Few new small businesses can afford to employ a full-time customer service rep to handle random inquiries online. The costs are high, and there are long periods of inactivity.

There is another way. A plethora of companies offer avatars that can answer customer questions for you. Some are intentionally cartoon-like, others look like a real person who will respond with a laugh and a smile. In most cases, they only require a few install steps—usually, copying the code into your own site and "programming" the bot to answer questions.

Here are four to check out:

Inteliwise offers about 100 different avatars that use something called an "intent recognition engine" which can parse what a site visitor really wants. If a person types "hours" the avatar might interpret that to be a question for your store hours, if you are a retail shop. Unlike some services that provide code to embed on your own site, Inteliwise runs in the cloud so you don't have to host the code.

This service is one of the most well-known—the company processed 166 million chatbot conversations in 2011. PayPal, Michelin, SFR, H&R Block, and Symantec all use the cartoon-like avatars. (A cartoon avatar has the advantage of making it seem like the chatbot is not replacing a human worker.) This higher-end service intended for medium-sized companies tends to focus on brand management—making sure the bot uses greetings and answers questions that match the brand.

While not strictly a chatbot, the Codebaby service is another option for those who want to catch new site visitors and make an initial impact. The avatar starts up when someone first clicks into a site, greeting the visitor and offering advice about navigating around the site or registering. Avatars can have a friendly look, but some are designed to look a bit more serious—say, for new students filling out paperwork.

My favorite of the bunch, MyCyberTwin looks the most realistic with a video that shows a real person who smiles and moves around. You type in your question and the bot answers immediately. Some of the avatars do not use video, though, and present only a static photo. In my tests, MyCyberTwin seemed to work the best at understanding what I meant and feeding an appropriate answer.