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Article 8 min read

How live chat support improves the customer experience

Learn more about how live chat support benefits a business and its customers.

By Tara Ramroop , Senior manager, content marketing

Last updated November 11, 2022

Live chat support is a great opportunity for businesses to make a more personal connection with customers. It allows support teams to anticipate questions and offer help when and where customers need it, helps boost ecommerce sales, and reduces customer wait time.

It’s also one of the fastest-growing support channels. More than four times as many Zendesk customers are using live chat than they did five years ago, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020.

Let’s describe the unique ways in which live chat support contributes to a better customer service experience, and why one support leader nominates it to win most authentic 1:1 support channel.

What is live chat support?

Live chat is a conversational, synchronous 1:1 customer support channel, which takes a couple of forms. It can be a proactive chat window that pops up as customers navigate through an ecommerce website—think of the last time you were browsing a website, whether it was for software or shoes, and a chat window popped up asking if you needed assistance. Clicking on it would connect you to a live agent.

Customers can also initiate live chat when they’re in need. For example, maybe you can recall a time you were browsing your finances online and realized you needed to address some funny business in your account. A well-placed button would take you to the same channel to connect 1:1 with an agent.

Why live chat support is better for customers

When it’s available to them, more customers are saying “yes” to chat, choosing it more often than they did a few years ago. The immediacy of a message or live chat has raised customers’ expectations for speedy responses over email; according to the CX Trends Report, 28 percent of people expect a reply on chat in under five minutes.

“It’s Instantaneous communication that doesn’t involve phone tag,” says Jon Daniels, a Tier 2 technical support engineer at Zendesk who spends a lot of his workday in the live chat channel. He says it’s also the only other high-bandwidth channel—next to email support—where you can really dig into the steps involved in an issue to get it resolved right then and there, whether that means enumerating the steps the customer should take or by sharing relevant links to content from the help center.

Since options to open a live chat window are often strategically placed throughout a website, it can be a fast and effective way for customers to initiate a support interaction without navigating away from whatever they were doing, thereby preserving their experience. Another bonus is the fact that it offers privacy in plain sight; live chat can come in handy for personal issues like banking or medical concerns that might need addressing in the middle of the workday, especially since many customers are already familiar with typing in desktop messaging apps.

“I think people on both ends are more informal in their communication, and that can go a long way in solving an issue” Daniels says, noting that he finds live chat to be the most authentic 1:1 channel.

Why live chat support is better for business

There are also a bevy of business benefits for adding live chat into the support mix. Whatever the reason for taking the leap, it should be driven by a company’s bigger business goals. That means, at minimum, internal agreement on why the company is using live chat to begin with. Some business goals might include helping the company scale customer support operations; better meet service level agreements for customers, such as reducing wait time or first-reply time; proactively solving customer issues before they arise, or reducing the rate of abandoned shopping carts on ecommerce sites.

Regardless of the goals a business hopes to achieve with live chat, there is a proven return on investment when it’s rolled out thoughtfully. A Forrester report, The Total Economic Impact of Zendesk, revealed that organizations that were able to shift interactions to chat, which is generally a lower-cost channel, saw cost savings over time.

Live chat best practices

That’s the “why” of live chat support for customers and businesses—let’s dive into the how with some live chat best practices.

  • Optimize the user experience by considering live chat location, access, and timing on your website. 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.

  • Determine staffing requirements and training approach before jumping in. For example, will agents be supporting other customer service channels while they monitor chat? What constitutes success for individual agents?

    Daniels says that when agents are able to chat with only a couple of customers at a time, it can be especially conducive to problem-solving. It’s not out of the ordinary to leave a chat window to do some research—from both internal and publicly available help content resources—and then return armed and ready with the resources to address the issue completely.

    Like Daniels says, though it is arguably the most authentic 1:1 channel, inviting people to let their guard down, managing issues via live chat requires a nuanced level of professionalism to ensure success. This can be especially difficult to manage when stress levels are high and a lot is riding on the outcome, but solid training can help set agents up for success. Daniels says he advocates more rigor and guidelines around pausing a chat if it becomes too emotional or personal, but the right approach will also vary from team to team, and company to company.

  • Live chat software also provides an opportunity to tap into that additional layer of data about customers. While it varies by platform, live chat typically delivers several contextual data points about the customers’ journey, including: the URL on which the customer was immediately before the chat started, the customer’s operating system and device, the time they’ve spent on the site, the number of visits, and the number of chats they’ve had with the company in the past. Daniels says the transcripts of previous chats are especially helpful, since he often reviews them to get caught up on an issue before diving in with a return customer.

How AI, chatbots, and self-service factor into live chat support

Integrating AI and chatbots in the live chat experience can be a huge benefit for customers and agents, especially if it leverages the power of other channels—namely self-service. One of the benefits of a self-service portal is that it allows customers to help themselves for less-complicated queries. Connecting self-service and live chat support can amplify the power of both channels while optimizing the experience for customers; for example, a proactive chat window that serves up links from the help center—suggestions driven by AI. If the chatbot doesn’t answer the question, no problem, as it should be easy to escalate to a live agent from there.

Chatbots have definitely caught on in Australia. According to the CX Trends Report, 45% of Australian consumers said they’d interact with a bot over a human agent as long as it resulted in an accurate response. Furthermore, the number of Zendesk clients using the AI-powered chatbot almost doubled over the past two years, namely in the business-to-consumer sector.

Daniels experiences this firsthand, reporting that he links to the knowledge base content in chat windows because it doesn’t always make sense to enumerate all the steps to solving an issue when it’s already encapsulated in an article. He then stays on the chat to expound upon certain ideas or steps as needed.

Meal-delivery subscription service Freshly successfully brought AI, live chat, and self-service together to create a better experience for customers. The team noticed that a lot of one-touch tickets were coming in via chat, one of its most popular support channels. That made it an excellent candidate to be optimized with help content and AI. Using a solution that finds patterns in how users ask questions, the team tailors its language to more closely match that of customers. Phrases like, “My delivery hasn’t arrived” and “Where is my box?” are associated with the same help article, which pops up in a proactive chat window if they start typing the question.

The difference between live chat and messaging

Daniels recommends being open to the fact that live chat is a more conversational platform: Because of this built-in authenticity and informality, people will be more comfortable. This leads to asking multiple questions while they have you on the line, or maybe even a happy face from time to time. Be open and flexible with the flow of communication, which is definitely the case with messaging apps.

With messaging—such as WhatsApp or social-media DMs—gaining ground as a support channel, it’s important to understand the difference between chat and messaging. The primary difference is that live chat is session-based and synchronous—once the conversation is over or the issue is resolved, the conversational history disappears from the customer’s end; though, as Daniels notes above, the transcripts can be helpful quick-study materials when jumping on a chat with a customer who reaches out multiple times.

Messaging, on the other hand, is asynchronous communication. Since the conversation exists within third-party channels, the entire conversation history remains visible, just like it is when people use those channels to message their friends or family. On the back end, modern communication software can make the entire conversation history available to a support agent, too.

Chat and messaging bring unique support strengths to the table and should be considered for any omnichannel support operation.

Chat customers up

Live chat support has a lot going for it. It’s authentic and conversational. It literally pops up when or even before a customer needs help. As the Freshly use case demonstrates, it plays nicely with other channels, such as self-service, and gives agents the ability to dig deep into an issue—all of which make it a must-have for any scaling customer support operation.

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