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Proactive businesses that utilize chat technology to engage Web visitors are seeing higher conversion rates. So why aren't you?
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The sale is what matters. Every aspect of customer relationship management is geared toward securing new customers and retaining old ones. Billions of dollars are spent each year to funnel leads from product home pages, search engines, and social networks to company checkout pages. However, despite the effort (and the cash) spent enhancing this process, the majority of visitors still leave a Web site before completing a transaction. There are many benign reasons to explain this dilemma: Customers just want to browse, they came to the wrong place, or they’re doing research for a future purchase, among other reasons. But what about those customers whose credit cards are face-up on the desktop? Why have they abandoned the sales process that your business has spent so much time trying to cultivate? 

Chances are your business has done an admirable job tackling this problem: You’ve employed Web analytics tools to help determine what customers are doing when they visit your Web site (what they browsed, how long they stayed on a particular page, where they abandoned the buying process, etc.). These tools, while informative, typically produce reports the next day, week, or month, and they provide information that may reveal why potential consumers didn’t buy anything. But by the time these reports are mulled over and acted upon, the customer has already gotten cozy with your competitor. 

Increasingly, businesses are becoming more proactive in the battle against abandonment. They realize it isn’t sufficient to just know why customers didn’t make a purchase; you have to stop them from leaving and ask. New tools exist that allow sales and service agents to know in real time who visits their product page, where the visitors have come from, how long they’re browsing particular pages, and what their browsing history is. When coupled with outbound chat technology that lets agents initiate instant message conversations with the visitor, you may never again have to witness a customer abandoning the sales process after spending five minutes at the checkout page.  

“Most Web sites have a one-size-fits-all experience,” says Greg Ott, chief marketing officer at marketing software provider Demandbase. “Because of that, typical conversion rates are pretty low. Chat can dramatically increase engagement and conversion and get people moving forward in the sales funnel.” 

With Demandbase’s technology, a Web agent can identify a business visitor before he actually hits your Web site. Armed with that knowledge, you can tailor the interaction. Once the interaction has been established, you can view the visitor’s activity and, if need be, initiate a live chat conversation to provide guidance, support, or market alternative products. “Chat is such a great tool because customers [on your site] are [already] expressing interest in your products or services,” Ott says. “[You are] able to engage them at that moment and get them to the content they’re looking for, or you can actually capture them and encourage them to become a sales lead. People are finding dramatically higher conversion rates from Web traffic than they ever have before.” 

O Big Brother, Where Art Thou?

An effective Web-tracking and outbound chat strategy allows you to understand and connect with customers; efficiently promote and sell products; provide real-time customer service; and prove to customers that you will cater to their needs (among many other capabilities). So why don’t customers receive chat messages on every product Web site? What could possibly be wrong with an approach that is so clearly geared toward customer satisfaction? The answer is simple: Businesses worry that this particular type of surveillance might strike consumers as highly invasive—a sentiment that could turn this customer satisfaction tool into the Internet equivalent of a garlic necklace.  

Businesses are able to find loopholes into similarly controversial monitoring techniques. For example, social media monitoring isn’t viewed as invasive because the customers being monitored are posting opinions to public profiles and have therefore surrendered any privacy rights; behavioral advertising is (according to marketers) anonymous and therefore not at all invasive (the Federal Trade Commission continues to investigate this issue). But with tracking and outbound chat the agent who watches a customer’s Web movements knows exactly who the customer is, and he will likely contact the customer and attempt to make a sale, at which point the customer will input vital information, such as an address, telephone number, and credit card information. It’s unlikely, though, that customers will be comfortable leaving this information with an unknown chat agent. 

“The Big Brother concept is [outbound chat’s] only obstacle,” contends Mary Lee-Wlodek, president and chief marketing officer at Proactive Marketing, Inc., a business designed to create and implement unique marketing programs for professional service firms. “People like the anonymity they believe they have online.” Lee-Wlodek thinks companies should label the program in a warmer and friendlier way. “Make it seem like a Nordstrom’s level of service, rather than calling it something IT-ish.” 

