When visitors arrive at Oilchange.com, the memorably named website of Robert Sheinbein's web consultancy ("Does your website need an oil change?"), the first thing they see is its slick design. This is par for the course - until their computers chime, and a chat window pops up at the bottom.
"Can I help you get a website? We can help you with marketing as well," reads the opening prompt in the box.
On my first visit to the site, I was unconvinced the chat-box was real, as opposed to an elaborate ruse or a chat-bot. "This appears to be an IM box," I wrote back, slightly leery. "But I have serious doubts that it is."
"Hi there," came the immediate response from one of Mr. Sheinbein's employees. "Yup … this is an online support system."
This is how I found myself discussing the firm's offerings, when I might otherwise have surfed away with a positive impression of its contents but no particular incentive to engage with it.
A website can be a lonesome place. For visitors, the routine is prescribed: Google to find a site. Click through. Extract the needed information and - if it's the vendor's lucky day - make a purchase. Leave.
But there are ways a small-business site, looking to improve its web presence, can give itself another shot at engaging viewers. Widgets - pre-built software modules that can be added with little effort - can add live-chat and feedback functionality to websites, presenting customers with what is still a rare presence in the online world: A live salesperson.
"Live chat is brilliant; I'm using it for five or six sites," says Mr. Sheinbein, who was later reached by the slightly more traditional medium of the telephone. "They're always shocked it's a real person. But when they get it, it's like a drug. It's instant trust."
When users arrive at the site, they see an automated prompt asking them if they'd like to speak with someone. If they do, their response pops up on the company's end, and the conversation proceeds like a regular instant messaging (IM) chat session.
For Mr. Sheinbein, the widget helps put the art of salesmanship back into the process of web sales. The presence of a human on the other end of the line goes a long way toward establishing a rapport with the customer. The result is an increase in the number of visits that can be converted to sales - as many as a three-fold gain, by his count.
The salesperson can help answer questions and provide live support for a client. But when live chat is combined with analytics and other tools that indicate the page a customer is looking at, the salesperson on IM can be more precise in gauging the user's interest and act accordingly ("We happen to have a special on rain boots …").
There is no shortage of chat widgets from different vendors that can be integrated into an existing website, most with the addition of just a few lines of code. Some are free, while others - such as SnapEngage, which Mr. Shienbein uses - are "hosted services," all-inclusive packages on monthly plans that cost $9 to $289 a month, depending on features and how many live agents you need. Among other tricks, SnapEngage can also embed a live-chat widget into a Facebook page. Other popular chat widgets include Meebo Me, which integrates with the popular chat service, and Zoho, another large player that offers a robust set of features and integration with Jabber, a widely-used chat protocol.
The live-sales approach has some obvious drawbacks: A live-chat widget is only good as long as someone is there and available to man the computer. (Widgets can be configured to only appear when that's the case.) This poses a risk of inconsistency: A live chat option might be a bonus to a visiting new customer, but repeat customers can't be led to expect it as a form of support if it's only there intermittently. Talking into an empty box will leave a customer with a much worse impression of a firm than if the box had never appeared.
Finally, like all forms of live customer service, live-chats are difficult to scale in case of an influx of interest.
There are other angles on the chat-widget, however: A "shoutbox" appears on the page and allows people who are simultaneously visiting your site to speak with one another. It might increase the amount of time visitors spend on your site, but its utility as a sales tool is slightly fuzzy.
Meanwhile, feedback widgets such as GetSatisfaction give visitors a way to contact you with queries, feedbacks, and customer-service complaints. A widget is easier to use and more inviting than a simple e-mail contact, and it can have the effect of actively encouraging users to write in - giving businesses a chance to form lasting relationships.
A medium that comes naturally to a whole generation of young consumers, instant messaging offers a low-overhead, personality-rich way to reach out to customers. If the anonymity of the web is keeping you from making a sale, it might be time to put the shopkeeper back in the shop.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT