normal business hours."

Even if retailers find they do not generate sufficient volume outside normal business hours to warrant round-the-clock live chat, they ought to consider providing it up to midnight. Bager cites the example of a Danish travel agency that found it generated a substantial number of customer inquiries between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. which could be served more effectively by offering live chat during the evening hours.

"We have found that a lot of consumers will shop in the evening after dinner or later at night after they have put their kids to bed," he says. "The early morning hours between midnight and 5 a.m. may not generate much traffic, but having agents available during the evening hours is key, because a lot of people do shop then. It all comes down to whether there is enough volume to warrant offering live chat at night."

Should retailers opt not to offer live chat around the clock, they do need to provide a way for consumers to contact them with questions. E-mail is the most practical option. "Retailers can hide their chat icons during off hours and instead direct customers with questions to e-mail," says Bold Software's Haskell. "But if a retailer has not offered chat for long, they ought to leave their chat icons up 24/7 for a short period to see what kind of volume and questions they get during off hours. It can help identify some new opportunities to interact with customers."

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