It's not a new concept at all. I remember a decade ago— testing live chat software and even configuring it for our sales team. I think the Internet is used to using chat, and there's definitely a place for it. It's even one of those things I look for after failed efforts when using a site's 'search'. Seeking a human NOW is sometimes my last effort to communicate— knowing the next step is slogging-through submitting a ticket or sending an email.
My wife (who runs 541 Salon‚ a small gift store in Carmel Indiana) knows a thing or two about retail sales, and she's a genius when it comes to customer service. Lately I've been comparing my wife's retail store to my own website— an interesting thing to think about. Again, it's not a new concept, but once we remember that the website IS a storefront, we can make decisions on how to interact with our visitors.
Visitors arrive in the same way: perhaps by word of mouth, because they searched for a product or service, or maybe they were just passing-by. In her case, she sits at her desk positioned behind retail counters and she greets the visitors as they arrive. In the physical world if there's a tiny bit of interaction with the visitor, you can pick-up on many clues and adapt appropriately. Are they browsing? Are they spying? Are they interested or bored with your selection of products?
In a virtual environment, usually the only way of knowing how a customer reacts to a space, is by keeping a watchful eye on analytics and site statistics. Unless you're a skilled Marketer, like my friend Josh Braaten, sifting through analitics is just that— analytical, and unless you really understand what you're looking at— it can be dry and boring. On Squarespace you can view LIVE stats on your site, and filter hourly/weekly/monthly for any visitor or link, so there is an up-side.
If you're a succesful blogger, then you could get an idea of the visitor's interest by how they comment on your posts, or interact on social networks.
In reality— you have a visitor on your site RIGHT NOW. Who are they? Why are they there? How long will it be before they head for the door? You just don't know!
As a designer, it's my job to identify and solve problems. That's truly the essence of what I do. On a website, the "problem" could be that the visitor didn't know what they were looking for, so they left. If you look-closely, you would see this in your site's analytics— if visitors arrive on a homepage and just don't click on aything, then they probably aren't finding anything they came for. I would solve this problem by adding actionable items and clear site navigation.
If you write a blog post and knowing it's a great article, you post it on Twitter— when you track and follow clicks, (read my post on how to make custom links and track them by using "Tiny URLS") how long did they stay? Was there anything else of interest that they clicked-on? Did they re-tweet to tell their friends?
Again, using analytics can be difficult and time-consuming. But then what about live chat?
I've added an OLARK live chat component to squareflair.com to be that human standing in the corner if needed.
To be totally transparent, (as I write this on the very site where future customers will read it) part of my normal method of operation is to filter and find the right customers. These projects generally don't consist of putting-out fires and fixing one component on a site. Issues like those generally arise from poor-planning, and DIY nightmares. The clients I seek are the ones who are looking for a 100% custom-built website and are looking for a site that's designed to the highest standards.
Of-course, by adding live chat I'm interacting with all types of customers, and honestly— lots of these visitors aren't looking for what I mentioned above. Some of them have fires— a few have fires NOW! But, since I'm a very social person, and by “JUST BEING THERE”, I've turned casual lookers into customers in minutes. I've literally done in 15 minutes, what would take me a week to do by answering emails and scheduling phone-calls. It's causing me to totally re-think my customer service & business development methods.