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Now or Never

Busy customers won't wait around for help. Before you become a dotcom statistic, consider opening the lines of communication.

The Web-savvy customers of today are more demanding than ever before. It's not enough these days to set up a toll-free number or hire customer service reps to answer the constant barrage of e-mail messages. Now that they've grown accustomed to shopping in a fast-paced, high-tech environment, your customers expect their questions answered in a flash-or they may just spend their dollars elsewhere.

In an effort to enhance customer care-and ensure future sales-many entrepreneurs are using Internet-based tools, such as live Web chat, call-me technology and live telephony. These products hold a lot of promise: Once these live systems are in place, you'll be better-equipped for building relationships with your customers.

Talking Tech

Easy for you to set up and simple to use, Web chats enable interaction in real time-via live text dialogue. Customers who need assistance can simply click on an icon to initiate a session with an operator in a pop-up window. The system also allows customer service reps to help visitors navigate your site and make purchases. It even makes it possible to send customers Web pages where they can find answers to their questions.

One entrepreneur relying on Web chat is Gregg Renfrew, 33-year-old co-founder of The Wedding List, an online and offline multi-channel retailer based in New York City. Incorporating Web chat into the company's Web site last year has played a part in the company's amazing growth: "Our sales increased 84 percent in the first month and 105 percent in the second month," Renfrew remembers.

Additionally, the technology has cut costs at The Wedding List because, compared to its phone system, it requires fewer employees. And operating costs have benefited from a recent increase in online transactions. "Prior to implementing [live Web chat] technology, 15 percent of The Wedding List's sales were made on its Web site, and 60 percent were made by phone," says Renfrew. "Today, Web site transactions account for 45 to 50 percent of Wedding List's sales, while phone sales have decreased to 30 percent."

Another innovation, call-me technology, lets customers request to have an agent call them either immediately or at a scheduled time. When visitors click on an icon and enter their phone number, either an automatic switch puts a member of your customer-care group straight through to them, or if visitors ask for a delay before being contacted, the software ensures they'll be called at the specific time they request.

Then there's the practice of sending voice messages over the Internet using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) products and services. Although VoIP is still a relatively new technology, usage is growing. According to Sage Research, VoIP usage among small and midsized firms grew from 7 to 13 percent from March 2000 to September 2000. According to Jared Huizenga, a project manager at Sage, organizations not yet deploying VoIP tools cite the technology's lack of maturity as its biggest deterrent.

When using VoIP systems, visitors to your site can click on an interactive button or icon and speak directly with a customer-care agent instantly. Most products and services in this environment are equipped with Internet navigation tools, which help agents give visitors the information they need. One of the biggest advantages of VoIP is that it avoids the tolls, taxes and other fees phone companies typically charge for traditional phone calls. However, the tool also requires that your customers have a multimedia PC, a microphone and speakers to enable them to converse with agents.

Software vendors and ASPs currently offering VoIP solutions to businesses include eGain Communications, eShare Communications, Kana Communications and LivePerson. Most offer more services than just VoIP systems, and prices range anywhere from $20 for a stand-alone system to $2,000 for a setup fee and then $350 per month, or $1,500 for a setup fee and then $6,000 per month.

Whatever tool you choose, the main objective of customer care remains the same. "Customers need to be able to communicate with your business in a way that's most comfortable and available to them," says Gary Blasiar, president of Alert Communications Co., a Los Angeles call-center solutions vendor. "If you can't provide the communication platforms they want to use, they'll find companies that can."


Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in Brooklyn, New York.

Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at mcampanelli@earthlink.net.

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This article was originally published in the July 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Now or Never.

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