Richard Bond is in the instru mentation business. His fledgling Mill Valley, Calif., Formotion Products Company makes two products -- the Scooter Clock and the Scooter Thermometer. They're shiny and attractive, and perhaps most importantly (since they get mounted on motorcycles), they're waterproof.
Bond promotes his instruments on Formotionproducts.com. The instant messaging tool installed on the site even-tually provided him with a reading of his clients he never expected to have. But at first, all he meant it to do was to provide real customer service via the Web. "I'd seen sites that had buttons that let you send them a message," he says. "I wanted to try something like that for my site." He didn't, however, want to add to the overall complexity of the site: "One of my main focuses in putting the site together was to keep it simple. I steered away from bells and whistles because there are a lot of pictures on the site to begin with, so we're already encumbered with large page sizes."
There would have been no shortage of available bells and whistles had Bond been looking for them. Options range from message boards for threaded discussions, through voice-over-IP Internet telephony, to three-dimensional representations of products that customers can view on all sides. But few small business are going to the trouble or expense of offering 3D views of their online catalogs. Most small businesses opt for instant messaging, chat rooms, or message boards.
Talk To Me
Instant messaging is a fairly cheap and easy way to provide customers with a direct line of contact while searching business sites. When a customer at an instant messaging-enabled site arrives on selected pages, a bell in the icon tray on the employee's PC blinks and makes a doorbell sound. If the visitor clicks on the icon to initiate a chat, the employee hears the sound of a telephone ringing. He then simply clicks on the bell to bring up a console from which up to three simultaneous chat sessions can take place. If another customer rep is also available and signed on to the service, chat requests will alternate between the two, with new chats going to the rep with the lighter load.
There is a range of options for instant messaging, from embedding a few lines of HTML in a Web page, to adding a free AOL instant messenger link, to fairly inexpensive instant messaging services like HumanClick, or higher-end customer relationship services like Facetime.
Bond stumbled across HumanClick while investigating how other Web sites were handling customer service. Bond found that he could easily incorporate the service into his Web site. "I could place the code in the margin of my site and have it automatically populate all my pages," he says.
But Bond has found that he doesn't actually make himself available for live interaction all that often. "I'm too small to have someone available all the time," he says. "But more than that, my impression is that even when I'm available for chatting, people are a little leery about it. They want to shop without the idea that someone is watching them."
Back and Forth
SkyStar Aircraft Corporation, located in Nampa, Idaho, sells experimental airplane kits to builders and flying enthusiasts around the world. Customers purchase the Kitfox plane kits, which are 50 percent built, then complete the rest themselves. They rely heavily on Sky-Star's technical support department and community of customers for tips and advice throughout the building process.
For several years, the company has played host to an active private e-mail list, where customers exchange ideas, advice, and questions with each other and the company. When Joe Brewer joined SkyStar just over a year and a half ago, his charge was to revamp SkyStar's four-year-old Web site. The company wanted to facilitate communications among its customer community and ease the burden of calls and e-mail queries that inundate the tech support staff. In addition to instant messaging, Brewer added a chat room capability.
"We had existing builders out there who were looking to communicate with each other." he says. "They communicated a lot in the private e-mail list, but it wasn't in real time, and they'd have to wait a day to get an answer." Brewer initially chose to use a Yahoo club for the Web site's chat function, but had to look elsewhere because his customers were upset about having to give Yahoo their personal information. After researching the options, Brewer chose a chat room tool by Multicity, which features an instant translation capability.
"Initially I didn't know about the multilingual feature, but it's become a useful tool," says Brewer. "We have dealers in Korea, for instance, that speak no English and e-mail communication wasn't really functional. We'd send an e-mail to them, they'd send it to the translator, the translator would rewrite it, and we'd have a two-day delay. It's easier to talk in a chat room."
Regardless of whether questions are coming from overseas or down the street, Brewer says that introducing the chat room has helped the 27-employee company to ease its tech-support burden. "If a builder comes on line and wants to deal with a particular issue, we can do the direct support with them, or if people are put together in the same room with the same problem, they are often able to help each other," he says.
Brewer also added a message board function to the site. But unlike the chat rooms, the message boards have not taken off.
He believes they are victims of the long standing success of the initial e-mail news list. "The e-mail news list was there long before we put the message board up." he says. "There are hundreds of Kitfox owners on it already. People just aren't going to reply to [the boards] because of that other list."
A revelation that both Brewer and Bond share is that instant messaging, chat, and message boards are great tools for gathering information about their customers needs, even if the customers aren't always using them to get directly in touch with the company.
"HumanClick turned out to be useful because I can now see when someone comes onto my site, watch what pages they visit, and how long they stay, all in real time." Bond says. "I can also tell which site referred them. So if there's a discussion on some other bulletin board that mentions us, I can go check out what's being said and offer help."
Brewer, meanwhile, is still contemplating ways to coax his reluctant customers into using the message boards. Meanwhile, he's recording questions asked in the chat rooms, the e-mail list, and even the scattered few on the message boards to get a handle on customer needs. "In our business there are more than 400 manufacturers of kit airplanes." Brewer says. "You're always trying to be better than the guy next door. The more help we can give our customers, the better we are, particularly compared to our competitor.
The following vendors are just a few of the companies vying to pump up your online customer service:
Offers lean-looking, easy-to-use bulletin boards.
Chat rooms for your site, with or without ads.
If you want to go for a full-blown voice connection with clients, this company offers a Java applet that hooks your customers up with you.
These companies offer a range of instant messaging services: