Why Online Shops Need Sales Assistants

"Good afternoon visitor from Amsterdam on YourStore.com. Our systems indicate that the weather in the Netherlands is currently quite cold. This is why you will probably want to take a look at the new winter collection. To help you in your search, I have the freedom taken to show some winter offers below. If you need help, you can click on the icon in the top right corner of your screen."

The internet is getting more personal

The fictional exchange described in the introduction may well describe how websites will welcome us in the near future. For this purpose, a combination of different data points is made. Consider, for example, the data that is sent by the internet browser with each page visited (such as the country where you are currently located). That data is then combined with assisting technology. This way, website owners can offer their visitors a more pleasant and personalized online shopping experience.

Offline versus Online conversion rate

A recent study by the NN Group shows that regular brick-and-mortar (offline) stores have a visitor-to-customer conversion ratio of around 50-70%. The conversion rates of online web shops, on the other hand, are estimated by the Nielsen Norman Group at approximately 2%. This indicates that offline stores convert their visitors approximately 25x times better than ecommerce websites. Of course, there are a number of technical reasons that can partly explain such a difference (think of very slow websites or server errors). However, another explanation is the lack of opportunity for a visitor to complete his or her task (or 'micro conversion'). The fact that online web shops currently do not have store clerks who can help with a wide range of problems could be one of the more important explanations for the missed conversions.

Personal shopping assistant

What if websites had store clerks just like offline stores. You might wonder what such clerks would do and how they could assist with the store experience. Fortunately, there are already such services offered online. An example of such a service is Google Now. From the Wikipedia article about Google Now: "Google Now is an intelligent personal assistant (…). Google Now uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of web services. Along with answering user-initiated queries, Google Now passively delivers information to the user that it predicts they will want, based on their search habits.".

Tailored at your website

Unfortunately, tools like Google Now are not (yet) able to handle the unique questions and problems of visitors to a website. But what if there was a tool that could measure the capabilities of Google Now on your website? Such a tool could serve as a powerful assistant capable of answering visitors' questions and allaying their uncertainties.


Possible ways to help visitors

Various aspects that play a role in shaping your shopping experience will be highlighted below. The possible ways in which a personal shopping assistant could contribute to those aspects are also highlighted. Principles from the excellent book Persuasive Technology by social psychologist B. J. Fogg are also used to indicate how helping visitors with such tasks can increase the chance of a conversion.


An assistant could provide advice. For example, it could advise you whether or not a certain piece of software will run on your hardware, or explain how long the layover is between two flights.

Principle of Authority: When the assistant assumes a role of authority, it will have added persuasive power. For example, "Check out this graph to see if you have enough RAM in your computer to run this software" is more likely to convince visitors to look up this information compared to "You might want to check out this graph, it could provide information contain how much RAM is required to run this software."

Principle of Reliability: The assistant must also be reliable (honest, unbiased) if it wants to have the greatest possible persuasive power. For example: Ensure that unbiased comparisons are provided when comparing your products or services to those of your competitors. When visitors notice that the assistant does not provide honest information, they will quickly lose confidence in it.


Many websites confront visitors with an extensive range of products or services, but are unable to provide intuitive ways to filter this data. The role of an assistant in this would be to ask the visitor relevant questions and filter the products or services based on this. By removing irrelevant choices, the assistant makes it more likely that someone will find the product or service that suits them best and convert them into a customer.

Principle of Guidance: While visitors are guided through a process or experience, the assistant can convince them along the way. For example, when a visitor indicates an interest in a particular brand, the assistant can recommend that brand's best-selling or top-rated product (depending on what best serves the visitors' needs at that time).

Free and non-binding 1 hour session?

Gain insight into your challenges surrounding CRO

Contact me


Shop assistants often recommend products that better suit the customer's wishes. A digital assistant should be able to read a customer's 'digital body language' just as well as a store clerk can. By suggesting alternative choices that better suit his or her needs, an online assistant could provide a valuable service.

Principle of Personalization: Providing personalized advice can increase a website's level of reliability. Additionally, when a website succeeds in its goal of providing relevant and personalized information, it can lead to more satisfied customers.


The clerks in offline stores have a lot of knowledge about alternative products that a customer might want, what products are in stock, promotions, and what the competition is doing. Having a digital assistant that can make comparisons between the store's own products and those of its competitors will give a visitor a better perspective on the options they have.

Principle of Expertise: When an assistant is able to demonstrate a high level of expertise, the website to which it is linked will appear more persuasive.

Principle of Information Quality: Assuming that information delivered by a digital assistant is up-to-date, relevant and balanced, that website would have a better chance of bringing about an attitude or behavior change.


Visitors to offline stores receive personal attention from the store clerks. While they are in the store, they can ask questions and discover more about the products or services they are looking for.

Principle of Attunement: Ensuring that the personal assistant provides information that is tailored to the individual's needs, interests, personality, and context will once again strengthen the persuasive powers of the website. For example: information about the country and time of visit are always available to the assistant via the browser. Furthermore, information such as purchase history, gender, age, etc. become available when a visitor has placed an order in the past. With this information, the assistant will be able to offer personalized information and recommend products that are relevant to the visitor.


The assistant should be able to help visitors with any questions they may have, and be able to do so quickly. Clerks in offline stores do not keep customers waiting, and if they do not have an appropriate answer to a question, they will look for another way to find out such an answer. In order to actually provide the same level of service, digital assistants will also have to be able to do this.

Principle of Responsiveness: By responding as quickly as possible, the website the assistant is connected to will increase its perceived reliability.

Available solutions

At this point, I have not been able to find any software capable of accomplishing all of the above tasks. While startups like Clerk look promising, they currently don't seem to be able to offer much more than personalized searches, product recommendations, and automatic retention. , which means that many options to assist visitors are not yet being used. In the absence of a tool that has all the options, some interesting options will now be discussed in which you can offer visitors a level of service as I described earlier.

Be present and fast

Make sure that visitors can reach you through as many different communication channels as possible. For example, SiteGround, in my opinion, does an excellent job by offering both telephone and ticket support, as well as direct help via chat and telephone (to which they respond within 10 minutes and immediately, respectively).


Tools such as Optimizely allow you to segment your traffic based on specific characteristics of (groups of) visitors. As an example of which segments you can use, Optimizely advises on 7 essential customer segments for your ecommerce website. By carefully segmenting your traffic, you can deliver personalized content and products based on predicted needs and start to approximate the offline store experience on your website.

Problems with personalization

While the idea of a personal store assistant sounds great, it could also potentially lead to some new problems. For example, it could cause visitors to become anxious if your website personalizes too much. Just imagine what it would feel like when a website you don't remember visiting has already filled in your name, country, email address, and credit card number when you go to pay.


Also, as the personalization revolution begins to gain traction, organizations should begin to consider the potential ethical issues that personalization poses. To keep 'Big Brother' in check, we will ensure that international guidelines are introduced that protect people in terms of privacy. For example, these guidelines should also have mandatory opt-out mechanisms that can help visitors stop personalization if they wish.

About the author

Theo van der Zee (MSc, Psychology) has been building and optimizing websites and web shops for more than 20 years. As a freelance conversion specialist, he helps companies to improve their websites based on research and experiments.

Read more about Theo

Free and non-binding consultation
Curious about the possibilities? Then schedule a free 1-hour consultation.