Online Shopping and the Human Touch

As e-commerce companies continue to hone methods for reaching the masses, they are continuing to focus on personal service. After all, their business hinges on keeping customers happy and loyal. Toward this goal, companies are employing “page pushing,” live chat and other interactive methods to give their sites a human touch.

Meta Group e-services director Tim Hickernell told the E-Commerce Times that Web-based live services are continually being revised — and sometimes combined — to make sure visitors do not leave sites in frustration without getting what they came for.

“The real value of live assistance is that it provides a way for the business to affect abandonment rates,” Hickernell said.

‘Co-Browsing’ Catches On

Among the new methods being employed is a more advanced take on page pushing. Page pushing means that a visitor’s online query prompts a site’s search engine to send full Web pages to the customer’s browser.

Hickernell said a relatively new process called “co-browsing” allows companies to forward a customer request or question to a “proxy server” that searches for answers and relays them back to the company site as well as the customer.

Hickernell called co-browsing a “killer combination” of the best elements of chat and page pushing. It allows live interactivity but also delivers more information faster because the proxy server does not tax either the customer’s or the company’s computer resources.

According to Hickernell, an increasing number of companies are adding co-browsing to their mix of service tactics, in part because it gives the service agent more control of the process. Retail companies use it for guided selling — sending customers pages related to products they may be interested in buying.

Mall-Like Experience

Hickernell said co-browsing currently allows a service agent to serve one customer per session. But he added that the technology eventually could let one agent serve multiple customers simultaneously. It could even allow several customers to join in on the same Web shopping visit, much like friends going to the mall.

Retailers already are using co-browsing to increase cross-selling, help with online ordering and assist customers with wardrobe selections.

“Essentially, sites are looking to do what the floor walker in a retail store has been doing for a hundred years,” Hickernell said. “This is nothing new in face-to-face retail.”

He noted that financial services companies are using co-browsing to send background information related to paperwork, as well as portfolio research and planning tools, to customers.

The technology appears to be getting results. Hickernell said Meta clients who have employed some form of co-browsing have seen a 20 percent increase in the proportion of site visitors converted into buyers.

Chat Still Works

Experts said that although straight “live chat” is not the most effective method of closing e-commerce sales, it can be used effectively by companies whose livelihood is tied more to services than to products.

Giga Information Group analyst Steve Telleen told the E-Commerce Times that telecom companies like AT&T Broadband are finding that online chat is more effective at minimizing frustration than phone services, which keep callers on hold for lengthy periods of time.

Waits often are associated with chat-room visits as well, though. Telleen said some companies give customers a number indicating where they stand in the queue to chat with a representative, along with estimated wait times.

This system can be better than a phone hold, Telleen said, provided that customers can continue performing other tasks on their computer while they wait. In addition, he said, companies must be able to provide a sound or visual cue to let users know it is their turn.

Giga analyst David Alger noted, however, that some companies have chosen to eliminate chat services after finding that they took up even more employee time than regular phone assistance. Each company must weigh various cost and time issues, he said.

Don’t Forget E-Mail

Before looking to newer concepts like chat and page pushing, Telleen and Alger both emphasized that companies should make sure they are getting the maximum benefit from existing help services, most notably e-mail.

Current technology enables automated e-mail systems to provide increasingly accurate responses and referrals with quick turnaround, they noted.

“Some of these response systems can detect keywords in an e-mail and either give you what you’re looking for or refer you to the right place for the answer,” Alger told the E-Commerce Times.

‘Virtual Agents’ Help Out

Meta’s Hickernell said another human-touch element employed by sites is the “virtual agent.”

Such an agent is an on-screen assistant, sometimes personified via an animation or photograph of a person, that asks a visitor questions to help narrow the search for a product or service.

Hickernell said this method must be employed carefully, however, because some on-screen agents have been perceived as patronizing or culturally insulting to various groups of customers.

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