E-Retailers Chat With Their Customers Through the Sale

In the crowded world of CD sales on the Web, baby-boomer music site SoundStone.com is banking that real-time chat-enabled customer service will help keep people from clicking away to the competition.

During regular business hours, visitors to www.soundstone.com can click on a link labeled Live Help and have a text-based dialogue with a real person.

While anyone who's been on an America Online buddy list knows that real-time chat isn't new, using it for sales and customer service apparently is surfacing as the latest hot topic among Web merchants.

“In cataloging, there's a customer service rep behind every order, and that's what we're trying to accomplish [with Live Help,]” said Kokeb Kassa, director of sales and marketing at SoundStone Entertainment, Somerville, MA.

SoundStone launched the service using software called CustomerNow on April 27. Since then, “a lot of the questions have been aimed at our editors asking for things like recommendations as opposed to checking order status,” Kassa said. “but our goal is to build a strong community of music lovers, and this really helps build relationships.”

Like SoundStone, an increasing number of online merchants are drawing the conclusion that for all its automated-selling promise, the Internet has yet to make the human touch in sales and customer service obsolete.

“Corporations who are managing Web commerce sites are trying to transform themselves from anonymous transaction-oriented companies into relationship-oriented companies,” said Wendell Lansford, president and CEO of SiteBridge Corp., New York, the developer of CustomerNow.

Case in point: in-flight co-op cataloger SkyMall, about two months ago quietly implemented real-time chat customer service a couple of layers into its site at www.skymall.com. Since then, about 1 percent of SkyMall's online customer service traffic has been chat-based. Most of the questions are requests for prepurchase information, like whether a product can be delivered gift wrapped or whether five-day shipping includes weekends.

“It's given us some real insight into the prepurchase environment and helped us identify things like maybe we don't have enough information on gift wrapping, ” said Annette Marino, general manager of electronic commerce at SkyMall, Phoenix.

Indeed, consumer uncertainty over online security and other issues has potential Internet shoppers stopping just short of purchase at an alarming rate.

P.V. Kannan, president of Business Evolution Inc., Princeton, NJ, which added the chat capability for SkyMall, estimates that a staggering 95 percent of people who put items in virtual shopping carts abandon them just before check out.

“Compare that to the real world and you get an idea just what kind of a problem it is,” he said.

David Cooperstein, an analyst in telecom strategies for Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, said a little hand-holding during the first couple of sales can result in the customer every online marketer covets: one who is loyal and who can serve himself. Also, chat-based customer service is especially helpful for selling complicated products.

“If you want to drive a complex sale to closure, having a live agent on board to walk through things is a very valuable tool,” he said.

Of course, integrating real-time online customer service into a call center is not like flipping a switch.

“You've got to teach the agent how to use it and you've got to prove to the call-center operations person that it won't destroy productivity,” Cooperstein said. “When call-center managers think of chat, they think of wasting time.”

Cooperstein said getting call-center managers to embrace chat usually means changing the way they think from just getting people on and off the phone.

“[Otherwise,] if someone is on your site and they can't figure out what to do, they'll leave,” he said. “The nearest competitor is just a click away, not a walk or a drive away.”

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