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Coming to a screen near you... The online adviser

By Shanaz Musafer
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionRetailers are paying more attention to their online customers

"Would you like to talk to an online adviser?"

If you've ever been faced with one of these pop-up messages while surfing the net, you're not alone.

The rise in live help features such as "click to chat", "click to e-mail" or "click to phone" has been swift over the last few months.

At least, to the casual consumer it may appear that way. But those in the industry have been working on these features for much longer.

"There's been a big uptake [in live assistance] in the last five years," says Frank Lord, vice president of ATG in Europe, Middle East and Africa. "Some people would say it's 10 years."

ATG is a specialist in e-commerce. It advises companies on how to maximise the online part of their businesses.

Its clients include the likes of Tesco, Vodafone, Continental Airlines and Carrefour.

Mr Lord says it was a natural progression for ATG to move into live assistance.

"Now almost any retailer sees this as a necessity and not a luxury," he says.

'Click stream behaviour'

For people who are in need of help, it's a useful tool. But to the customer who prefers to shop online alone, it can be an invasive irritation.

image captionATG says it aims to personalise the shopping experience

"What we normally recommend is that [retailers] place a static button somewhere on their page and they deploy the proactive part of this only in conditions where you obviously need help," says Mr Lord.

So how do you know when someone does need help?

Companies such as ATG take advantage of existing aspects of retail websites, according to Mr Lord.

"There's java code on almost every retail page that tracks which pages you click on, where you are etc," he says.

"When you are looking around a client's website, we can let them know about your 'click stream behaviour' - the kind of things you are looking at," he explains, adding that click stream data is only held for the duration of your session and is not kept indefinitely.

For example, he cites Amazon - both a customer and a competitor to ATG - as a website where it is near-impossible to find a telephone number for shoppers to get in touch.

image captionAndy Henshaw believes more and more firms will start using video help

But adding an item such as a large widescreen TV to your shopping basket gets you noted as a higher-value customer and a telephone number will appear somewhere on your screen.

But it's not just your clicks that are being monitored. The movement of your mouse can be tracked too.

On some sites, if you have high-value items in your shopping basket but then move your mouse to close the window, a message will pop up asking you if you need help.

In other words, assistance is offered at the point where they think they are going to lose the customer.

Video help

ATG has two main technologies. With "click to call", the customer is invited to hit a button and provide a telephone number and a convenient time for an operator to call back.

With "click to chat", the customer hits a button and an instant messenger-style window opens up, allowing you to have a live text conversation with an operator.

But one company that has gone even further than this is Vee24 - it provides live video help for websites.

image captionLexus Germany has had to adapt the way it offers its online assistance

"The opportunity of speaking to somebody is just vital," says Andy Henshaw, chief executive of Vee24.

At the moment, the company's best-known customers are outside the UK - in the US and Lexus in Germany - but he's hopeful that the technology will soon take off over here too.

"It is a brand new service," he says. "People don't yet know about it."

Currently, only about 4% of shoppers on sites using Vee24's technology actively request help. The company's target is to get that up to 10%.

It believes that by offering better online services, companies can improve their conversion rates - the proportion of browsers who actually make a purchase.

At present, conversion rates on the High Street are about 15-20%. On the web, they are in the region of 2-3%.

'George Orwell'

Georg Esterhues, marketing director at Lexus Germany, says the experience of using online video assistance has been a steep learning curve.

"The most interesting problem we found was, how do you engage someone on the internet without scaring them away straight away? This is the George Orwell part of it!" he says.

"At the beginning we had a live image come up with the operator there. We changed that to a still photograph of the operator, with a sentence asking if they wanted help. We also found that a bit too much."

By adapting the service in such a way, Lexus has managed to reduce the rate of people who clicked away immediately from 86% to about 8%.

If a customer chooses assistance, it starts off as being a text chat conversation. Then through the chat window, the operator asks if they want to video chat, Mr Esterhues explains.

Monitoring operations

He is aware that maintaining customers' privacy is a major concern.

image captionFrank Lord says not everybody will like video assistance

Although the feedback has been very positive, it has to be looked at a bit more carefully, he acknowledges.

"They are the people who clicked yes. What's important to know is the people who don't like it feel like we're invading their privacy."

The company started a pilot scheme using video assistance with one dealer in October 2009 to offer test drives and send out brochures. It was rolled out nationally at the start of this year.

Since then, it has been monitoring the operation on a weekly basis and will assess its economic viability at the end of the year.

But with sales in the car industry suffering from a global slump in demand, Mr Esterhues concedes that it may well have to downsize.

"Because of the economic situation, sales did not fly like they were supposed to when we first started planning this [in 2008]. The success of this operation depends on the website and at the moment it's pretty quiet," he says.

Future developments?

So is face-to-face chat over the web the way forward?

Well, that depends on who you speak to.

Yes, says Andy Henshaw: "Video brings your website to life."

He is hopeful that his technology will really take off and says that Vee24 is currently in talks with a number of names in the travel, banking and automotive industries about providing live video help.

But ATG's Frank Lord disagrees. "Not all computers have webcams," he points out.

"And people may be apprehensive about using video because they don't want to be seen.

"We think there's still a lot of room in the click-to-chat market."

He adds that ATG is investing "very, very heavily" in mobile commerce.

Its research shows that almost two in five UK consumers have tried to shop online from their mobiles, but more than a quarter of those have encountered difficulties.

"This is an evolving area," says Mr Lord. "What are things going to be like three years from now? Who knows?"

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