Even on Web, Selling Requires Personal Touch

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Selling has always been personal. Many e-commerce players assume technology can supplant salespeople. Evidently, cybershoppers think differently since they abandon two-thirds of items put into shopping carts and increasingly demand the presence of live people in the selling process.


It seems that the old truism that people buy other people first, then buy the goods and services they offer is as true online as in stores.


The need for online salespeople turns the financial efficiency of the Web on its head. Most e-commerce entrepreneurs are betting that online shopping, customer service and technical support at dimes per inquiry will replace the more costly telephony alternative, which costs five to 10 times more, requires constant training and management and must finesse turnover rates exceeding 200 percent annually in the average call center.


So far, no e-commerce player is omniscient enough to anticipate the needs of millions of shoppers or to devise dynamic technology that can respond to the array of impulses, doubts and questions that shoot through shoppers' minds as they navigate a site.


If you doubt this premise, imagine yourself in a retail store. Your eye catches something. You touch it. Feel it. Smell it. Read the label. Hold it up to your shoulders. Ask your friends what they think. Put it down. Come back to it. Scan the price tag. Search for a sale sign.


Then you need to find it in your size. Simultaneously you are assessing its value. You are anxious about the fit, color and the price, not to mention how much time you are investing in this deal to start with.


Now add a dollop of computer angst, a dial-up wait time courtesy of AOL, a residual (and irrational) fear of having your credit card number snagged out of the ether, a passing doubt if the guys behind this site are real, and a raft of product questions. Then put it in your cart.


You want to go back to that item but can't figure out how. There is no easy or obvious toggle. You hit "back." You go to "home." The site freezes your application. You pound the keyboard, curse whoever invented the Internet and vow never to shop at this site. Welcome to my world.


That doesn't even take into account the generally crude state of information architecture that confounds shoppers with counterintuitive buttons, pull-down bars, banners and icons, which delight some Gen-X gearhead as much as they stymie rather than streamline the buying process.


Into this void steps Robert LoCascio and his venture-funded company, LivePerson.


LoCascio, who developed software to enable real-time chat, starts with the simple premise that unless salespeople intervene in online shopping, we will never close enough sales to pay back all those venture capitalists hovering in the wings.


He also understands that if you need serious IT help to get this done, hardly anybody will do it because it will take too long, cost too much and be too much of a hassle.


But LoCascio also understands that his business must facilitate sales and customer service without getting entangled in the messy, costly and most unhappy prospect of dealing with customers who are needy, helpless, ornery, demanding and ungrateful, but absolutely necessary for the success of an e-commerce site.


His answer is software, or specifically, his software running on his server. It's cheap to set up at $500 per site and cheap to license at $250 per online rep. You supply the salespeople. He supplies a way for your salespeople or customer service reps to chat with shoppers in real time - answering questions, providing details, upselling, cross-selling and guiding them to a close.


LivePerson claims that on the 70-plus sites using this software, a typical rep can handle up to four inquiries at the same time and sales have increased 25 percent to 35 percent. Has he got your attention now?


LivePerson works a lot like AOL's Instant Messaging system. A box pops up and customers type in a question or a request. The rep types back in real time. A well-trained rep initiates consultative sales conversation pointed toward closing a sale. The software also enables a rep to push a new URL or display a photo or other information to an inquiring customer. The average call time is six minutes and the average customer asks two questions per LivePerson session. Shoppers are tagged and tracked through their LivePerson-enhanced experience from inquiry to sale using cookies.


The critical variables for maximizing the value of LivePerson are where you put this button on your site, how you identify it to customers, and how well you train your reps.


For example, Nextcard has buried it in its "Contact us" section and NationsBank Car Finance.com has given it the kiss of death by tagging it "online live chat."


Maybe one of the newer customers like FragranceCounter.com, Tickets.com, Earthlink.com or PCFlowers and gifts.com will offer customers the option of "speak to a salesperson" or "instant shopping help" or "ask Mr. Tickets."


Putting this tool to work requires no greater effort than writing a check and giving LoCascio's team access to your Web server. Operating on a KISS (keep it simple stupid) philosophy, LoCascio wants to teach the world to sell before hordes of holiday shoppers, expecting to reap the benefits of disintermediation descend on unprepared sites.


"Our focus," he says, "is to maximize purchases among the customers you attract to your site."


Then he'll automate and prescript responses that you write to the most frequently asked questions about your product or service, which he ballparks as 70 percent of customer questions. By automating the obvious questions, you accelerate a rep's ability to respond to anxious customers while giving the site-owner assurance that the message will be delivered properly.


While early adapters, such as 1800DayTrade.com and Webhosting.com, are using LivePerson to handle overflow and after hours site traffic, CBS Sportsline's IGoGolf.com and some other sites are moving more merchandise than they expected.


"It's the person stupid" is our best advice to e-tailers, said LoCascio. "Shopping is the essence of improvisation, it is not an automatic need. To effectively sell products and services, you have to have a live person in the process. LivePerson injects that salesperson into the process in a way that increases sales and customer satisfaction while decreasing technical complexity and operating costs."


With dreams of a brand-building ad campaign, new software and service offerings, a portal alliance and follow-on rounds of venture capital, LoCascio is staffing up with the intention of becoming a dominant support player in e-commerce. Who knows? Someday maybe he'll get beyond the software and actually do the selling and the customer service for you.
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