"Hi, my name is Lisa, is there anything I can help you with today?"
While customers have come to expect this type of greeting when shopping at a brick-and-mortar store, Internet customers are also being offered a similar experience when shopping online, albeit World Wide Web style. Using live customer support technology (also called live chat or live help), businesses are able to offer immediate, real-time assistance to Web site visitors through text-based chat or voice applications.
Live support is all about connecting Internet businesses with their Web customers by using a one-on-one, real-time communication tool. This allows businesses to engage in a virtual hand-holding process whereby they can walk prospective customers through their purchase or provide technical support and answer general inquiries. Live support allows merchants to do this at a time that matters most - when customers are on a Web site looking at products or services, not at a later time when their e-mail inquiry makes its way to a merchant's inbox and the shopping cart has already been abandoned.
A visit to some of the largest of online retailers will show that many in the e-commerce business are using various live support solutions. It's important to remember, however, that even a small business with only a few employees (or smaller numbers of sales) can take advantage of real time interaction with Web site visitors. In fact, many live support vendors have packages designed for and pricing affordable to the small business.
According to Philippe Lang, Vice President of LivePerson Inc., there are three main functions that can be served by using live support applications.
"Some businesses may be using live chat purely for online sales, where the live support application provides leads or as way to initiate a pro-active engagement with the customer. Others may be looking for a way to assist with fielding customer service inquiries such as billing or shipping questions, and we also businesses using this application to provide immediate technical support. It can also be a mixture of all three."
How Does it Work?
A live support application can be used to manage many types of customer inquiries. Exact features and capabilities will differ depending on the vendor, but the end result is similar. On a Web site, visitors can choose to click a "Live Help" button if they need assistance, or merchants can use a proactive method of engagement by initiating a live chat window and asking if assistance is needed.
From the user's point of view, the process is simple. They click an icon on the Web site to initiate a chat session with support personnel. While one can easily see the direct communication benefits of using a live support system, another benefit comes in the form of the user's analytical data, which is available to the live support operator.
Live support operators are able to monitor the activities of a user and access data such as geographical information, page views, product selections, shopping history, previous chat sessions, or even what search terms were used in which search engine to bring that person to your Web site. Pages where users exit the Web site or check out process can be the perfect place to initiate proactive live support or to place live support icons. Not only do merchants open a live communication channel with their customers, live support applications also provide them with important data about that customer.
|Amazon.com uses eStara's Click to Call software to offer live support to its customers. (Click for larger image)|
Many live support applications, such as the LivePerson Pro and Click-to-Chat are fully hosted ASP solutions which means small businesses do not need to invest in additional hardware or IT resources to provide live support. Additionally, these products can offer businesses standard security features. eStara's solutions, for example, boast secure multi-party conferencing, profanity filtering, SSL secure data transfer, and IP address blocking.
Type vs. Talk
While live support sounds like a positive solution for both businesses and Web site visitors, it is not without issues. One problem is that a text-based chat just isn't appropriate for all types of business.
eStara's Marketing Communications Manager, Dan Obregon, stresses the power of voice and the need for businesses to offer the right form of communication at the right time.
"For more complex or high value transactions, voice is often the most comfortable form of communication for client."
Citing loan applications and financial oriented services as an example, Dan Obregon went on to say that many service oriented businesses would benefit more from offering clients immediate phone support through their Web site.
While eStara's Click to call is geared to large businesses and enterprise clients, small businesses can look to third-party providers such as Verizon Super Pages or the Amazon A9 search directory for click-to-call solutions. Both of these services offer business listings with click-to-call deployment (offered on a pay-per-call subscription basis). In this case, small businesses don't even need their own Web site to offer click-to-call services to prospective Internet customers.
Rather than making a firm decision between offering click-to-call or click-to-chat solutions, businesses can also offer use combination of both. eStara's solution offers a text-based communication session which can be seamlessly escalated to a phone session through the easy-to-use Web interface.