Outbound chat allows for a warm and friendly approach—that’s what makes it so effective; it turns an electronic sales process into a human-to-human interaction. But it’s also the biggest hurdle. Software that monitors your online behavior is one thing, but to have a person watching you is a whole different story. “It’s kind of like people who just want to go to a retail store and browse and then there’s an assistant standing by them just harboring,” says Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the Chief Marketing Officer Council. “[With tracking] you’ve got somebody sitting there watching me shop online [and] invading my space…. That’s annoying.” But Neale-May is confident that, if done the right way, outbound chat could provide a great vehicle for reducing abandonment and customer service inquiries. “If it’s always presented from the standpoint of service, information, and education…then it will be seen as a responsible beneficial service offering.” 

John Pozadzides, CEO at iFusion Labs, developer of the real-time Web tracking and analysis software Woopra, agrees. Perhaps 5 or 10 years ago, he argues, before people were aware that the Internet could be monitored in such a way, outbound chat would have presented a much bigger issue. But because people recognize that it’s common for someone to watch them online, outbound chat has become a key technique in removing the cold and unfeeling stigma attached to e-commerce. “We didn’t know when we built this technology whether people were going to react like that,” he remembers. His concern was that site visitors would first realize that companies were watching when the pop-up window appeared. Would that upset customers? Would they leave the site and never come back? No, Pozadzides says. “We found out [customers had] the complete opposite reaction.” Customers who couldn’t find what they wanted, or who were confused by something they’d seen or read, were typically surprised someone was watching, but ultimately thankful for the much-needed assistance. 

Like Neale-May, Ross Haskell, director of marketing at chat software developer Bold Software, also likens outbound chat to in-store sales assistance, a practice that he views as problematic only if done poorly. “The reason people come up to you in stores and ask if you need help is because it works,” he says. “[Tracking and outbound chat] are pretty controversial topics among e-commerce companies. I’ve spoken to a few companies and they say they’ll never do live chat [because] it drives people away from their Web site. [But] businesses that don’t have live chat are missing a vital communication and engagement channel.” 

Ott of Demandbase thinks it’s only a matter of time before outbound chat is a widely used practice among online retailers. Soon, he argues, customers won’t want to waste valuable time struggling on your Web site when they can go to your competitor’s and receive one-on-one service from an inbound or outbound chat agent. “A lot of times [our] visitors are busy people and they end up on our Web site with an objective,” he says. “Chat is such a fantastic tool for helping them achieve that objective.” 

If Pozadzides and Ott are correct and outbound chat usage does continue to expand and become more commonplace on the Web, what will companies do to combat the stigma attached to the method? Lee-Wlodek argues that the transparency organizations have been practicing on social networks and in blogs will also have to be carried out on their Web sites. Instead of secretly scrutinizing what consumers are doing on their sites, organizations need to make it clear on the home page that they’re watching, and that they may attempt to chat if they notice the customer has run into any issues. Allow the customer to opt into a tracking and outbound chat program, she says. In her opinion, chat is similar to pop-up ads; we came to hate them because we failed to appreciate that the sites we were accessing were only available because of pop-ups.

Chatty Customers

Despite the stigma associated with the technology, some companies are noticing early success. Media Cats, a software training provider, was able to accomplish four key objectives by using Woopra’s outbound chat after connecting with a local customer, according to Founder and President A.J. Wood. 1) The engagement provided a “wow factor,” because the customer loved that the company was engaging him in real time. 2) Media Cats was able to provide a direct answer to the information the customer wanted. (“Turns out this customer was a photographer,” Wood says, “and [he] wanted to know the difference between Photoshop and Lightroom software.”) 3) Media Cats was able to keep the customer engaged and direct him to other areas of the Web site that he might have ignored. 4) And, of course, Media Cats closed a sale. 

Outbound chat isn’t just about service and sales. Bold Software’s Haskell explains how his customers use Bold’s proactive chat technology to market products to customers. According to Haskell, generating traffic to your company’s Web site is only half the job. The ability to present the best and most relevant products to customers is what chat is really all about.

