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Secret Shopping Survey

Live Chat Comparison has released details on a new independent research report, commissioned by Bravestorm and conducted by veteran market analyst and former Gartner vice president, Tim Smith.

The study, “Online Shopping Review: Testing Three Communication Methods,” came as a result of Smith taking a closer look at some of the more compelling insights revealed in a recent BoldChat report on live chat effectiveness.

The report concluded that live chat software is an important tool for driving sales. Additionally, the survey showed that online shoppers ranked live chat as the number one preferred method of communication—ahead of phone and e-mail—in a variety of typical purchase situations.

Intrigued by those findings, Smith put live chat, e-mail and phone communications to the test by conducting secret-shopping expeditions at several leading online retailers.

In an interview with, Smith said that he sees a shift from traditional communications, i.e., the live telephone call center, to online communications that include e-mail and live-chat applications. 

Secret Shopping Online: The Methodology

In doing the secret-shopper test, Smith made purchases from six online retailers to ensure the validity of the experiences as actual purchasing scenarios. Live chat, e-mail and phone were all used as communication methods with the retailers.

Smith performed four types of interactions that are typical of online shopping behavior, including inquiring about specials, asking for help finding an item, placing an order and inquiring about shipping and delivery. While he made purchases with only one method with each vendor, Smith used each contact method for all other interactions with the retailers.

"Each method of communication—telephony, e-mail and live chat tended to gravitate toward the most logical application, which is live chat," said Smith. "For online shopping the logical progression is to view the retailer’s products in your browser and stay within the browser to use live chat for immediate contact.”

He added that phone-based communications means that the buyer to leave the browser ‑‑ and possibly even the computer ‑‑ dial the number, wait on hold and so on. Suddenly phone support isn’t so real-time anymore.

Also, Smith said that e-mail seemed to be the least real-time method of communication, but it was the one method that gave him official documentation of the communications.

Secret Shopper: Research Conclusions

Smith’s secret-shopper experience found that retailers don’t always make it easy for shoppers to contact them by means other than phone support. Smith observed that most retailers prominently display toll-free numbers, but they tend to bury chat buttons and e-mail tools several layers deep in the Web site. 

Smith found a significant range of both agent and information consistency from one communication method to the next.  He said that if a retailer is going to offer a way for customers and prospects to reach them, make sure it doesn’t end up being a missed opportunity to win over a customer.

If you are going to offer live-chat functions, Smith says you must make sure you are there.  “It is frustrating as a shopper when you sit in a chat queue and do not receive an immediate response to your request.”

For that reason, it’s critical for retailers to use “no-show” chat boxes—that is make sure that you hide the chat box on your Web site or display a ‘sorry, we’re not available’ message when you are unable to man the live-chat requests.

According to Smith, each communication method (telephony, e-mail and live chat) does have a natural role to play in online customer service and support. Though e-mail makes the most sense for shipping confirmation, sales notifications and less real-time interactions, Smith concluded that  live chat is the most natural progression in the online shopping experience.

While Smith found that online retailers still tend to view live chat as primarily a support tool, he cites it as a powerful sales tool if staffed correctly.  For telephony-based contact centers, Smith concluded that they will continue to play a role in both sales and support, with integration of chat and e-mail as a challenge that lies ahead in this area.