What The Web Needs: E Clerks

The future seemed so easy. Web-based businesses would replace surly customer-service clerks with automated e-mail responses. But with some two-thirds of online shoppers giving up on buying before they ante up, according to Forrester Research, new thinking is in order. "People want access to live human beings," says Jim Sterne, author of Customer Service on the Internet (Wiley). That may not mean an operator; small companies are using online chat to guide customers. "It makes a difference, especially when you're building a brand," says Nick Swinmurn, CEO of 10-employee online shoe store, which devotes 10% to 15% of its budget to customer service--and uses phone support to nab customers. To minimize needless inquiries, Sterne suggests sites first displaying Frequently Asked Question files and basic info such as address and company history.

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