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The Green Sheet Online Edition

April 23, 2007 • Issue 07:04:02

Anyone up for a chat?

By Joel and Rachael Rydbeck
Nubrek Inc.

Customers expect to reach you anytime, anyplace. That seems to be the world cell phones and e-mail enabled smart phones have brought us. While this is a mixed bag, you now have the opportunity to reach your clients much faster and with less hassle than ever before.

If you haven't already used live chat, try it out. There is great convenience in being able to respond to customers immediately and not have to make the kind of small talk phone conversations require.

In this article, we will discuss two online applications that can give your customers faster access to your company: instant messaging and live chat.

Live chat

Last week we were altering our automatic billing with Authorize.Net Corp., and we had a few questions. At the top of a Web page accessible to Authorize.Net customers was a link to a live chat with a customer service rep. After we clicked on the LiveChat button, we were put into a queue and kept apprised as we progressed in line.

When a representative came on screen, we quickly stated our issue and received assistance promptly. At the end of the chat, we were given the option of printing out our conversation for reference.

Directly after the session, a survey popped up. It asked our opinion of Authorize.Net's customer service. All in all, we were very impressed.

This type of live chat service is increasingly popular. Before placing a phone call, we will often check a company's Web site to see if it offers live chat support.

Chat applications provide customers with a convenient interface with your company. Many people appreciate the real-time communication and anonymity live chat offers. They don't have to pick up a phone and engage in conversation.

Providing a live chat option enables sales agents and customer service reps to handle more than one conversation simultaneously. It is also surprisingly inexpensive, ranging from $8.99 a month all the way up to $149 a month, depending on the number of licenses and extra features required.

Some companies have developed sophisticated tools that provide metrics and chat routing. LivePerson Inc. offers just such functionality. At Nubrek Inc., we use Rackspace Ltd. for all of our Web hosting. Much of our communication with Rackspace has been via the company's LivePerson chats.

Two years ago, a sales representative for j2 Global Communication Inc.'s eFax service (which facilitates e-mail faxing) convinced us of the value of a one-year contract and closed the deal via live chat.

If you're interested in leveraging this tool, here are several questions to ask when you are evaluating live chat products:

  • How customizable is the product?
  • What alerts users to a customer's question?
  • How many users are included in the license?
  • Can each user host multiple sessions simultaneously? (i.e., can one customer service rep work with three customers at once?)
  • Are e-mail transcriptions of chats available?
  • Can users and their customers print chats?
  • Does the application come with safety features?
  • Does the product monitor traffic?
  • What kind of support is offered?
  • Is installation of hardware or software required?

While we aren't reviewers, we can point you to some of the dozens of available products to help jump start your search. If you are interested in setting up a live chat feature for your current or potential customers, check out the following:

  • CoffeeCup Live Chat (www.coffeecup.com/live-chat) is a very affordable live chat option that you can host on your own servers. The application costs $34 upfront and provides basic services.
  • Live2Support (www.live2support.com) is a hosted service with packages ranging from $8.99 to $39.99 per month, depending on your needs. This tool provides log analysis and reporting so you can gauge application and Web site usage and encourage visitors to view helpful Web pages.

We like the real-time Web site visitor monitoring and the ability this product provides to initiate a chat.

· LivePerson (www.liveperson.com) is an established leader in this space. From a Rackspace customer perspective, we were very impressed with this product, although the pricing estimates were more than twice those of any other packages we researched.

· From a customer experience perspective, we were also impressed with InstantService (www.instantservice.com).

Instant messaging

Instant messaging (IM for short) is a real-time communication tool that is offered by several companies whose applications are installed on users' computers. Unlike live chat applications, you need to know a person's unique user identification to initiate a chat with that person.

IM also requires that you and the person with whom you are exchanging messages have the same software installed. Most applications are available at no cost.

Some have fancy, optional upgrades for a fee. IM sessions reduce the need for e-mail and phone calls. A simple question-and-reply exchange can be transmitted within seconds.

Aside from providing the ability to exchange messages with friends, co-workers and family, many IM applications have some cool built-in features. Most offer spell check and a wide selection of appealing graphics.

Many allow users to receive and send files containing pictures, sound bites and documents. One of our favorite features is the chat room where you and several other people can share a chat box instead of copying each other on a long string of e-mails. Everyone gets together in one chat and irons out the details.

The more popular IM tools are Google Talk, AOL IM (AIM), MSN Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and Skype SMS. Trillian by Cerulean Studios ( www.trillian.cc) is a great tool for combining all your instant messaging tools into one interface.

Security

Make sure that your IM software keeps logs you can monitor for inappropriate behavior, if necessary. Companies can also choose different security measures regarding data saved and allowed on the chats.

IM viruses and worms spread in much the same way e-mail viruses spread. Because you can send and receive files via IM, it is possible to download infected files. Keeping your anti-virus software updated is a great way to prevent this and thereby protect your computer.

Most tools allow you to disable file-sending. We strongly recommend that you not accept unsolicited files.

Additionally, most IM tools do not use encryption: Information you exchange can be easily intercepted and read. Many live chat tools use the secure hypertext transfer protocol (https), which is readily accepted in most security circles.

The downside

Being instantly available to your customers and co-workers means they expect you to be very accessible. When you take a break from online interaction, you run the risk of ruffling feathers.

Also, people who might have hesitated to give you a call over a question will have fewer qualms about shooting you a quick instant message.

Additionally, employees who have access to IM in the office may use work time to chat with friends rather than tend to customer needs. Unlike e-mail, IM conversations can extend for half an hour rather than a few short minutes.

It is difficult to convey tone in an IM format. Many people abbreviate words and cut out grammar. The end result can look very curt. A phone call is often the most personal touch (but not always practical).

Our recommendation: Use live chat and IM as part of a larger solution. They can play a complementary role to e-mail and phone transactions. Have fun trying out solutions as you find the right fit for your business. end of article

Joel Rydbeck, Chief Technology Officer of Nubrek Inc., brings his strong background in e-commerce and business process automation to the merchant services industry. Rachael Rydbeck, President of the company, has a background in product management and technical writing. Nubrek offers eISO, a Web application for ISOs that tracks leads and provides automated residual and commission reports. For more information on eISO or to view a free demo, visit www.nubrek.com/eiso.html. E-mail Joel at joel@nubrek.com or Rachael at rachael@nubrek.com.

Notice to readers: These are archived articles. Contact names or information may be out of date. We regret any inconvenience.

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