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This past spring Window Nation, the Maryland-based window replacement contractor, added online chat to the company website. President Harley Magden, who manages the company's marketing, got the idea from Internet retailers. "A lot of consumers don't want to talk to people on the phone," Magden says. "Or, they may have questions that they don't know how to ask."

Jeff Kaliner, president of Power Windows & Siding, in Brookhaven, Pa., says that adding online chat to his company's site early this year was "Marketing 101. It lets people reach you in multiple ways."

Online Shopping

The majority of people seeking home improvement products or services now begin their search online. Companies are looking to find ways to keep consumers at the website or to persuade them to connect. The website of Bee Window, a window and sunroom company in Indianapolis, features a Click to Chat function right next to a Click to Call function at the top of the homepage.

"When you get to a site [that has online chat or Click to Call] you get the sense right away that this is a company that understands the online business," says Bee co-owner George Faerber, who also operates an Internet marketing company called Bring Me My Leads. "This tells me, as a consumer, that these people understand what I want when I'm online, which is to save myself time," Faerber says.

According to Internet marketing consultant Todd Bairstow, of Keyword Connects, in Boston, online chat can work well ? that is, generate customer contacts ? if you already have a lot of site traffic. "If you have little to none," he says, "[online chat] will make no difference." As it is, he says, "only a small percentage of visitors will feel compelled to engage in a chat room conversation with somebody representing your company."

Questions & Answers

At Power Windows & Siding, Kaliner estimates that about five people per day contact the company through live chat. At Window Nation, the six to 12 live-chat messages the company receives daily are signaled by a ringing phone and are routed to managers. At Bee Window, live chat is handled by the phone room.

Window Nation uses a company called Comm100, which provides free live chat (and other) software to small- and medium-size businesses. Many of the messages that Window Nation receives are questions about products. Even so, "this week," Magden says, "we set up three appointments without ever having spoken to any of those people on the phone."