It’s a New Yorker cartoon: An exhausted, bleary-eyed owner stands at the diner counter. On the wall, the sign reads, “Open 24 hours.” The caption: “Some day I’m going to have to get myself some help.”
In a sense, that’s the situation in which the online small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) finds itself: On the one hand is an expanding customer base cutting across the world’s time zones; on the other hand is an exploding array of technologies to apply to customer relations management (eCRM).
Text chat may be the shortest distance between the SME and service to its online customer. But it’s a distance that’s growing even smaller. We’ve become accustomed to varieties of text chat from the early days of PC-to-PC Internet Relay Chat without graphics on through various instant messenger and social chat-room applications. A couple of years ago, text chat took off as the medium of choice to reach out – or into the web site – and touch the customer.
Once real-time, web-based interaction became part of e-commerce, the playing field changed forever. No longer were web surfers anonymous shadows brushing through a web site in the void of cyberspace. Visitors were suddenly approachable through the warmth of interactive language. The click-to-talk icon became a knock on the web site door, an opportunity to help a customer through the sales process. That opportunity becomes more urgent as the customer’s stake in the transaction grows. A Jupiter Communications study published earlier this year showed customers need help as the cost of the ticket item increases. At lower price levels, fewer than 8 percent of shoppers would opt for sales help. Once the price tag goes over the $100 level, nearly one in three say they want live customer assistance. According to Forrester Research, nearly 5 million online shoppers requested customer service in the past 12 months.
Helping close a sale is only part of the value text chat brings to the SME. As Zhenya Gene Senyak reported in Business 2.0, “A text chat system can also slash the costs of customer service, sales, and technical support. Part of the savings come from cutting back on costly phone lines, tariffs, and the number of operators required to handle individual telephone calls. For the customer, chat represents a toll-free option that grants instant access to a company’s products or services.”
For all its success, text chat for the small- to medium-sized enterprise is now braced to change direction. In the customer-centric environment of the Internet, interactive keyboard chat is only one option available to serve the customer. What makes sense for the SME?
Recently, LivePerson announced it will offer its new and existing clients voice interaction capability via HearMe. FaceTime, a company using the AOL Instant Messenger networks to provide e-commerce communications has announced an alliance partnership with AskIt! (AskIt provides customer service through an automated system that combines elements of a search engine and FAQ generator.) Our own company, HumanClick, has just concluded a partnership with Lipstream to add live voice capabilities to our text chat.
Behind the rapid change in eCRM applications, is the proliferation of technologies brought to bear on customer service. For the SME, however, realistic options may be constrained by factors beyond technology.
The call center for the small- to medium-sized enterprise is most likely going to be run by one or two operators, if not the owner/operator. Consider the most likely scenario. A potential customer arrives at the web site and has a question that needs answering… or maybe he or she lingers on a page, prompting the operator to offer assistance proactively.
A 360-degree view of capabilities available to a call-center operator include voice, PC to phone, web to phone, fax, FAQ, and automated email routing with webcam video in the wings. For the SME, however, chances are only one or two people with multiple other responsibilities are manning the SME call center. It is far more important to provide these operators with visual or audio signals that a visitor needs to initiate text chat than to present the visitor with an array of response options impossible to handle smoothly.
A single operator, using text chat and customer tracking services, can probably work with four customers simultaneously in real time, without missing a beat. Throw in email, voice, fax, etc., and that capacity is severely degraded. Not only is the economy of service lost, but the actual perceived level of service is degraded.
The rudimentary text chat systems of just one or two years ago are now being powered by database systems that “recognize” the online customer and help the online operator provide informed support throughout the sales process. Brandy McCord of WebHostIt uses an interactive chat program with tracking capabilities. “It’s an indescribable experience. I can actually watch in real time how long a visitor spends on any one of my pages. My sales have increased tremendously.” The link between informed online interaction and increased sales is well documented.
Internet marketing guru Marty Chenard says “Nobody can sell anybody on anything. All you can do is facilitate the decision-making process.” The evolving technology of customer relationship management for the smaller company, by linking database histories with text chat, provides the SME with a powerful, robust tool to facilitate the sale. For the online customer visiting an SME e-commerce site, the impact of this proven level of interaction can rival more sophisticated systems deployed by Fortune 1000 companies.