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E-tailers give new voice to customer service

After last year's string of customer service failures, click-and-mortar stores are making Web sites talk in hopes of coaxing more sales out of customers.

After last year's string of customer service failures, many click-and-mortar stores are making their Web sites talk in hopes of coaxing more sales out of customers.

Macys.com, J.Crew and The Company Store are some traditional retailers that are adding voice capabilities to select Web pages--by automatically playing prerecorded messages to guide consumers around a site or offering live phone connections to a customer service representative.

In many cases, technology can add a human touch to a cybersale--a touch the industry desperately needs. Some damage control has been called for following a slew of bad-service reports last holiday season that cast a dark cloud over e-commerce.

Online retailers, ultimately looking to make any improvements that will change skeptics into buyers, hope that anxious first-time shoppers will be comforted by a soothing voice in cyberspace.

"It's a guide, it's a way to correct bad design...allay fears, close a sale," said Benjamin Elstein, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group.

Elstein said that by adding audio to a Web store, e-tailers would be able to cultivate customer loyalty more easily and create an experience much like the one they expect from a store. Online retailers can also cut through the clutter of text and graphics by sending prerecorded messages--such as directions to checkout or key privacy policies--to help customers find a special product or complete a sale.

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Sites use voice to soothe shoppers
Ben Elstein, analyst, The Aberdeen Group
"I'm hoping to gain more sales, that people will be more comfortable with our site," said Orestes Chinea, spokesman for The Company Store, which added audio to its site this week. "Like everybody else, we're looking for a way to improve the experience for our customers on our site."

Macys.com has added various audio messages to its Web site this holiday season to help customers digest multiple-step processes more easily, such as applying for a credit card online.

"People sometimes have a short attention span and don't want to read anything," a Macy's spokeswoman said. "Sometimes you have to say things over and over to get messages through, and audio is just one way to add to that."

The company is also dabbling in audio marketing messages, such as guiding shoppers to holiday specials. The sound technology, from Sausalito, Calif.-based AudioBase, also gives shoppers the option to opt out if they want.

"It helps give a personality to your brand in an otherwise cold environment," said Gene Domecus, senior vice president of e-commerce for Macys.com.

The online arm of catalog retailer Lands' End took the lead in this area last year by unveiling its Lands' End Live service in September 1999. Since September, Lands' End says up to 1,200 people use its live service to chat with fashion and retail experts.

"There seems to Customer disservicebe a real focus on customer service this year; more people are looking for it because service was so bad at many online retailers last year," said Lands' End spokeswoman Beverly Holmes. "Because of that, we've seen usage go up."

Gift e-tailer RedEnvelope.com also uses a live chat window on its site.

For financial services company Allfirst Bank, a phone line can be the difference between closing a sale and a closed Web browser.

"Potential customers come to the site and they want to talk to someone," said Bill Murray, Allfirst's senior vice president of e-commerce.

Allfirst started testing technology from e-commerce Net telephony company eStara this fall. The technology requires a microphone, sound card and speakers--either connected to or built into the computer--to allow a phone conversation online. Customers who want to ask questions about bank services can click on a phone box on Allfirst's Web site. According to the bank, it takes an average of 15 seconds to connect to a representative on a connection over a 56K modem.