Live chat: your new online salesperson

Website operators are tapping the potential of instant messaging as a new powerful sales tool.

By Paul Sloan, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- A year or two ago, it looked like instant messaging and other forms of online chat had reached their full potential as a business tool. Millions of people were using IM to interact with corporate colleagues. Live chat had also become a fixture on websites, giving customers a way to inquire about products and receive answers in real time.

But as it has since the Web's earliest days, IM continues to evolve. Now some savvy website operators are finding that, when used tactfully, it can be a powerful way to boost sales - not just as a passive customer-service tool but as a way to engage customers, in the manner of a showroom salesperson. Erik Asarian, a real estate broker in Park City, Utah, installed a live chat box a year ago and credits it with adding $12 million in sales. "It's become an amazing new profit center," he says.

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Chatting for dollars: Asarian says IM has added $12 million in sales in the past year.

For all the advantages that come with selling on the Web, one disadvantage has constrained online merchants: They haven't been able to approach customers as they're shopping and pitch them on the spot. But live chat programs are beginning to change that, augmenting the IM functions with new surveillance capabilities that allow retailers to track, in real time, what pages you're visiting and what links you've clicked. "It's like having special glasses that let you see who's serious and who's not," Asarian says.

With that kind of knowledge, Asarian can decide, in effect, when to walk up to his visitor and strike up a conversation. But it's a delicate process that requires new tactics, says Ari Galper, a former sales manager for analytics firm WebSideStory. Galper has developed a sales method, ChatWise, which he sells bundled with a chat program called LivePerson. His customers range from small sites like Asarian's to companies such as Fuji Xerox in Australia. IM, Galper argues, is the wrong medium for hard sales tactics. It's too easy for that potential customer to close down the chat box. "You can't be pushy," he says.

To be a successful "closer," a merchant first has to learn how to use live chat to create trust. Instead of pinging visitors with a standard greeting like "How may I help you?" - which many potential customers correctly interpret as nothing more than a sales come-on - Galper suggests a subtler alternative: "Hi, my name is Ari, sorry to interrupt... just wanted to make sure everything is making sense so far..." (Another basic IM sales rule: Never use periods; opt instead for the more conversational ellipsis.)

Next, he advises, rather than offering a sales pitch the moment the visitor expresses interest in a product, dig deeper into what he's looking for. One possible line: "Can you tell me a little more about your situation..." The answers to such questions will also help you determine if the person is actually likely to make a purchase.

This might all sound obvious, but plenty of people still blow it. Ricky Breslin, who sells DVDs featuring hair-styling techniques at Braidsbybreslin.com, says he used to send messages to visitors too soon after they arrived, only to watch them flee within seconds. "It's so easy to scare people away," says Breslin, who runs the business from an office in Summerville, S.C. Lately he's adopted a lower-key approach. The result: a 10 percent increase in sales, which average $50,000 a month. Now that's money worth chatting about. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.