Companies do their best to provide the right product at the right time for their customers. But sometimes people buy the wrong thing, change their minds, or can’t find that vital piece of information that will convince them to buy in the first place. Traditionally when this happened, a customer picked up the phone, called the customer support hotline, waited in queue for a bit, and tried to explain her problem to a person for whom she had no context.
However, with the prevalence of instant message and chat in our lives, companies are now experimenting with a new way to connect with customers needing support. While live chat may not be the right solution for all organizations, there are clear instances where a company would want to invest in it. In this article, we will review some benefits of live chat, potential stumbling blocks, and how to do it well.
When Customers Ask for Help
But first, what triggers a customer to contact support channels? We know, as customers ourselves, that it takes time and effort to get in touch with support—so we need a good reason to do it. Understanding why customers contact support can help organizations make this a meaningful interaction. A few major motivators are:
- Needing more information. For instance, when a customer is applying for a new credit card and wants to clarify the benefits policy.
- Needing to fix something that is wrong. If the credit card becomes deactivated, and the customer needs to call support to reactivate it.
- Being dissatisfied by the service or product. If the customer gets a surcharge and needs to call the credit card company to dispute it.
Live Chat as a Solution
Companies can find many benefits in using live chat on a website. It can serve nicely as the first point of contact between a seller and a potential customer, help to answer questions about a product, and ensure that the customer gets the right thing the first time around. We know that quality is more valuable to customers than time: if we can offer personalized, focused service at the exact time that the customer needs it, the customer will leave the interaction more satisfied and with a more positive perception of the interaction. These positive experiences build brand loyalty and (more practically) can prevent expensive returns for both parties.
As a first point of contact, chat is also a fairly cheap and fast way to create a good customer service opportunity. Handling customer service questions and pre-purchase concerns through chat requires less overhead than a phone call and and is more direct for customers than going through an Interactive Voice Response system (the automated person who answers the phone when you call a company for help). Personally, I find that chatting a live person while performing a task, like looking at my credit card statements online, saves time and is less frustrating than a phone call.
Not only is chat a way to reduce friction, improve conversion rates and quality, and build a connection for loyalty with customers, but it can be leveraged to improve the product. Despite what Steve Jobs famously alleged, customers do often know what they and fellow buyers want.
By reviewing chat histories, organizations have the chance to learn customers’ concerns, interests, and needs. Just by listening, companies can hit on the solution that will resolve customer pain points (and make the company money).
The State of Live Chat
Live chat may sound like a silver bullet, but it isn’t for everyone. Depending on brand offerings, budgets, and staff, chat can be a poor fit. For instance, live chat on a government or non-profit website could be overwhelming: the sheer volume of chats coming in may be unmanageable for a small staff. Furthermore, if the users of those sites aren’t expecting it, a chat popup is dissonant and can be distracting. However, e-commerce websites, event websites, and services with customer service channels or accounts (like banking, clothing, insurance, and so on) could benefit greatly from chat interactions with website users.
When an organization is considering implementing chat, it’s good to first review the existing customer support architecture. How do customers move forward when they need help? Is there an existing knowledge base or self-service customer support site? If a knowledge base or help forum is not your best line of defense, what has been working? When customers do call support, are the questions simple enough that they could be solved in chat? By answering these questions, an organization can make an informed decision on how to best support their users.
Some potential downsides of chat are cost and upkeep. Consider how many agents will be needed, what hours they’ll be available (a website never closes for the night), how much training will be involved, how to ensure quality and compliance, and chat can start to look logistically difficult. Not to mention, it’s hard to get right—the popup could be annoying and discourage potential customers from using the site at all; the agent may not be authorized to answer the customers’ questions, or the script may not have all possible answers in consideration.
In the end, each organization must consider what benefit or advantage chat would offer their customers. Remember why people contact customer support! If chat will help them get answers or further information, clarify a purchase process, or get a complaint answered, chat sounds like a good option for your site. Now, let’s walk through what we do know about live chat and successfully implementing it in customer service situations.
After you’ve decided to implement live chat, the next most important thing to think about is where and how you’ll communicate with your customers through the interface. Think about how customers can best receive support from the company’s overall support strategy. Will chat be the primary way for customers to contact you for help? Or a secondary option that users should use as a backup when they can’t find something on the site? Or is it a means of last resort? All of these will affect where and how you communicate.
It’s vital to remember that we’re humans building tools for other humans—robot speak isn’t going to help your customers achieve their goals for your website. In an article on how to write like a human, Amy Thibodeau says, “What we say and how we say it matters. How we make our customers feel through our language choices matter.”
