The rise of the virtual shop assistant

27th Jul 2007

  • Click here to download our exclusive report 'Customer service in the UK online retail industry'.

Today’s increasingly sophisticated online shoppers expect speed and efficiency; tomorrow’s may well expect to share the experience interactively with friends. Sean O’Connell, Director of Marketing, Talisma, highlights how “virtual sales staff” can facilitate this interaction and deliver real ROI back to the business.

Shopping online should be quick, simple and intuitive. So why are conversion rates so frequently in single digits, with almost 60% of customers who actually manage to put goods in the shopping basket abandoning the trip before they checkout?

Why make it harder than it needs to be?

The answer, of course, is that shopping online is all too often not as easy as it ought to be. A surprisingly high proportion of UK online retailers still do not offer a search function on their websites, while many of those that do use simple hierarchical structures and limited language flexibility, which means a “no results” message is returned far more frequently than it needs to be.

And it’s not just internet novices that run into problems. We have all experienced confusing web forms that keep popping back with alerts in red because we’ve failed to tick a box or keyed in some dates in the wrong format.

If we can’t work out how to fix these errors or find the products for ourselves, we want to be able to speak to someone who can do it for us, quickly and easily. But how many times have those emails, or messages sent via an online ‘contact us’ form, gone unanswered? Or you have searched in vain for any telephone number that will produce anything other than a voice automated response system with irritating menus telling you to “press 1 for sales, 2 for service”?

It can sometimes take real determination and effort to cross these barriers and buy, and today’s sophisticated online shoppers are becoming less, rather than more, tolerant of a website’s shortcomings.

With broadband delivering rapid response to every click, anything that takes more than a few seconds to load or complete becomes an irritation. According to independent research carried out by Andersen’s, 83 per cent of internet shoppers will abandon a website because they can’t find what they’re looking for, and digital shoppers will simply move onto the next option thrown up by Google.

Stickiness: keeping the shopper online

If online retailers are to improve conversion rates, promote loyalty and build profitable sales, then it is vital to maintain stickiness. Retailers should be striving to keep every shopper on their website until they complete a purchase, and that means proactively interpreting and responding to their behaviour so they do not become bored, distressed or simply exasperated by complicated forms, poor search functionality or confusing navigation

In a real world store, sales staff are often encouraged to engage would-be customers in conversation, keeping them browsing in the store. A skilled sales assistant can quickly identify the sort of goods the shopper is searching for, make suitable suggestions, and move towards closing the sale.

Such staff can also be extremely quick to spot the confused or lost shopper in a department store, DIY warehouse or supermarket and offer much needed assistance. Likewise, providing customer service desks and easy to recognise in-store staff make it very easy for shoppers to seek the help that they need.

It is just this sort of proactive behaviour that needs to be adopted by retailers in the online world.

Moving the sales assistant online

Various attempts have been made to transfer the in-store experience online by creating virtual sales assistants, and in some cases tailoring their behaviour to fit the shopper’s profile.

A few years ago avatars were all the rage, with friendly pop-up figures providing help when it was requested. One US finance company even tailored its avatar’s appearance, for example the middle-aged were presented with a greying statesman-like figure, the young by a more hip avatar. Inevitably, such figures were as irritating for many shoppers as they were ideal for others.

A much more successful development has been “live chat” where shoppers can click into a dialogue box and ask questions of a remote advisor while they browse the site. Research from Decipher shows that chat yields a higher satisfaction rate for customer service compared to the telephone. This is supported by a survey from US e-commerce expert Lauren Freedman, which suggests that 72% of shoppers who had tried live chat rated it as “very important” or “most important” when purchasing online.

Online chat can be a powerful, efficient and cost-effective tool for communicating with potential and existing customers and also provides a real-time response to an enquiry with less cost and effort. At Talisma, we have found that our customers implementing live chat have been able to increase sales by as much as 30% as a result.

The rise of social networking will inevitably impact live chat options in the future as customers will not only want to discuss their planned purchase with a sales advisor but also ask friends for their opinions. Opening up live chat to third parties for multiple conversations could well be an important growth area in future.

Proactivity is key

However, while live chat is certainly a step in the right direction, retailers need to be more proactive in identifying the moments when shoppers are becoming distressed and frustrated, and therefore most likely to abandon the shopping trip.

Proactive assistance is especially important for high value, high involvement products where shoppers need to spend time reviewing options or checking information, or may need reassurance at the checkout when handing over their card details. As in the real world, it can also be key to retaining loyalty with regular high-spending shoppers who appreciate a personalised service online as much as they would in a favourite high street store.

Proactive assistance chat can be set up either automatically to detect distress in a shopper or so that a remote customer service assistant can intervene in the transaction. Although this latter option is much more practicable for low volume, high value operations.

Every site needs to identify the key distress signals that suggest mounting shopper frustration. There could be multiple searches using similar keywords, for example: “fridge” followed by “refrigerator” followed by “larder fridge”. As well as prompting chat interaction, such repeated multiple search behaviour also very clearly suggests that the search function on the site is inadequate. However, the most sophisticated search tool may still struggle with mis-spellings or idiosyncratic language so chat interaction can always be useful.

Once at the required product, the shopper may then spend far longer that average looking at the single page. Is there something that is confusing them or perhaps they need more information? They could also be making repeated mistakes at completing a form – an obvious flag for some helpful intervention. Similarly, anyone who hits the “cancel” button in mid-transaction is an obvious candidate for some very rapidly delivered proactive assistance!

For high value or returning shoppers, proactive chat can also provide a direct marketing opportunity with specific offers related to previous purchases that can be both personalised and contextual to the pages being browsed.

Putting proactive service solutions into practice
A number of retailers – in both the US and UK - are now using proactive chat, and results are impressive, with a 50% reduction in transaction failures and sales increases of 30-40% thanks to offering help in search and product selection.

Proactive chat can be a very successful tactic, for example by helping to increase forms completion by up to 40%. However, other virtual sales tools are also worth considering. For example, ‘click-to-talk’ technology allows website visitors to click a link and immediately connect, via the internet, to a contact centre agent or after hours support line. With some 10 million UK households now connected to broadband, ‘click-to-talk’ technology can help retailers meet customer demand for fast and accurate responses to questions and problems.

Chat interactions are substantially more cost effective than voice calls, with a single operator able to manage a number of queries concurrently. In fact, proactive chat can reduce the number of inbound calls by 15-30%. Such systems can also reduce the need for those “contact us” emails which are also highly labour intensive to process. Typically, email volumes can be reduced by 40% within a month of empowering virtual shop assistants with proactive chat technology.

Keeping up with the sophisticated shopper

Forecasts for online retailing activity already suggest that 20% of sales, in some retail sectors, could move online in the short term. These shoppers are increasingly sophisticated, demanding and IT savvy: they know as well as you do that the competition is only a click away. Today, product is rarely a differentiator – it is customer service that can make the real difference and delivering a satisfying online experience is as important as having the right product in stock.

The virtual shop assistant has a pivotal role to play in the future of online retailing, but their success will depend on their ability to personalise the shopping experience and provide fast, accurate information to shoppers. As a result, retailers must ensure they are provided with a unified view of the shopper and all previous interactions with the company across all communication channels, including telephone, chat, email, and click-to-talk.

If your website leads to frustration and distress then that customer is likely to be lost to you forever; providing proactive virtual sales assistants that can deliver a personalised, accurate and rewarding experience will be the key to future online success.

  • Click here to download our exclusive report 'Customer service in the UK online retail industry'.

By Talisma

For more information please visit

1. According to MarketingSherpa
2. According to IMRG

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