February 4, 2013, 11:10 AM

Making conversation

With more shoppers turning to live chat for answers, these simple tips can help turn chats into sales.

Lead Photo

No matter how much information retailers include on their web sites, shoppers will have questions. And, increasingly, where they're turning for those answers is live chat. 67% of U.S. and U.K. online shoppers used live chat last year and 21% of U.S. online shoppers say live chat is their preferred way to reach retailers, according to a recent survey by retail consultancy The E-tailing Group Inc.

The reason is simple, says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group. She says live chat is efficient, easy to use and saves time. It's the customer service method that works best for busy shoppers looking to quickly get an answer to their question or a customer service issue resolved, Freedman says. "You can multitask throughout the process—and even do it while you're working," she says.

That helps explain why on Monday, Nov. 26, the biggest online shopping day of 2012 according to comScore Inc., live chat technology and customer service vendor LivePerson Inc. hosted 860,000 chats on behalf of its more than 8,500 retail clients. That's a 30% jump from the comparable day in 2011.

Looking beyond volume, some retailers report live chat produces robust results. Web-only diving gear retailer LeisurePro Ltd. says shoppers who use live chat spend on average nearly 65% more than other shoppers.

But just adding a life chat module doesn't generate this kind of result. Retailers have to make strategic decisions about how they present chat to web site visitors and train their agents to maximize results. Here are six tips for improving results from a range of retailers that have generated solid returns from live chat.

1. Highlight the live chat option

Let's start with the obvious. If shoppers can't find a Live Chat button, they won't be chatting, says Ashley Bailey, e-commerce director at diamond jewelry retailer Whiteflash.com. That may be the difference between a shopper abandoning her shopping cart and making a purchase.

She should know. The retailer last year added a bright orange Live Chat button on the left side of every page on Whiteflash.com. When a consumer scrolls down a page, the button remains locked in place to keep it visible at all times. Since doing this Whiteflash has increased the number of chat sessions nearly 45%, making live chat the retailer's most popular customer service format.

Getting shoppers to chat pays off, too: 65% of customers who seek assistance via chat complete a purchase, Bailey says.

Moreover, adding the Live Chat button to its checkout pages has helped the retailer decrease its cart abandonment rate 35%. In part, that's because nearly 70% of its orders come from international shoppers who often have questions about the retailer's shipment and delivery processes, she says.

"Having live chat there to capture customers and give them guidance, answer their questions and provide anything they need to complete the shopping experience makes a huge difference," she says.

2. Know who you're talking to

When a shopper clicks to chat on Whiteflash.com, he's required to enter his name and e-mail. The retailer's LogMeIn Inc. BoldChat live chat technology is tied into the retailer's customer history database, and that enables a chat agent to quickly see whether the shopper is a repeat customer.

If he is, the agent sees the customer's past purchases, previous chat sessions and other information about his interactions with the retailer. Even if the shopper has never been to the site before, the chat session enables the retailer to establish an account for the customer so that if he returns with more questions, the agent who chats with him can view past interactions.

That makes for more personal—and often quicker—chat sessions, Bailey says. By arming agents with a shopper's history with the retailer, the shopper doesn't have to go back and forth about her purchases or concerns that she expressed in previous chats. It also prepares agents for what the customer might be asking about. For instance, if a live chat agent knows a customer previously asked about diamond engagement rings, the agent can be ready to answer questions about wedding bands.

3. Agents must know their stuff

79% of shoppers who said live chat is their preferred customer service method in The E-tailing Group survey said they turn to chat because it enables them to get their questions answered quickly. That's why well-informed agents who know the retailer's products are essential, Freedman says.

LeisurePro, which sells diving products, only hires chat agents who are experienced divers so that they're able to answer questions about specialized products such as hookah rigs and scuba octopuses.

The retailer works with live chat provider Needle Inc. to find prospective agents from among LeisurePro's more than 44,000 Facebook fans and other diving enthusiasts who have noted that interest on Facebook and other social networks.

The agents, who are employed by Needle and who can work from anywhere with a web connection and receive an hourly wage, are trained on the retailer's products and internal policies. But often the shoppers chatting on LeisurePro.com are looking for more general information, such as when is the best time to dive, and that's where agents' knowledge about diving and diving equipment shines, says Bill Parnes, LeisurePro's general manager.

"They know what they're talking about, and that comes across in the chat," he says. "That helps make the customer feel comfortable about taking their recommendations and completing an order with us."

That may be why 25% of shoppers who chat with one of the retailer's roughly 20 agents complete a purchase on the site. That's much higher than the site's conversion rate, which Parnes declined to share but said is typical of other web-only retailers. Web-only retailers in the Internet Retailer Top 500 and Second 500 guides had an average conversion rate of 2.99% in 2011.

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