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Live chat and instant messaging are the next wave in online customer service.

Customer service has taken on a new significance as we all struggle with the slowing economy. Providing multiple access points for customers, such as snail mail, fax, phone, and e-mail, is vital for fast response times. After all, a happy customer usually equals repeat business and increased revenues.

We’ve learned a lot about online customer service during the past two years. Holiday shoppers in 1999 had a rough time as retail Web sites struggled to respond to customer service requests. E-mails went unanswered and deliveries were often late or non-existent.

During 2000, retailers heard customer feedback loud and clear, and good old-fashioned customer service is back in vogue. Rather than glitz, businesses that sell online know that they must invest in customer service to meet profit demands.

The latest entry in the customer service toolbox comes from two rather plain (but quite useful) Internet technologies–live chat and instant messaging. You might already be using these technologies within your company to increase communications or you might be using them to communicate with family and friends across the Internet.

But, imagine if you implemented a live chat or instant messaging solution in the customer care portion of your Web site. Customers could reach your representatives in real time to ask questions or make inquiries about product or service availability.

As with all technology solutions, there are several flavors of live chat and instant messaging packages in a variety of price ranges. For example, HumanClick offers a free version of its live chat software as well as a small business service-based solution priced at $20 per month. A broader solution that includes more functionality, such as pushing HTML pages to customers is available for $90 per month.

Likewise, LiveHelper offers a free and a fee-based voice and text chat solution. And, LivePerson, and CS-Live provide either chat or instant messaging services that fit most any budget. None of these solutions will break the bank and most require minimal setup or are offered as a service.

Your customer service representatives would either monitor your site for customer inquiries via a link to a service provider or via software or plug-ins you install. Customers need only have access to a Web browser, and these solutions work well even over low bandwidth connections.

If you want to improve customer service on your site this year, visit the sites of some of these providers of live chat and instant messaging solutions. You can test drive their products on the spot and see which solution you find most appealing–for your customers and for your pocketbook.

Contributing Editor Maggie Biggs has more than 15 years of business and IT experience in the financial sector.

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