Can We Talk? Web Chat Becomes Service Tool

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Merchants are turning to Web chat as a means to promote "site stickiness" and woo customers back.Granted, some consumers may love to surf for hours, but others want to cut to the chase. Chat allows these folks to hook up with a service rep and get fast answers to questions. Messages are written and relayed instantaneously through a pop-up window, enabling consumers to find out about specific products — or simply find their way around a site. "It's the equivalent to asking a salesperson in the store 'where is your DVD department?' " explains Gene Alvarez, program director at The Meta Group, an IT research and advisory company in Stamford, Conn.

Chat technology can also be wielded proactively: Service reps can step in and offer assistance if they notice a customer lingering on a certain Web page.

Costs vary widely, depending on many service agents you choose to equip with Web chat. Generally, price tags begin at about $250 per agent.

Not for retailers only, Web chat can be an effective collaboration tool. By allowing two different browser programs to link together, the technology allows companies to iron out ideas and projects on virtual white board.

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