Work smarter: Live chat best practices

Remain thoughtful and deliberate about an essential support channel with these live chat best practices

By Tara Ramroop, Senior Content Marketing Manager

Published June 24, 2020
Last updated June 8, 2021

As with any customer support channel, there are tried-and-true ways, as well as less effective ways, to offer live chat to your customers.

The Why: Customers are all about live chat

Emerging channels like live chat are gaining ground with customers, providing businesses with an opportunity in every chat window to connect with customers.

For companies using Zendesk over the past four years, chat and phone support are the fastest-growing channels, with chat showing the greatest jump: more than four times as many Zendesk customers are using chat than they did five years ago, according to the 2020 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report.

Makes sense—done well, online chat is the customer support tool that keeps on giving. Proactive chat windows and 1:1 live chat support can triage tickets, reduce operating costs, increase customer satisfaction, and boost agent productivity. It can even have an impact beyond the support team, helping drive sales conversions when embedded thoughtfully through an ecommerce experience. Read on for some tips that will help ensure you get the most out of your chat implementation.

The How: Live chat best practices

Align live chat with your business goals

When identifying how live chat fits into your strategy, at a minimum, you must first identify why you’re using it. What business objective will chat facilitate, particularly from a customer support perspective? Live chat should be fully aligned with your company’s business goals, integrated into a full omnichannel support solution, and its role in reaching those goals should be crystal clear. Some might include:

  • Meeting service level agreements (SLAs)
  • Meeting key customer support KPIs, like low wait times, fast first reply times, and more
  • Proactively solving customer issues before they arise
  • Reducing shopping cart abandonment

According to findings in the CX Trends Report, high-performing customer service teams do more to embed support natively, where customers already are. That might mean creative deployment of self-service content around an e-commerce website, or a thoughtfully embedded live chat window.

Optimize the user experience

To that end, where, when, and how you make live chat available on your website affects the experience your customers have when they visit your site.

Consider live chat location, access, and timing as the three legs of the user experience stool. To fully harness its potential, chat should be deployed proactively. A respectful and well-timed intervention can make the all the difference between a customer completing a purchase or abandoning their shopping cart. The key is to be unobtrusive, so you don’t turn off potential customers.

When considered together, a company can strike a balance between being proactive with users who might need assistance, and the need to remain unobtrusive so their experience doesn’t suffer as a result of chat popups.

Wow-worthy website and UI

It’s important to provide an environment where customers feel they’re taken care of before they've committed to buying anything or before they encounter a problem. Even the most compelling company story, and the most top-notch product, won't stand out to customers without it.

Chat and chatbots—if they include an easy way to escalate to live support—can help businesses facilitate this. For example, try inserting opportunities to chat with an agent throughout the website rather than containing customer service to the "contact us" page. Or, you might install a chat feature that automatically pops up when the cursor hovers near the search bar or other preset conditions that suggest the customer might need help.

Determine your live chat staffing requirements

It’s critical for companies to plan for how agents will manage the live chat feature before rolling it out. Successful deployments consider agent experience, chat routing, and whether or not agents will be supporting other customer service channels at the same time.

Jon Daniels, a support engineer at Zendesk who spends much of his day in the live chat channel, says that only chatting with a couple of customers at a time is conducive to in-depth problem-solving. When agents are more free to leave the chat window to conduct research, which includes digging into the customer's call history or consulting an internal knowledge base, they can come back with the necessary context to solve an issue more completely and holistically.

Live chat
staffing calculator

Ensuring appropriate levels of live chat staffing can be a challenge. That’s why it’s critical to plan ahead before rolling it out for customers. Use this staffing calculator to help you get started.

Remember that there are many factors that impact live chat staffing needs, so this tool should only be used as a planning guide.


Estimating chat volume

Will chat be reactive or proactive? Reactive live chat is initiated by a customer, usually by clicking a chat widget. Proactive live chat is automatic: a popup window appears asking a customer if they need help or want to chat with someone.
How many website visitors do you expect during the live chat availability period? Use a tool like Google Analytics to determine how many website visitors you get during live chat support hours. You can analyze the entire website, or you can choose specific URLs that feature live chat widgets.


Estimating number of chats per hour

What hours will live chat support be available on your website? When you’re just getting started with live chat support, stick to an average 8-hour workday (e.g. 9a to 5p). This reduces the number of incoming chats and contains the chats to predictable hours.



Estimating number of agents

How long should agents spend on one live chat conversation (in mins)? Agents spend an average of between 8 and 12 minutes solving one customer’s problem, but actual time spent per chat depends on the complexity of the issue and how much experience or expertise the agent has on that topic. Come up with your own average based on your time to resolution data.

How many live chat conversations will an agent manage simultaneously? This depends largely on the agent’s skill level. A skilled agent might manage 4-6 live chats at a time, while less experienced agents manage 1-2. That said, even some veteran support agents prefer a maximum of 2-3 chats at a time. This allows more time to conduct research in an internal knowledge base or dig into the customer’s account history.

Total percentage of customers requesting a chat
Estimated chat volume
Chat availability period
(in hours)
Estimated chats per hour
Recommended number of agents


Keep in mind that the above formula is merely a guide and ignores things like breaks for your agents, multiple shifts, and vastly different customer requirements. It shouldn’t replace a typical workforce management staffing calculator.

Once you’ve settled on your staffing needs, keep monitoring your wait times and CSAT to ensure it’s the optimal number. There’s a tendency for live chat CSAT to fall as the number of chats per agent rises and wait times increase.

Train your agents on live chat

Training customer service agents on live chat support software seems like a no-brainer, but it bears repeating. Particularly with emerging support channels like live chat and messaging, agents must be briefed on how customers interact with the interface, how they are expected to interact with it, and the ways in which customers arrive in their chat windows in the first place. For example, if your company is a growing ecommerce operation with a proactive chat on several pages throughout the website, customers can arrive at an agent from many different avenues. Understanding the customer journey, and providing as much visibility as possible into that journey, is essential for agents that may be picking up where a chatbot left off.

Agents must not only be well-versed in chat, they should be well-versed in how chat fits into the bigger customer service picture. For example, if agents know the chatbot grabs information from the knowledge base and serves it up to customers as a potential answer to their question, repeating those answers verbatim on a live chat window can lead to frustration and wasted time on both sides.

Given the more conversational nature of a live chat window, which may invite people to let their guard down, Daniels also recommends that agents managing issues on this channel receive additional training on how to remain professional when frustrations run high—responding in all-caps, with exclamation points, is never a good look.

Build a chat workflow

Regardless of which customer service platform you’re using, you’ll need to build a workflow that ensures a consistent support experience for your customers, a reliable ticket escalation path, an agent assignment plan, and real-time channel management and monitoring.

Monitor success and metrics and improve deployment

Once you’re up and running, monitor live chat analytics on a regular basis. Using data and reporting on things like average wait times, customer satisfaction, and agent productivity allows you to make changes as needed to ensure you’re offering customers the best service possible.

To maximize the positive impact of live chat, it pays to be smart about how it’s deployed. Online chat best practices such as establishing the right objectives, hiring the right number of agents, training them well, and creating a workflow are crucial first steps. Once chat is up and running, keep a close eye on your success metrics and iterating to fully realize chat’s huge potential.

6 steps to deploying chat on your website

This comprehensive guide includes more best practices for support managers and admins implementing live chat on their website.