LivePerson's voice product, Live Call is presently in the very final stages of development, but it, too, will offer businesses a way to connect with customers via the phone through their Web sites for instances when more than a text-based chat is needed.
CoutureCandy — Live Chat Support in Action
It wasn't difficult to find an e-commerce business willing to talk about the success they have had using live customer support on their Web site. Mathew Hunter is the CEO of Ascendim (a company specializing in out-sourced online marketing consulting, sales leads, creative design and technical programming), and is also Co-Founder of CoutureCandy, a rather alluring online boutique offering the freshest designer apparel.
Hunter chose to use LivePerson Pro, and deployed the application on CoutureCandy two months ago - and already he sees an increased conversion rate from live support chats that have resulted in sales.
"We chose LivePerson to mainly field our customers' questions about size, length, and other clothing specific questions. We felt that some people just didn't want to go through a voice system for these types of inquiries. It was a great way to add a second, non-intrusive communication system to our business."
At CoutureCandy you'll find the live chat icons strategically placed on product information pages, so customers have easy access to inquire about a product they are looking at. CoutureCandy always has two or three stylists on hand to answer customer service inquiries including those that originate online through its Web site.
CoutureCandy is a prime example of how Web sites can make live chat support applications work. Using its existing, knowledgeable staff to monitor and assist Web shoppers, Hunter says that at a cost of $100 per operator per month, live support has been a worthwhile investment.
"Our experience with Live Person has been very satisfying. It is an application we will definitely be deploying when we launch our men's couture site in two to three months, and on our kid's couture site as well, which is also being launched this year."
|CotureCandy.com relies on LivePerson's click-to-chat tool allows the site to offer immediate help to its customers. (Click for larger image)|
Best Practices for Small Businesses
Knowing when to deploy live support on a Web site is half the battle. Obviously, not all businesses offering products and services online need to rush out and choose a live support ASP.
Philippe Lang suggests that one of the indicators small businesses should look for is the amount traffic the Web site gets.
"If the Web site is only handling ten visitors per day, for example, it doesn't make sense to implement a live chat solution. If the Web site is bringing in a few hundred potential customers a day, and you notice upwards of ten to twenty e-mails going through to sales or technical support, then it's a solution businesses should seriously consider," he says.
Keeping in mind that there is a right form of communication for the right time, businesses also need to decide if live voice or live chat (or a combination of both) is going to best address their customer's needs. To this end Dan Obregon suggests businesses in the financial or service sector — or those offering higher valued products and services — may be better suited to click-to-call solutions. In these scenarios, clients will likely be more comfortable providing information and closing deals through voice instead of typing text into a chat window.
For many online customers, live support icons indicates they will receive quick and immediate attention. Philippe Lang believes that one of the worst-case scenarios is having a visitor click the icon to initiate the chat process but end up not having anyone respond in their support window. This situation will happen if the attending agent didn't set his or her status to "away" (meaning the icon will display a "currently not available" status to visitors), or are not using application features which will automatically set an agent's away status after a period of system inactivity.
Repeat visitors wanting to use live support can become frustrated if they frequently see a "currently not available" message. Agents should consider disabling the live support icons site-wide if online support is not going to be available for an extended length of time.
Live support solutions provide agents with important user data. Be sure to pay close attention to this information screen when a customer support chat is initiated. If a customer is sitting on the shipping information or checkout page of a Web site, an agent familiar with sales can take that inquiry. In the end, this could save a customer's patience, as merchants will be less likely to have to transfer them to another agent where they may have to repeat their inquiry.
Most Live support solutions offer businesses the ability to customize the displayed icons allowing custom images and text. Rather than inserting the generic "Click to Chat" icon, why not offer visitors at a wine site, for example, the opportunity to "Click to Chat with a Wine Expert" or similar theme depending on your business? The importance of integrating the application across a Web site to match a brand should definitely not be overlooked.
Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been writing about computers and technology since the early 90s. She's also the managing editor of Webopedia.
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