From where I stand, there are two ways to achieve a human tone of voice through chat: train your reps to give non-scripted, human-sounding answers (the hard way) or write your chat scripts as non-scripted, human-sounding answers (the easier, more scalable way). The time and individualized learning curves you’ll need to consider for training reps to think on their feet is a high commitment compared to the time it will take to research and write thoughtful scripts.
When creating the scripts, review your brand, product, and company standing to help you uncover barriers or obstacles that are causing users to ask for support in the first place. By reading old chat logs, call logs, customer service emails, or online reviews, you will learn how your customers are already talking about your offerings. This will give you great insight into what language your customers use and what phrases you want to reinforce. By reflecting their word choices and phrases, you’ll be able to quickly build rapport and get to the heart of their needs.
Last Active Status and Timing
Another benefit to chat is the perception of speed. Since customers do not need to navigate through a phone tree or wait on hold, it feels like the chat agent is able to address the customer’s concern immediately. Although that perception is a little untrue, it works to a brand’s benefit.
Live chat doesn’t offer any audible cues and the agent is often juggling multiple chats, so how should an organization cultivate this perception of speed? For one, timing cues in the chat interfaces will help customers sense the pace of their requests and the agent’s answers. If there’s a queue, show customers their place in the queue as soon as possible to set their expectations for the length of the chat. If a rep hasn’t been active for a while, be sure to display this information prominently so customers don’t feel like they’re wasting their time.
For example, I recently used a chat feature that didn’t show the agent’s status until after my first message had been sent. And then, I saw this:
I was frustrated because I’d already committed by sending a message explaining my situation and asking for more information. There was no indication of when the agent would next be available or if there was another way to contact the company immediately. I had to go in search of a phone number or email address to find the information I needed.
Plan for long queues or agent availability before the problem comes up. The standard option for an unavailable agent is sending an email in place of the chat. You could offer a phone callback option with an estimated time for the call, but that could feel overly personal when the user just wanted a quick answer. You could offer a text update when a new agent is available—this may be useful if the potential customer is doing a lot of research and plans to be online for a while. Or at the very least, reassure them that you will be in touch, like Bynder does.
Once a customer is in the interface talking to an agent, consider how to explain pauses in the conversation with status updates or active typing notifications, like “Agent is typing…” or “Agent is accessing records…” This cue could be as simple as the active ellipses, similar to the iPhone Message interface. These subtle details may not be necessary or possible, depending on the type of service you’re offering or the chat tool’s capabilities, but make an effort to see the pacing from the user’s side and set your agents up for success.
Humanity Is in the Details
I’ve been following updates on Intercom’s messaging platform a lot lately for tips on building human tools. Intercom recently tested adding unique details into their chat interface to see which details made customers comfortable and more inclined to trust the agent. As it turns out, real pictures of real people with real names and real job titles were immediately more authentic to chat customers than anything in between.
In a blog post on making messaging human, Intercom’s team said, “Knowing that you’re really talking to the founder who started the company, the engineer who builds the product, or the product manager who’s responsible for the roadmap has a massive impact on your messaging experience.”
This approach works great for companies that need to keep a tight script in their chat experience. You can let your reps look human easily with any of a number of details:
- Use real pictures.
Angie Schottmuller, online conversion expert, recommends never using stock photos—real users can “see” right through them. You will have more success with the not-quite-as-pretty pictures of real people (or arrange to have agents’ pictures taken for the interface).
- Share locations.
Even if it’s just a state or country, giving customers some kind of context for the time zone or region their agent is in helps them make a connection. Whether they know someone who lives there, follow a local sports team, or are just reassured that the agent is in the same country, location can help quickly build trust.
- Small personal details.
It could be as simple as what the agent is listening to in their headphones, their favorite sports team, or their current mood. Giving your customers a little bit of context about the agents they’re talking with could spark a more personal connection over shared interests.
- Add a short bio.
Allowing an agent to write a one-line bio conveys their voice and interests to customers and helps create context for the agent’s role in your company. Customers know they’re talking to a chat agent, but if the chat agent has been with your company for 15 years, customers immediately feel reassured that they’re talking to an expert. Or, as Intercom points out, if the person answering the chat is on the production team, they can answer questions with more authority.
- How’s the weather?
If you can’t share any more about your agents than their local weather, even that is enough to spark a genuine conversation or empathy with customers.
Considering your customers’ needs and business goals before implementing a tool like live chat helps guarantee you’ll gain the benefits of chat support. A good, relevant, human chat experience may not result in an immediate sale or conversion, but it will go a long way to building brand authority and trust with your customers when done well.
As you get started, remember the circumstances when a website user may want live chat help:
- During research (awareness and interest phases)
- During purchase (desire and action phases)
- And after purchase (loyalty phase)
The good news is, live chat is new and hasn’t been perfected yet! Each instance is customized to the brand or business model using it, and there is so much space for growth with chat, from sales to customer service, user research, and more.