Web sites increasingly offering live customer service to help close sales

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It's not too late to save Christmas. If your problem is that most visitors who reach for merchandise on your site don't finish the buy, you might consider going live.

First, understand you're not alone with your problem. A report earlier this year from Forrester Research indicated only 2% of site visitors converted to buyers, even at sites that have been online for some time.

The solution may be live operators who can chat with site visitors--without a complex plug-in--to help select merchandise and complete purchases.

Several companies now offer this capability, including PakNetX, Salem, N.H.; LivePerson, New York;, Seattle; and SneakerLabs, Pittsburgh.

SneakerLabs charges $500 to set up its service and $250 a month for each rep using it, says President Manu Kumar. If you don't have your own 24-hour operators, SneakerLabs has a partnership with a call center company.

LivePerson carries the same price tag, and CEO Rob LoCascio says his company can set up the service in 24 hours, once you've added a few lines of HTML code to key pages. Live chat, which works like AOL's Instant Messenger, lets you "embrace" your customer, he says, and the results can be powerful.

"When [people] use LivePerson, up to 35% will actually buy," Mr. LoCascio says.

Online call centers

Chats can start at the initiative of the visitor or the site. LivePerson's site demonstrates the latter capability, with a pop-up window appearing every few minutes to ask if someone can help you.

By offering the service through a central server, chat vendors let you quickly personalize chat windows with your logo, and route chats to the right department, says Dave Budke, VP-sales and marketing for Sessio.

"It's chat designed for a call center," he says.

In addition to chat, PakNetX supports telephone calls on a second line, voice over Internet protocol and multimedia along with the ability to let the operator share the user's browser and push a page to him or her, says Chris Botting, co-founder and VP-marketing. This "Web touring" capability "allows an agent to direct a customer to a different location," he says.

Mr. Botting says his software also does the reverse of extending call center capabilities to Web sites. Future call center products from companies such as Aspect Telecommunications Corp., San Jose, will include PakNetX's Digital Media Switch, he says.

Analysts are excited about the new capability. "It's the wave of the future," says Peggy Menconi, research director for AMR Research, a Boston-based market research company. "Anyone in e-tailing is crazy if they don't put these kinds of things in right away. You have to have a way to help them complete the transaction."

But you do need to be careful, warns Cormac Foster, an analyst with Jupiter Communications, New York. "They're a good idea as long as they're implemented properly," he says.

Proper deployment includes having a process behind live chat, just as you would in a telephone call center, with escalation and training, as well as making sure you don't overload your chatters.

You also need to be careful in outsourcing the chat operator's function.

"It's great for first-level customer support," Mr. Foster says, but "if you outsource your whole call center, you lose control. You have to be careful."

Even if you do nothing, some solutions may come searching for you. Feedback Direct, Santa Monica, Calif., will start routing complaints to corporate customer service desks through e-mail this month, says founder and CEO Thatcher Wine.

"Previously it was hard for companies to communicate with customers, but by aggregating contacts with millions of customers through our site and standardizing the format through e-mail and Web forms, we can cut the response time down," he says.

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