Anyone in business knows how important it is to be accessible to your customers. If you're a retailer, you greet customers and offer help the minute they walk in the door. But how do you greet people who visit your Web site?
Of course, many businesses post a phone number or provide a link where visitors can send e-mail. But there is also a way to interact with your visitors in real time.
HumanClick (http://www.humanclick.com) offers a software program that lets visitors to your site initiate a live chat. Another feature lets you invite them into a chat.
Having an interactive chat or live human help feature can be useful. Potential customers who might be interested in a product can get immediate answers, which could eliminate their hesitation to buy. You can also suggest products or simply help them find what they're looking for.
Take it from a man who is bewildered about what to buy for his wife and kids. The ability to ask someone for help finding a present for my 15-year-old daughter can be a godsend compared to having to find it myself on an e-tailer's Web site.
Large e-commerce sites such as Lands' End for months have been able to take advantage of commercially available chat services such as Icontact.com and Webline.com. If you click on Lands' End.com's help button, you'll find a link to the "Lands' End Live" feature, which I've used on a number of occasions to help me locate gifts or even items for myself. It really does make life easier if you have questions.
HumanClick's software and the service are free. The company, based in Moshav Bnei-Zion, Israel, doesn't display any advertising on your Web site and doesn't sell any products or services. But that may change, according to a notice on its Web site: "In the future, we may add advertising and may offer some premium services for a charge."
To use the service, your business has to have a Web page, but it doesn't matter what type of server your Web page uses or where it is hosted. You can even use it with free Web sites hosted at services such as Yahoo GeoCities, Tripod, Xoom and Angel Fire.
The software that makes this work runs on HumanClick's servers. All you do is paste a small amount of HTML code into your Web site, which in turn puts a HumanClick logo on your page and allows visitors to activate the service simply by clicking on that logo.
When you install the software, the program offers to automatically embed the HTML code on your site. You have to tell it the exact pages on which to install the code as well as your user name and password. Alternately, you can paste the code in yourself. This is very easy for anyone who works with HTML and is even pretty easy if you use a Web page editing program such as Microsoft FrontPage to maintain your site. It does have to be done by your Webmaster or whoever maintains your site, but it's not a big deal.
I maintain my own Web site using Microsoft Internet Explorer and, once I registered for HumanClick, it took me only a few minutes to paste the code into one of my pages. The hardest part was deciding exactly where to place it. I originally put it on my front page--where visitors first enter the site--but it made the page take longer to display because each time the page loaded, it had to contact HumanClick's server.
To avoid that problem, I removed it from my home page and created a special page for people who want to chat with me and then linked that page to my home page.
That link, by the way, probably won't be on my home page when you read this. I experimented with the service for a while but, as useful as HumanClick may be for some businesses, it isn't appropriate for me. Besides, I have a hard enough time keeping up with my e-mail.
If you do install the service on your site, I recommend that you experiment with it on a special page rather than on your front page. And be sure you're available to chat with people when they try to reach you. Whatever you do, don't frustrate your customers by creating an expectation of help that you can't deliver. The software does, however, let you select "offline," "away" or "back in five minutes." If you select one of those options, visitors will see an icon that invites them to send you an e-mail message rather than initiate a live chat.
When a visitor arrives at any page that has a chat icon, you hear a doorbell ring on your PC. You hear another sound when they click on the icon to chat with you.
The service also lets you initiate a chat with someone who is visiting your site. For that to happen they need to be on a page that has the HumanClick code on it. You can then send them a "want to chat?" message that causes a "click to chat" icon to move across the page. I recommend that you use this feature sparingly at first, as I'm not sure how people will respond to being invited into a chat when they visit a Web site.
You can get a feel for the user experience of the HumanClick service by going to its Web site and clicking the "see it work: talk to a company representative" button. When I did that, "Doron," who works at the company headquarters in Israel, answered all my questions about the service using the same chat system that the company offers for others.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 2:10 p.m. weekdays on the KNX (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at email@example.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.