Providing Real-time Personal Service

When visitors to your web site have a question about products or ordering, how do they find the answer?

You probably have a Help or FAQ section on your site — something that has become essential — but a recent study indicates that we need to do more to help our web friends lest they get frustrated and leave.

While most of us prefer to stroll through aisles of products in a physical store, there are times when we’re hesitant about a purchase and seek a knowledgeable sales clerk for information. (Of course, finding a knowledgeable sales clerk in stores these days is not easy, but that’s another story.)

One reason e-commerce is growing so rapidly is that web merchants can provide so much more information than traditional retail stores. However, if the information is not exactly what the customer wants, or perhaps it’s not easy to find, then we’ve created the same problem as traditional retailers.

In a study of online shoppers, web market research firm NFO Interactive found that nearly half of the shoppers contacted said they would buy more if they could interact with a salesperson in real-time from an e-commerce site.

There are several places along the customer’s path from information gathering to decision-making and ordering, where many customers might request personal service or attention. The difficulty in locating a telephone number on most e-commerce sites shows that most merchants discourage shoppers from picking up the phone to ask a question that might already be answered on the web site.

Combine the results of the NFO Interactive study with another recent study which found that many online shoppers abandon orders before completing the transaction, and what have you got? An indication that providing person-to-person service at the buying moment could increase the number of orders you receive.

But no matter how many additional orders would result from personalized service, encouraging a customer to talk to someone at your call center for information and take the order manually is going to diminish the tremendous leverage that e-commerce provides.

One possible solution is to use an “instant messenger” service that allows a person to exchange messages or have a real-time chat session with your representative. If you’ve used ICQ or PeopleLink, you know the convenience of being able to reach another person immediately to ask a short question.

ICQ provides several ways to add links to a page, allowing a customer to contact a live person for assistance. If you have a complex product and want prospects to contact you early in their information-gathering process, you can encourage those contacts by adding an ICQ link throughout your site.

However, most online merchants would want to make contact when a customer has finished making selections and has the greatest hesitancy to complete the order. For instance, if a shopper is buying a gift and needs it delivered within two or three days, they might like to ask a representative if the particular product is in stock and can arrive quickly.

While some e-commerce sites are integrated with a back-end inventory system and can answer this particular question right on the web page, it seems that consumers are really looking for just a little person-to-person experience before they plunk down their hard-earned plastic and finalize the order.

By providing real-time online access to a customer service representative, you can personalize your existing web site and develop a reassuring relationship with shoppers at the moment when they need contact the most — when a purchase is about to be made.

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