By Adrian Mello

With Forrester Research estimating that 45 percent of the North American online population use instant messaging (IM) once a week and 90 percent of that group use it daily, IM can potentially provide a familiar way for customers to get quick answers to questions without making phone calls or sending e-mail.

E-commerce sites often lose sales because they can’t answer customers’ questions quickly and easily. For example, a customer at an online clothing site may abandon her shopping cart after realizing that the site does not tell her what the sweater she has just selected is made of.

When customers can’t find an answer to their query online, they often resort to the phone or e-mail. Both approaches have problems. Customers are becoming increasingly frustrated with call centers and voice-mail systems that require them to listen to tedious menu options or wait on hold for extended periods of time. The prevalence of “voice-mail hell” is a symptom of the high costs businesses pay to support customers by phone. E-mail is even worse as a fast customer-interaction medium; due to its nature as a store-and-forward technology, e-mail was never designed for spontaneous communication.

Instant messaging can provide an alternative for businesses that want to help online shoppers get quick answers without resorting to the phone or to e-mail. One big advantage of instant messaging is that customers can use it while remaining online. A business is more likely to lose sales anytime customers shift their attention outside the store environment. Also, customers with a single phone line cannot shop online and call customer service simultaneously.

Another advantage of instant messaging is that it automatically creates a written transcript of the dialog between a customer and a service agent. Because written transcripts are easier to archive and search than voice recordings, businesses can use them to monitor customer interactions for quality control.

Because instant messages tend to be more succinct than voice inquiries, it’s possible for service agents to handle more than one message at a time, says Forrester Research Senior Analyst Eric Schmitt. “If you have one agent handling serially one chat at a time—the economics are going to be terrible. If you have someone who can handle a couple of sessions at once, then the economics begin to improve,” he said.

Service agents might also be able to save time by having scripted answers available for the most frequently asked questions. They can reduce the amount of typing they do by pasting in the response or posting them via predefined function keys.

Even so, companies need to be careful before offering customers support via instant messaging. Like phone support, IM requires adequate staff to handle message volume in real time, including sudden spikes in customer inquiries—a real possibility considering the widespread use of instant messaging. It makes sense to phase in instant messaging gradually—perhaps by making it available only to top-spending customers—to evaluate its potential effects on service volume, cost, and infrastructure.

It’s still early, but companies that are serious about selling products and supporting them over the Internet should investigate the use of instant messaging for customer service. Instant messaging products are available from several vendors, such as eGain, FaceTime, Hipbone, and Talisma. Alaska Airlines, for one, uses FaceTime’s instant messaging application to help answer questions about ticketing and travel from its online customers, who comprise about 12 percent to 15 percent of the airline’s customer base.

If instant messaging is adopted as quickly for customer service as it was for casual messaging, the face of customer service could undergo radical change in the next few years.