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Companies are turning to online chats as an alternative to lengthy waits and limited telephone customer service.

Next time your cable service is on the blink, log on to your computer instead of picking up the phone to get a little customer satisfaction. You might have to wait less to chat with a human being who can fix your problem than to talk with an agent on the phone. And they may be better equipped to help you.

Comcast Corp. is among many companies now offering live chats on the Internet to handle disgruntled customers, answer basic service questions, and even close deals. Investment firms, banks, car lots, and specialty retailers are getting in on the trend, which they say has quickly grown to be one of the most popular ways for customers to interact with them.

Comcast started offering chat as an option for its telephone, cable, and Internet service customers last year and those instant-message-like conversations have already surpassed e-mails in popularity, said Kevin Casey , its northern region president.

The company expects to do 16,000 chats this month, based on the increase in traffic the company has tracked . Customers can go to Comcast's web site, type in their names and the basics of their problem or question, and be connected with an agent at its Manchester, N.H. , office in seconds.

Those who opt for a chat instead of a phone call or e-mail might get more thorough service, too, because agents on a computer can use technology to diagnose problems with a cable box, modem, or computer, something that's not possible for an agent on the telephone. They can also leave you with printable step-by-step instructions for handling the problem if it recurs.

``For purely technical issues, where this capability saves the company is in terms of truck-rolls and physical visits to the home. It's helpful and more convenient to the customer than having to schedule an appointment," Casey said.

Online chats have been available from some companies since the late 1990s but they have grown more popular over the last year as consumers have warmed to the idea of conducting vital personal communication online and via text messaging.

Even as many companies are saving money by replacing human interaction with dial-by-number automated lines and e-mail customer service, other firms say they are benefiting from the expense of paying human beings to answer questions via computer. The technology, they say, has resulted in happier customers and, in some cases, more effective ways of distinguishing between casual web surfers and serious potential customers.

``When someone dials your 800 number, you're not able to profile them," said Jackson Wilson , chief technology officer for Proficient Systems Inc. , an Atlanta company that provides chat software for companies like CarMax and E*Trade Financial Corp.

Proficient's software ``profiles" visitors to its clients' web sites based on geography and what products they're browsing for, and then offers the chance to chat with a sales rep to those who the software determines are most likely to want to interact. The software works best for products like mortgages or cars -- major purchases that consumers might research on the Web but want help from a person before buying.

But more and more companies, regardless of what they sell, are using chat as consumers become more computer savvy, Wilson said.

``Consumers are becoming socially more comfortable so they aren't taken aback when they're asked to interact with a company online. We're getting a lot of unsolicited requests," for proposals from companies, he said.

Bank of America introduced live chats to its web site in 2004 , with agents available to answer general questions about its product lines, said spokeswoman Betty Riess . She described the service as popular, but would not quantify its use.

In 1999 , catalog retailer Land's End launched ``Land's End Live," a service that let its website customers click a link to request a chat with one of the company's personal shoppers. Two months ago it got more aggressive with the program, beginning a limited test of a service that asks shoppers if they'd like to chat as soon as they get to the web site, instead of waiting for them to ask.

Those who opt-in are connected with a personal shopper who consults on fashion matters like colors, fabrics, and whether French cuffs look proper with flat-front trousers, said Michele Casper , the Dodgeville , Wis. , company's style director. The service is available 24 hours a day.

Fidelity Investments has offered chats with its clients and prospects since 2000, and use of the service has grown at an average of 90 percent per year, said spokeswoman Jenny Engle . But between May 2005 and last month, chat traffic shot up 140 percent, she said. Fidelity representatives are available online between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. weekdays to answer questions ranging from account balances to giving basic retirement advice.

Anyone wanting access to personal information must log in to their accounts, and transactions or trades are not available via chats.

Keith Reed can be reached at

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