By Lynn Haber

When Venus Swimwear added a Web-based live chat feature to its customer service channel two years ago, the company was careful to look before leaping. Today, the company reports that its multichannel contact center strategy is paying off.

“We’ve seen usage of live chat double in the past 12 months, and we’ve discovered that online customers who engaged in a live chat were more likely to make a purchase than those who didn’t,” says Rich Atlas, director of direct mail and e-commerce marketing at Venus, which is based in Jacksonville, FL, and sells swimwear, exercise apparel, and winter silks.

Live chat is just one component of what has become known as a multichannel contact center. This most recent iteration of the traditional telephone- and fax-based call center brings in new forms of customer contact, such as Web-based self-service, e-mail, Web callback, Web chat, and Web-based project collaboration.

While Venus, a privately held company with revenues in excess of $50 million, is upbeat about its Web-based contact center, there’s no stampede toward these applications—at least not yet.

“The market didn’t grow as fast as we expected and, today, organizations have to have a clear idea of the business problem they’re trying to solve before they deploy such tools,” said Katrina Howell, program leader for contact center technologies at Frost & Sullivan. Frost & Sullivan pegged the market for Internet-based customer care tools at $79.7 million in 2001 and projects it will grow to $356 million in 2008.

Howell said demand for such products will increase as customers continue to become more comfortable with Internet commerce and more trusting that they’ll receive effective customer service through e-mail, live collaboration, and Web self-service methods. Additionally, she expects to see more businesses direct customers toward Internet-based interaction channels to lower service costs and maximize sales opportunities.

When they do, they’ll have plenty of vendors to choose from. eGain Communications, Hipbone, Kana, InstantService, and RightNow Technologies all play in this market, as do stand-alone e-service solutions vendors, CRM suite vendors such as Siebel Systems, and telephony vendors such as Aspect Communications, Avaya, and Cisco Systems.

Testing the waters, exploring opportunities
Companies that are testing the waters with Web-based communication, such as Venus Swimwear, view these tools as a way to provide customers with the best possible customer service experience and every opportunity to communicate.

At Venus, which established a transaction-based Web presence in 1998, the Web generates 20 percent of overall business, with the other 80 percent coming primarily from indirect mail business, according to Atlas. “Hundreds of inquiries are made via live chat,” he said. “It’s our belief that customers shopping online prefer to communicate that way as opposed to using the telephone.”

Venus online customers can click a live agent icon and engage in a text chat with a customer service representative. The company uses a hosted service from InstantService for Web chat. Online customers can also opt to send e-mail.

Slower uptake at a financial planning firm
Diversified Investment Advisors, a 50-year-old financial services company that focuses exclusively on retirement planning, has had a different experience with the use of its Web-based, customer care features.

Since Diversified first implemented these features two years ago—beginning with Web chat and later adding cobrowsing—the company reports that only a small number of its customers are biting.

“People are curious and are slowly edging towards it,” said David Evans, vice president of the Purchase, NY, firm.

Managing $50 billion in retirement investments, Diversified works with about 660,000 active participants in its plans, 180,000 of whom participate exclusively through the company’s Web site, logging in to check their accounts and perform other functions online.

The slow uptake on Web chat and Web collaboration doesn’t discourage John Walker, Diversified’s vice president of Web retirement planning. In fact, earlier this year, the company replaced the older, less functional products it had been using with Hipbone’s Synetry suite of live interaction applications.

“As our clients shop for new providers, they’re looking for firms that provide and use technology in a variety of ways in order to reach their employees, who may not be reachable by conventional ways,” Walker said, noting that this was the major driver for implementing Web-based customer service features. Walker also reported that, according to feedback from clients, 30 percent want to manage their accounts and get information via the Internet.

Today, Diversified’s plan participants can do Web collaboration when they log on to the company’s advisory application for retirement, which was created to help participants reach their retirement goals. By September, Web chat and Web collaboration will be available on the participant’s main page. By year-end, Diversified plans to add these tools to its public site as well.

“Ultimately, our goal is to get retirement plan participants to contribute more assets and have a successful retirement, and we’re exploring ways to make it easy for them to do that,” Walker said. Educating participants about the company’s Web-based communication features is a key part of the process, he added.