An ever-growing number of communication tools on the market today are designed to enhance communication between Web merchants and their online shoppers. Evaluate each tool for your market -- how it works, its cost of implementation and operation -- and then choose the most practical and effective solution to meet the increasing demands of your patrons.
With the exception of toll-free phone lines, all the tools on this page require you to add new technology to your site. If you have a very restricted hosting situation, such as with a turnkey host, you might not have any of these tools available to you yet. In any case, you should weigh the technology, training, and staffing costs of each of these technologies carefully against the benefits.
Toll-Free Customer Service Lines The advantage of using toll-free customer service numbers is that most consumers are familiar with how they work, and they don't require additional technology to be added to your site. But they can be costly -- especially if customers find it difficult to navigate your site or place orders; under those circumstances, you'll receive even more toll-free calls, driving up your phone bill.
Tele-Web Technologies For computer users who possess the hardware (a special microphone) and software to support this technology, Internet telephone tools such as Click2Talk and DigiPhone allow your visitors to use their computer as a phone, eliminating the need to disconnect from the Internet to speak with a customer service representative. While these technologies are still evolving, leading e-merchants such as 1800Flowers.com and LandsEnd.com are putting these tools to the test with early success. As broadband connections become commonplace in the coming years, so will Internet telephony.
Community-Building Tools Encouraging your customers to communicate with one another online can eliminate unnecessary e-mail messages and phone calls to your customer service center. You can encourage this communication by providing simple bulletin boards, sophisticated chat rooms, or interactive e-mail lists that allow customers to answer each other's questions, while also allowing room for a company representative to step in and clear up confusion, if necessary. Community building is a powerful tool, but it's very labor intensive to set up and maintain.
Live Agent Customer Service Tools New tools are emerging that use Internet technologies to let customers connect with customer service agents in real time while they browse your site. These interactions can occur using live text chat, telephone call-backs, or scheduled chat sessions. Some of these tools also offer "proactive" services that monitor the site, identify users performing repeat actions, and trigger onscreen pop-up messages to offer on-the-spot customer support from a live representative.