Already popular with websites looking to offer visitors the ultimate browsing experience, live chat support has gotten a major makeover of late, offering universities a number of new sophisticated online tools to interact online more effectively.
Indeed, going beyond the basic, pop-up text chat window--which a university rep uses to communicate with a customer in real time by exchanging text messages--the latest round of chat programs enable university reps to effortlessly perform advanced cyber-acrobatics while engaging with current and prospective students.
Case in point: While answering a student's basic questions via text chat, a university rep using the latest sophisticated live chat software can also call up a student's complete history with the university, identify those students who are likely to spend the most on the site, and offer to "co-browse" the university's site with a student to visit a specific page on the site for detailed information.
Moreover, the new breed of chat support programs also packs analytics and on-the-fly reporting to quickly speed a website visitor to the proper university representative, knowledge base or 800 telephone support line.
Given that universities were among the web's first pioneers, it should come as no surprise that higher education is also at the forefront of the latest generation of live chat. Memorial University Libraries (Canada) (www.library.mua.ca/swgc/chat.php), for example, offers library services via live chat, as does The Open University (United Kingdom) (http://library.open.ac.uk/index.html).
Meanwhile, students at the University of Baltimore (Md.) can get career counseling via online chat, while future students of The Ohio State University (http://undergrad.osu.edu/adminssions/chat.asp) can chat with current students about the institution. At the University of North Carolina Greensboro (www.uncg.edu/reg/groupz.html), students can conduct business with the university's registrar, while students accessing Kaplan University's site (www.kaplancollege.com/fprep/livehelp/contact_vs.asp) can chat with admissions and student services. Oregon State University (http://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/chat/default.htm) offers a similar service.
And Baylor University (Texas) (http://barylorbears.collegesports.com/chat/bay-chat.html) has put its own spin on live chat with regularly scheduled chats between the public and Bears' coaches.
As many colleges and universities know, scores of organizations first began giving live chat support a serious look in the late 1990s, when statistics began surfacing indicating that the medium can be much less expensive than live telephone support. LivePerson (www.liveperson.com), a pioneer online chat service provider, found in its own internal studies that the technology reduces the cost of a sales transaction to $1.20-per-incident, as compared with $6.80 for phone, and $2.40 for e-mail.
Couple those findings with results from a recent study from Forrester Research (www.forrester.com), which projects that 59 percent of all online purchasers of goods and services by 2007 will be the same teens today who see live chat as an essential communication tool. That's when you begin to understand what all the fuss is about.
Besides bottom-line cost reduction, proliferation of the technology is also being fueled by ease of entry. Generally speaking, adding a live chat text support system to a university website involves little more than pasting in a snippet of HTML code. The reason? Most live chat text support solutions are seamlessly hosted on the website of the solution provider--not the university contracting the services.
While there is a wide variety of live chat solutions with providers offering their own spin on live chat support, LivePerson's Timpani is generally considered a model for the industry. One reason is that LivePerson has been at the live chat game since the mid 1990s. Another is that the company continues to win awards for its technology. Timpani, for example--LivePerson's latest comprehensive live chat customer support suite--was just named the 2004 Product of the Year by Customer Interaction Solutions.
Of course, with high profile comes the ability to charge top dollar. So before you rush out and sign with LivePerson, you'll probably want to consider other solution providers like InstantService (www.instantservice.com), Livehelper (www.livehelper.com), Kana (www.kana.com), Hostik (http://livechat.hostik.com), and any number of additional providers that can be sourced with search engine keywords like "live chat support."
Probably one of the most powerful new features many of these solutions offer is the ability to quickly analyze in extreme detail the kind of student you're dealing with from the moment he or she logs onto your site. With a mouse-click or two, a university rep can call up a student's complete history with the university, see records of all past interactions, and view any communications the student has had with the university via chat, e-mail, fax, or phone.
The university rep also has the ability to call up the complete browsing session of a potential student visiting the university site, including which pages were visited, how much time was spent on each page, which website the student came from, and which keyword was used by the student to find your site.
Using this information, a university rep can bypass web visitors who do not appear to be good prospects as future students, and hone in on repeat visitors, or visitors demonstrating significant potential for future enrollment. Such "high value" prospects can be personally invited--via a pop-up graphic--to chat live with a university representative at an appropriate moment. Or, the rep may decide to relay the web visitor to someone else on the university chat team better suited to helping the prospect. Interestingly, all of these decisions can be handled in real time, with no interruption to the prospect browsing the university site.
Another equally powerful new feature of the latest generation of live chat is enhanced "co-browsing" support. While this capability, which enables a university rep to share a web browser to jointly navigate a website, has been around for years, more solutions providers are offering co-browsing as an entry-level service. Co-browsing has also gotten more sophisticated, enabling university reps to instantly call up the browsing history of the customer on the university website, and giving them the ability to better help visitors complete online order forms and the like.
More solutions in the latest round of live chat software releases are also offering a "send-a-chatroom-by-e-mail" option, which was first popularized by LivePerson and other early pioneers. With this feature, universities can send a link embedded in a marketing e-mail, which instantly opens a live text chatroom--staffed by a university representative--when clicked on by a potential student. And with many of these solutions, activation of such chatrooms also offer university reps the ability to view the history of all previous chats, e-mails, faxes, and phone communications the "clicking customer" has with the university.
Other features offered by the latest breed of chat support solutions may be considered minor to some, but green lights to a deal for others. Many solutions now offer universities the ability to customize the look-and-feel of their chatrooms, so that the graphics have the look and feel of the rest of the university website. Others offer student surveys that you implement to get instant feedback on the performance of your live chat outreach. Obviously, you'll want to evaluate a number of offerings before inking a deal with a specific live chat provider. The good news is that there are so many solutions providers clamoring for your business, you're bound to find one that's just right for your institution. Joe Dysart is an internet speaker and business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. His e-mail address is email@example.com.