Your company doesn’t have to be Amazon for you to engage in lucrative e-commerce. With services like PayPal and developments in Internet marketing, it has become feasible for practically anyone to open a business online. In some ways, managing an e-commerce site is easier than opening a brick-and-mortar location, but operating online has its own attendant difficulties.

One of the most common difficulties faced by e-commerce sites is how to manage customer service in a way that approximates the personal attention a customer may receive in a physical store. A telephone hotline or e-mail service often presents more hassle than customers are willing to endure to ask about the availability of a size or color. In recent years, an answer has been provided by live chat software.

Live chat, which is essentially an instant messaging service between the customer and the e-commerce company, enables customers to ask basic questions while retaining their anonymity. E-commerce providers often report that live chat software enables them to address the kinds of particular questions that aren’t common enough to warrant an answer in an FAQ section but that can make the difference in closing a sale.

Handbago.com is an online marketplace for designer handbags. The site also features a blog, videos, and designer interviews. Handbago co-founder Brian Meert says that he’s been looking into implementing a live chat service on his site for the last couple of months. He said that he’s seen some reliable numbers demonstrating that live chat helps sales go up. Live chat might help him restore a human touch to the sales process, he speculates. "If you have a brick-and-mortar store with a salesperson it can be a fluid process," he says of interactions between customers and salespeople. "On a website what you lose is that fluidness."

If you’re looking to invigorate your e-commerce site and improve your customer relations, it might be time to look into reliable live chat software. Each live chat service works a little differently. The software can be web-based or loaded on the company’s computers. Some have one-time costs, others charge monthly fees; some are operated by the e-commerce site’s employees, and others by outside operators.

Here are four tips to consider when looking to build live chat capabilities into your e-commerce site:

1. Look into what your site can host. For Meert, it is important that once the live chat service goes up, he doesn’t have any hiccups that may drive away customers. Consequently, he’s been looking into whether or not any chat capabilities might be built into his Drupal CMS site.

Other programs don’t work with Macs. Most major live chat programs work with Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP, but it can be harder to find a reliable program that works with Mac OS. Live Chat, which runs $36 a month for one operator, works with the Mac OS and has received positive reviews.

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2. Determine whether you’ll want to administrate the service yourself. Live chat can be administrated either by the company that manages the e-commerce site or by an outside service, think a call center for live chat. Corey Schuchman, director of e-commerce for Jildor Shoes, said that her company has been using live chat for two years. The live chat is managed through the company’s customer service department, Schuchman said, and is open five or six days a week from approximately 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

If you’re going to have your own employees administrate the live chat and answer questions throughout the day in addition to other responsibilities, it makes sense to ensure that the program you choose allows for mobile access.

Mobile access can mean a variety of things in these days of tablets and smart phones, but for someone who wants to be able to access their live chat almost any time and from any location with Internet access, the best option is Website Alive, which at $29.95 a month for the first two operators also makes sound financial sense.

Website Alive’s mobile capabilities mean that you will be able to connect to your live chat service through a tablet computer or a smart phone. Website Alive works on iOS, Android, and BlackBerry platforms, and allows users to transfer live chat data from a work computer to a mobile device.

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3. Consider how live chat will help your business. Meert said that a perfect example of how live chat might help his business presented itself when a woman sent him an e-mail saying she’d seen such-and-such designer handbag. Did Handbago have a similar one at a discount? Within a minute, Meert said, employees had identified and recommended several handbags for the customer to choose from. The process was slowed down, however, because they were communicating with the woman via e-mail. He got the sale, but the customer could have gone to another site before Handbago’s reply reached her.

Live chat can be useful when trying to make a quick sale, but Meert, who recently worked for a local school district, said he’s seen other ways live chat can be useful. "A lot of times people might not want to send an email or make a call. They might get transferred," Meert said. "A lot of times the question is how much is tuition, a really simple question."

Since the appeal of live chat is that it enables a company to answer exactly these sorts of questions quickly, the video capabilities built into some chat services may be seductive. Video comes with some of the high-end packages, but most companies will likely not find video useful. If the advantage of live chat is ease of use and anonymity, video would seem only to complicate things.

After a trial period, you may find that live chat has not spurred any significant increase in sales. Schuchman said Jildor Shoes hasn’t seen any bump in sales since they implemented their live chat service, but that the feature has nevertheless proven useful in providing efficient customer service. "It’s an easy customer service tool," Schuchman said. "It’s an inexpensive customer service tool that customers can use to contact us if they don’t want to pick up their phone."

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4. Know how live chat will help your customers. Teajai Kimsey Stradley, Internet marketing strategist for InternetIdeaGirl.com, helps clients develop Internet marketing strategies. Live chat software allows her to speak directly to customers without them having to pick up a phone.  She says live chat is also a helpful analytical tool, because she can set it to tell her where people are chatting from, which helps her direct traffic on her site.

Stradley said that the live chat service on her site has seen increased use in recent years. She thinks this might indicate a shift in attitudes about using live chat. "I have used LivePerson for about four years," Stradley said. "The first time I used it, there just weren’t many people ready to hop on board. But now it’s getting more use every day. People are more familiar with that and more comfortable with the chat."

LivePerson is available for at a monthly rate of $99 for one operator. A similar product with a lower price tag that might be worth considering is LiveHelp Now, which costs only $21 a month for the first operator. LiveHelp Now also provides a website statistics summary that summarizes a user’s IP address, web brower, and general location, which may help your business focus sales and marketing.

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