Chatting up Online Shoppers Can Help Turn Them into Buyers


While consumers are increasingly willing to buy more goods online, according to a Forrester Research study conducted for Shop.org, a large number of folks apparently still find shopping on the Web a frustrating experience.


U.S. e-commerce sales, excluding travel, rose 29 percent to reach $146.5 billion in 2006. Yet a Forrester analyst -- noting that only about 3 percent of folks entering a site make a purchase -- says "e-commerce is succeeding in spite of itself."


The report lauds retailers for features that help consumers browse online, such as zoom and rotate capabilities and reviews and ratings by previous customers. But the implication is clear: Online merchants could do a better job at converting browsers into buyers.


One strategy that could help is making it easier for people to reach the folks who can offer assistance. Some companies are experimenting with technologies that can do so. Two of the most popular are "click to chat,'' which connects online customers to agents via instant messaging, and "click to call back,'' in which customers enter a telephone number so an agent can call them right away.


A vendor of click-to-call products claims that 25 percent to 35 percent of consumers who use the function end up making a purchase, a figure far higher than the 3 percent conversion rate cited by Forrester.


The idea, say several experts quoted in a recent destinationCRM.com article, is not to rely too heavily on such features but to use them to supplement more traditional customer service channels. The tools can be used reactively -- waiting for customers to initiate agent contact -- or they can proactively look for signs that customers may need assistance.


Such tools can also cut support costs -- dramatically in some cases, as ABN AMRO Service Company found out. The use of text chat helped the company save $500,000 on call deflection in 2006, more than 20 percent than the $23,000 it saved in 2002.


Of course, companies may need to tweak existing contact center practices to make the most of such tools. For instance, one expert stresses the importance of utilizing agents with good typing skills who are comfortable with written communications. And don't expect agents to handle too many chats at once; the result could be customers who are still confused and angry to boot.