If your Web site doubles as a virtual sales office, it makes sense to have a representative on hand to answer questions — especially if the site gets 10 times the traffic that your call centre does.

Condominium developer Canderel

Stoneridge Equity Group thinks this strategy is sound and will launch a live chat function on its Web site this Wednesday to help potential buyers on virtual tours of its properties make the buying decision.

“”I look at it as an inbound sales tool,”” said Canderel Stoneridge marketing director Riz Dhanji.

The developer has available about 1,800 units — ranging in price from $150,000 to $2 million — at three locations in Toronto: College Park, The Waterford and DNA: Downtown’s Next Address.

The Web sites for each of these residences get a total of about 10,000 hits a month, or 10 times the traffic routed through its call centre. Of that traffic, Canderel records about 200 registrations. The primary goal of the Web sites is to drive traffic to the physical sales centres, said Dhanji. With the chat functionality, potential buyers “”have all the tools necessary for them to come in and make a quick buying decision.””

Occasionally – once or twice every few months, according to Dhanji – an international buyer completes the entire transaction online, from viewing floor plans to closing the deal. But according to The Yankee Group in Canada analyst Mark Quigley, chat-enablement wasn’t designed for such complex procedures.

Chat functionality is used “”more from an information-gathering perspective than from a close-the-deal perspective,”” Quigley said. He adds that any traffic diverted from a call centre is money saved because the biggest call centre expense is labour. If a representative using real-time online chat can handle three or four sessions at a time, there are savings to be had.

The usefulness of chat technology is rooted in the way consumers use the Web, Quigley said.

“”You rarely pick up the phone and call a company to ask about their products,”” he said. Typical users are more likely to surf a variety of sites and comparison shop among features, prices, packages and the like. That’s an opportunity to make live contact exists.

“”If you can help make that process easier for consumers,”” said Quigley, “”perhaps that’s enough to discourage them from going to an Amazon from a Chapters.””

Dhanji said the company will employ one sales rep to handle the chat function on all three sites. The technology is managed by Toronto-based service provider Eloqua Corp.

According to Eloqua chief technology officer Steven Woods, the market for chat technology is recovering from the doldrums of the last few years. “”In the dot-com craze, it boomed briefly,”” he said. But as markets recover, smoother technology and general marketing clutter are making a case for it.

“”Every kind of marketing is overdone,”” said Woods. Advertising falls flat when people delete the e-mail messages, ignore the banner ad or the roadside billboard and hang up on the telemarketer.

“”It’s not really done at a time that’s determined by you. It’s the sales person,”” said Woods. But customers visiting a Web site must already be interested and they’ve set aside the time to research a product. This method, he said, is “”a very-much appreciated type of marketing because it’s on your time scale.””

The technology’s not appropriate for every industry, but the two of the biggest markets are real estate and enterprise software, which have more in common than would seem. Purchasing in either area requires considerable consultation over options, financing, costs, references, vendor credibility and the like.

It’s also a good fit for markets where a competitive advantage can be gained by identifying new prospects at the earliest point they’re interested in a product, Woods said.


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