Despite consumers' growing acceptance of doing business online, e-commerce still tends to be an unprofitable sales channel for many. Yes, people come to e-commerce sites and look around, but retailers often find themselves wondering why more of those people aren't making purchases.

Many of the reasons stem from one simple cause: people tend to prefer doing business with other people. Web sites are great for doing research, but when it comes to making an actual purchase, many customers need the reassurance of human interaction.

By providing a simple method for customers to get real-time answers online to their questions, a company can help its conversion rates skyrocket while raising its customer service levels to a new level.

Real-Time Answers Make the Difference

Ideally, Web-based customer service should include both self-help and live-help capabilities. Most companies will find that a large percentage of customers prefer to help themselves to the information they need. And for those who don't need real-time assistance, just the knowledge that representatives are available makes the shopping experience more satisfying.

In addition, real-time interaction with an informed representative encourages completion of the sale. In a traditional sales environment, salespeople are available to assist and to close the deal.

According to a September 1998 study by Jupiter Communications, 47% of people are more likely to buy online with the addition of real-time customer interaction. Profit margins increase as well because a live person can effectively cross-sell and up-sell to the customer. A static site doesn't have that advantage.

The ability to have a conversation with a live representative also makes customers feel more secure. Even though Web-based security has become a very manageable issue, many customers are still hesitant to enter their credit card information in an online form. Yet these very same individuals will hand their credit card to an anonymous waiter in a restaurant or give their information over the phone to an unknown mail-order catalog representative. The difference is human interaction.

Staff Your Online Store

Most e-commerce sites provide customer service through an 800 number and/or an e-mail address. But both of these options can fall short of customer needs in some cases. Not only do both methods delay the completion of the sale, they can also be inconvenient.

For customers with only one available phone line, using the 800 number requires disconnecting from the Internet, calling the merchant and, at times, waiting on hold. Once the customers are connected with an agent, they have to remember where they were on the site when the question arose, and explain their query without the benefit of viewing the actual Web page. Then, after the representative helps them, the (now frustrated) customers have to reconnect and try to implement the agent's instructions. Or they can choose to complete the transaction over the phone, eliminating all the time, convenience, and cost savings of e-commerce.

The alternative, e-mail, can be even worse from the customer perspective. The potential customer faithfully fills out the online form, wondering if someone will actually receive it and reply, and wondering when that might happen. Answering all e-mails individually can also become a burden on the company. As more customers use a site, the volume can grow to an overwhelming level, further delaying responses. By the time the company answers the query, the customer has likely moved on to another vendor.

Service Solutions

In today's economy where service equals success, companies need to provide a better option for real-time e-commerce service and support. The answer lies in allowing customers to help themselves to the information they need without leaving the Web site.

This self-help model can be achieved using a combination of tools, such as robust data repositories with an intuitive search capability, automated e-mail response, and the option of interacting with a live customer service representative. All of these technologies are available and ready for implementation today.

By combining customer self-help and the option of live help from a customer service representative via text-based conversations, Internet phones, and online video, the e-commerce process becomes much more engaging, user-friendly, and successful. Web-based customer interaction is a win-win solution for companies and customers.

Copyright © 1999 Triad Commerce Group LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in any form without written permission.