“We call [the presentation of products through proactive chat] after-click marketing,” Haskell says. “So much money is spent trying to drive traffic to Web sites. [But] once the traffic is there marketing professionals think they did their job. That isn’t anything compared to getting traffic converted.” 

Haskell argues that proactive chat, if done correctly, renders customers feeling like the shopping experience was actually a customer service experience. “We find that proactive chat is a selling and conversion tool but it’s also a customer experience tool.” 

Boston Green Goods, an online retailer of healthy home products and a loyal Bold customer, has been using the chat technology for three years, and the company’s chief operating officer, Bob Scott, says chat is about more than just adding a button to your site that allows customers to ask questions. “We wanted to be able to be in the right place at the right time to be able to offer [customer] assistance,” Scott says, “or help [customers] select the right product and do it in such a way that we’re not being in their face. We don’t want to alienate people and send them away from the site.” 

The key to having successful chats with your customers, according to Ben Congleton, founder of live-chat technology provider Olark, is knowing when and how the conversation can be valuable. For example, organizations whose sales processes are complicated, expensive, and require interaction with a sales agent should chat with a large number of the site’s visitors. “[For these types of companies] no one buys through the site anyway,” Congleton says. “[So why not] get a conversation started.” But on e-commerce sites, where shoppers don’t necessarily need assistance each time they make a purchase, chats can be used less frequently and for more service-related issues. 

Perhaps the best time and place to initiate an outbound chat is when a customer reaches a contact page. “If someone arrives at your contact page, clearly they are trying to get in touch with you,” iFusion Labs’ Pozadzides says. 

Based on that simple logic, why should the customer be forced to send an email and sit around and wait for your company to issue a response? With outbound chat, you can see that someone is trying to make contact and you can send out a message before the customer even begins to draft a message. With Woopra companies can create instant notifications based on all kinds of criteria—including when someone lands on the contact page. The agent who receives the notification can look at what the customer has been doing on the site and, rather than allowing a lead to just fill out a form and continue surfing to the next competitor on the Google search list, the company can chat with him and ask him if he’d like to chat. “Ninety-nine percent of the time [the customer will] say yes,” Pozadzides says. 

Chat, which is in its relative infancy compared to most CRM technologies, still isn’t utilized on a great number of Web sites. Companies are much more comfortable employing technology that allows customers to initiate live conversations with them rather than initiating the conversations themselves. But in today’s competitive landscape many customers aren’t going to go out of their way to get your attention; you’ve got to captivate them however you can. Outbound chat allows your business to engage, enlighten, and assist customers who are already interested in your product. Don’t let any more customers leave your site without asking if they need assistance. That one action could turn into a very lucrative life-changing chat.


Tangential Benefits

Improving the customer experience is not the only benefit of proactive chat. John Pozadzides, CEO at iFusion Labs, says the effects of his company’s Woopra live chat and live tracking technologies were “life-changing” for one of his customers, a realtor who added Woopra chat and tracking to his Web site. The realtor went from handling one or two leads per month from people who were self-selecting to one or two leads per day from people who came from organic search. And if you factor in that realtors make 1.5 to 3 percent commission on each house they sell, with most houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the ability to turn up the deal flow from a monetary standpoint would certainly change most people’s lives. 

iFusion Labs’ customers are avid evangelists of the company’s services. According to J Andrew Hubbard, president and treasurer at Evansville Sheet Metal Works, iFusion Labs’ Woopra chat technology helps his company Web Site, Cut2SizeMetals.com, close sales, answer questions, and even fend off spying competitors. “Some of our competitors are in small towns, so by using the location information in Woopra and their browsing patterns, we can detect which users seem to be fishing our site for competitive information,” Hubbard says. “When we find them, we use outbound chat to (nicely) let them know we’re watching, just as store security might give extra ‘attention’ to people who exhibit behaviors consistent with shoplifting.”


Editorial Assistant Juan Martinez can be reached at jmartinez@destinationCRM.com.


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