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It's time to start chatting to your customers online

A quarter of UK residents have registered with the Telephone Preference Service and consultants are voicing concerns that the decimation of the call centre is looming, writes Terry Hiles, managing director of Atmyside.

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Telemarketers are under more pressure than ever to drive sales, so there is a real need to exploit the untapped sales potential of other customer-facing channels.

With e-mail under immense scrutiny, thanks to the small minority of spammers, the web is perhaps one of the last chances to positively engage the customer.

For years web designers and e-marketers have been looking at techniques to improve the stickiness of websites and integrate them into a customer relationship management masterplan -- and the Holy Grail that is the "multi-channel contact centre".

However, with the focus firmly on delivering online, customer service many appear to have lost sight of the main reason why most websites were created in the first place, to generate leads and increase sales.

Yet changing the focus of the website from a passive medium that aims to reduce call volumes, to an active sales tool that promotes communication between agents and potential customers, does not require a huge re-engineering process. To the contrary, it will complement the customer service offering.

Until now web or live chat technology has been promoted as a means of providing real-time customer service, to engage the visitor at the point of interaction. It was seen as the preserve of large telcos and financial services companies with high seat call centres and large budgets, and it was often reserved for "high-value" customers only.

Times have changed and small and medium-sized companies as well as big business are looking to live chat. Why? Because it enables you to place the knowledge and skills of your most experienced contact centre agents directly on to the website.

Live chat works in two ways. Firstly, it is permission-based and sits on the website, ensuring the visitor is only ever one click away from an agent in the contact centre. Should the visitor have an inquiry, they can communicate with an agent securely, privately and efficiently via real-time text chat.

The agent can offer advice, answer queries and assist with bookings through interactive form-filling. The agent can also direct customers to relevant web pages containing special offers using the co-browsing capability, in the same way that a shop assistant would guide you to the product you are looking for. However, live chat comes into its own when combined with a technique known as real-time visitor tracking and behaviour analysis or HotProspecting.

When a prospect walks into a car showroom, the dealer, with all his or her years of experience, will read the signals and know whether the person is serious about buying. He will have waited to observe what type of car they are interested in and at the appropriate moment introduce himself. It is a hugely effective sales technique that can be mimicked on the web.

Agents are able to be proactive, analysing the behaviour of visitors to the website in real-time, identify those who are "hot prospects" and invite them into a live chat session. In the same way that there is no law stopping you from approaching a potential customer when they walk on to the shop floor, the same is true of the web.

One such company using live chat to drive sales is HotelConnect. The marketing manager, Nicky Clarke, explains: "Live chat provides an immediate one-to-one interaction between potential HotelConnect customers and our online travel agents, which is vital to converting browsers into bookers. Feedback from customers and our agents has been excellent."

Accurately executed telemarketing and direct mail campaigns will always have vital importance and I have no doubt that the direct marketing industry will address the current issues.

Despite the negative press, the call centre industry both inbound and outbound continues to grow at pace, with the Department of Trade and Industry expecting the UK industry to employ more than 200,000 people over the next three years.

Although some claim the decimation of the call centre is looming, I take the view that as the technology is now widely available, more affordable and usable -- and as marketers understand the full extent of its capabilities -- the industry will bloom in the next five years.

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