Straight Talk Express

by Amy H. Blankstein

Personal interaction is what the Web’s all about. It’s what first excited everyone, long before the word “e-commerce” ever leaped off a pundit’s lips. Online chat, an Internet technology that dates back to pre-Web days, has now re-emerged as a customer service tool. The technology is now inexpensive and allows small businesses to reclaim their traditional offline advantage: providing personal attention.

The most obvious advantage of the technology is better communication. Visitors can ask questions without having to disconnect from a site to dial a toll-free number. “Since our business is based on customer service, it’s crucial for us,” says Matt Schaefer, the owner of American Wilderness Gear Inc., a four-person outdoor gear supply company. “If I can project my personality, knowledge of products, and willingness to help, then in a very short amount of time people feel at ease.”

Until recently, live chat was found only on sites that could afford to maintain in-house servers. But now a number of application service providers host these services at relatively inexpensive rates ­ some even give the service away for free.

How It Works
For visitors, the process is fairly straightforward. If they’ve used ICQ’s software or AOL’s Instant Messenger, they’ve used online chat. Enter the site, initiate a chat session by clicking on the appropriate icon, and within seconds a sub-window pops up with a greeting. The back and forth banter can begin. When the service is off line, a different icon appears to tell Web surfers to come back later or to leave an e-mail message.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s happening on the back end. During designated live Web chat hours, the business maintains a dialup connection to the service provider’s servers. While not in action, the chat software lurks in the background on a PC’s desktop. If a customer clicks on the live chat icon, the operator will be alerted and may type in or activate a pre-set initial greeting.

Talk It Up
After Schaefer bought American Wilderness in June of 1999, he immediately began improving its Web site ( Schaefer wanted a way to connect with customers on the site ­ he wanted live Web chat. But all the services he found would have blown his budget. Eventually, American Wilderness hooked up with HumanClick, a service provider based in Israel that offers the feature for free.

Among other benefits, Schaefer says the service has finally delivered on the Internet’s promise of a global reach. “These people are so far away, phone calls are very expensive, and if they want to, they can ask some in-depth questions,” he says. “I’m usually here late at night, and I will get chats from people all around the world. Sometimes we schedule with people to meet on the site at a specific time.”

Communication is essential for any business, but online chat also provides a sort of safety blanket for customers nervous about the anonymity of e-commerce sites. Since adding the service, Spill 911 Inc. (, a 12-person industrial product supplier in Carmel, Ind., has substantially reduced the number of abandoned sales on its site. “People used to start filling in a shopping cart, and, for whatever reason, would not go through with a purchase,” says president John Moore. “Those have probably dropped by about 60 percent. They see that if they do have a problem, they can chat with us right away. It’s an extra level of assurance that they’re dealing with a reputable company.”

Tell Me More
Customer service may be the initial attraction, but live Web chat services also provide an additional opportunity for businesses to gather information about their customers and their Web sites. Businesses that use HumanClick, for instance, can follow a customer’s unique IP address to see how many pages they’ve used, where they came from, and how long they’ve been there.

Some services enable companies to gather real-time statistics and develop post-chat surveys. “I can see how many calls per agent were handled on any given day or time frame, what our peak time was, and what our downtime was,” says Spill 911’s Moore. “When somebody disconnects from the chat, a quick survey pops up asking how they rate the service, how they rate the site, and what brought them to us.”

Often it’s not even necessary to take a survey. Just pay attention to what visitors are saying. Most services also capture chat histories, so operators can refer back to previous conversations. Those transcripts are actually valuable market research in disguise.

Are You Listening?
Any business that uses live chat is telling its visitors: We’re here for you. They better be. Someone always needs to be minding the store, because one thing people won’t tolerate on the Web is being put on hold.

That may mean making staffing changes. “We don’t need more than a couple agents at a time at this point.” Moore says. “But a year from now I can see us having four or five, so having something that can grow as we grow is important.” Spill 911 has the software on 11 computers, but only pays to have two people signed on at a time. However, more can be added.

On the other hand, an operator doesn’t have to be chained to the monitor. American Wilderness, which might see anywhere from five to 10 chats during a given day, runs the software on two PCs. “It’s always running in the background,” says Schaefer. “I might be entering an order, doing some work on the Web site, or writing a letter to a vendor, and it rings through.”

Many services highlight the fact that their software lets operators handle between five and six chat sessions simultaneously. But just because the software can do it, doesn’t mean the operator can. To conduct meaningful customer service, two or three simultaneous sessions are more realistic, according to Moore. “A lot of it really depends on the kinds of questions people ask,” he says. “You can have a preset group of responses, so that you don’t have to type the same thing over and over again. But we’ve found that we can have maybe six or seven set answers, and everything else varies from question to question.”

Dirty Little Secrets
Sites with online chat also need to be careful about how they use it. Some services let operators initiate chat sessions with their visitors, but businesses should be wary of ostracizing customers. “As a user myself, the last thing I want to be thinking about is that someone is watching me,” says American Wilderness’ Schaefer. And your service providers have access to much of the same information, so make sure to find out how it plans to use all that data.

Finally, keep in mind that many of the services offering to host these chat sessions are still relatively new, and be prepared to suffer the slings and arrows that early adopters usually do. For instance, the first service Spill 911 tried suffered frequent server crashes, and Moore and company moved on after just two months.

“It doesn’t matter how well the backend analysis tools work, if you’re not connecting,you’re missing the thrust of the service ­ effective communication with your customers,” Moore says. “We’re able to make them feel comfortable. We don’t get the amount of traffic some other sites get, yet our average sale is substantially higher.”

But the Internet was formed by people who wanted to connect with one another ­ not to sell doodads. Make that connection, and you might just make a profit to boot.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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