You’ve convinced customers that shopping online beats sitting in traffic. They understand that their credit card numbers are secure. Customers are visiting your site, browsing the inventory, and placing items in shopping carts. But they don’t seem to buy as much as they do in brick and mortar stores, and they leave many items in the carts without buying.

In fact, two-thirds of electronic shopping carts do not result in sales, according to a survey from Net Effect Systems.

Perhaps that’s because electronic shopping lacks the personal touch. “Being able to hear a voice is comforting to some,” said Jane Tsai, director of marketing at People Support, a firm that provides customer support to e-commerce sites.

Adding the personal touch can be a tough hurdle for many companies. Both information technology and human resources present challenges. That may be why the e-customer support industry is growing so fast. Here’s what you need to know to make this new outsourcing market work for you.

Boosting sales with online service
One company has found success offering e-commerce clients the customer service they’re lacking in-house. “The feedback we’ve gotten is incredible,” said Rita Meyerson, public relations director for Live Person, a provider of live chat technology that started in late 1998 and currently has more than 300 customers.

Live Person claims it helps increase its clients’ sales by 25 to 35 percent. One reason for the boost in sales: Online representatives suggest additional products that may interest the customer. Plus, the technology increases the productivity of the online representatives. They can effectively conduct conversations with four customers simultaneously. It’s not so difficult when you consider that typically 70 percent of all chat questions can be answered with pre-formatted responses.

Productivity also increases because the customer service representatives can perform other tasks while waiting for a customer who wants to chat. A pop-up window comes onto the rep’s screen when a customer needs attention.
During one chat dialogue, a Live Person representative at a sporting goods Web site answered questions and recommended products. At the end of the conversation, the rep successfully closed a $12,000 online order with an international customer. Besides bringing in a huge sale, the call also decreased expenses for the order; because the sale was an e-commerce transaction, the company avoided paying international phone toll charges.
The service benefits the customer too. They don’t have to wait for a clerk in a store or wait for an operator on an 800 number. Furthermore, the company avoids the expense of paying for each phone call. Live Person also manages the server on which the technology operates, so the client’s IT department isn’t saddled with a new project. Typically, the service can be up and running on a Web site within 24 hours.

Hiring qualified e-reps
People Support often has clients request that People Support use operators from the client’s firm, and sometimes the People Support reps are added to the client’s existing staff of customer service representatives. Either way, all of People Support’s representatives are trained extensively, learning about the client’s culture and concerns as well as the latest technology.

Overall, People Support has created an efficient hiring and training system. The company is located near the University of CA and three other major universities. From these, it recruits many college students or recent graduates.

To bring in high-quality job candidates, People Support offers higher pay than a typical call center, and it offers stock options. This is a major benefit in a high-growth firm. For every job opening, the company receives about twenty resumes.

Turning phone reps into e-reps
Occasionally, People Support trains the client’s telephone customer agents how to be e-reps. “We’re experienced and can get them up [to speed] quickly,” said Tsai, the company’s marketing director.

But this conversion isn’t always practical. “The universal agent doesn’t really exist,” said Tsai.

A good phone rep has a pleasant, personable voice, but an e-rep needs to be Web-savvy and convey personality through text. Whether a telephone rep can make the transition to online sales depends on the person.

Sometimes former telephone reps make better e-reps because of their knowledge and experience. They might be the best people to handle a difficult conversation, such as when a customer is asking in-depth questions. While the client’s e-reps are taking care of high maintenance customers, the People Support e-reps can provide routine customer support.

People Support also provides hosting for chat, e-mail and voice-over technology, although it does not produce software.

A video e-tailer finds customer service online, a DVD and video e-tailer, recently signed with People Support in order to increase its customer service. uses mostly live chat and e-mail for a huge volume of inquiries from customers. Typically, customers ask about the status of an order and billing. The vice-president of operations, Jess DeRuiter, is so pleased with the decision to outsource that he’s negotiating a longer contract.

“They are a top-tier outsource partner. It’s a new company and a new relationship,” he said. “The next few months will shake out whether it can deliver over the long term, but so far I’m pleased.”

New ways to reach your customers
Other call center technologies also can help improve customer service and sales. When customers log onto the Lands End Web site, they can ask for a representative to call them back on the telephone immediately. Another device automatically answers e-mail by using a keyword search. If the e-mail doesn’t answer the question, then a live chat rep will reach the customer. Consultants can help determine which combination of technologies and outsourcing will meet your company’s needs.

Randi Hicks Rowe is a writer and communications consultant in Washington D.C. She specializes in business-to-business communications, including financial services and technology.

Have you outsourced your customer support? What benefits and pitfalls have you discovered? Post a comment below.