The Art and Science of Online Consultative Selling

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How can companies that offer complex products and services online--including financial, insurance, or communications services--help Web-site visitors decide which offering is right for them? Many companies man their Web sites with sales agents, who interact with visitors in real time. But is it possible to sell consultatively online? Can sales associates adequately compensate for the challenges of the online environment? Yes, if companies understand the nuances of online consultative selling. The Realities of the Online Environment While online agents are up against stiff challenges, they also benefit from distinct advantages:
  • Prospects have chosen to visit the Web site and are therefore more likely to be receptive to an offer of assistance and a conversation with a sales agent.
  • Most site visitors enjoy the convenience and anonymity of Web interactions.
  • Specialized technology can prequalify prospects based on their activity on the Web site. Despite these advantages, online sales agents must overcome significant hurdles in order to successfully interact with customers: a remote and non-verbal communication environment, time delays, security and privacy concerns, and familiarity with e-commerce. Nevertheless, by recognizing and compensating for these barriers, agents are able to establish rapport with and help the customer transact. No Body and No Voice Perhaps the biggest challenge of the online sales environment is the lack of physical or verbal cues available to the agent. To compensate for this online sales agents should: 1. Ask appropriate questions to pinpoint customer needs. Agents should make sure they know what the customer wants before offering a solution. 2. Close each text message with a question or a specific instruction to ensure that the visitor knows the conversation will continue. For example, "I will investigate your question. Please hold." 3. Clearly signal the end of a session. An agent might ask, "May I help you with anything else?" then conclude, "My contact information will be available at the end of this engagement." Time Delays Online agents can compensate for the time delays that are part of text messaging by: 1. Informing the customer what they are doing at each step of the sales process. For example: "I'm now going to send you a brief legal disclosure. Please acknowledge after you have read it." 2. Watching the typing indicator to avoid "talking over" the customer. 3. Keeping messages short. A one or two sentence response is the maximum that most people can absorb. 4. Pacing the exchange. Agents should match the pace of the customer, but should avoid sending three or more messages without receiving a response, as they may overwhelm the customer. 5. Inserting blocks of prewritten text into the response message, which can speed up communication. Security and Privacy Concerns Site visitors may have misgivings about sharing personal information online. Sales agents can compensate for this by: 1. Formally introducing themselves and explaining their role. For example, "Hello, my name is Brenda Smith, and I am a Customer Service Associate with ABC Mortgage Corporation. I am available to help you today, via a secure, live chat session." 2. Allowing the customer to state his or her interest, rather than implying they already know (because the customer's online behavior is being tracked). 3. Explaining that the customer does not have to provide personal information to participate in the chat. Creating a prewritten message with the privacy policy allows agents to negate this potential obstacle. 4. Switching to phone if the prospect is more comfortable. Novices and Pros Some customers are more Internet-savvy than others. To deal with customers' differing comfort levels with online communication, CSRs should:
  • Clearly indicate that they are live human beings, not BOTs.
  • Match their chat style to the customer's. Agents should match the customer's conversational pace, while always maintaining a professional tone.
  • If appropriate, explain how the prospect can do further research on his or her own. Companies must help their online sales agents to recognize and compensate for the unique challenges of the online environment, so that they can serve prospects and customers better--and succeed in the critical e-commerce channel. These best practices will help ensure a high level of customer satisfaction and additional revenue to the company. About the Author Allan Hess is the client success officer and vice president, business development, for Proficient Systems. He can be reached at
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