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Article 6 min read

Live chat: how can you make it work for your customers?

Last updated August 27, 2021

Live chat customer support is proven to be an effective way to communicate with customers or people making enquiries about your products or services. A single online chat session can turn a passing visitor into a buyer, and a one-off buyer into a loyal customer. It has become a central plank of online customer services, and shows no sign of going away. Let’s delve in in more detail – it could be the support experience your customers are looking for.

What is live chat?

From the customer’s point of view, live chat is a way of communicating via typed messages with online customer support agents in real time. It often manifests itself in the form of a chat widget that pops up on a webpage, or in one of the mobile apps that use live chat. 

The session might start with a few multiple choice options such as “Sales”, “Product support” or “Upgrades”, or other specific queries like product versions that you’re enquiring about. Then, the customer is connected to a live chat agent who will communicate with the customer in a text box.

Both parties get to ask and respond to questions, and the chat is shown in the form of a conversation, rather like with SMS on your mobile device or a channel like Google Chat or WhatsApp. It’s handy for the customer because they don’t have to leave the page they’re browsing, and it can give instant answers to queries they have about the products.

When the chat is over, the widget closes, but that is not necessarily the end of the session. For example, there could be automated follow-up questions about the customer’s experience of the chat, some sales opportunities or an opportunity to download the chat as a text document so they can refer to it later. Customers who are logged into an account might be able to see a record of all their past chats too.

How does live chat work?

From the business’s point of view, the system works a little differently, and will vary depending on the size and type of organisation.

Small businesses

Small companies that can expect just a few enquiries a day (or even that many each week) can install the widget on their website and have it linked directly to a member of staff in the sales or support team. The widget is activated by just a few lines of HTML code on the relevant pages, or plugins/extensions for WordPress, Magento, Shopify and others.

When someone initiates a chat, the staff member will be alerted and they’ll chat as normal. In such cases, you can set the widget to only display during office hours, or to link to another communication channel such as email.

Large organisations

At the other end of the spectrum are the large national or multinational organisations. They are more likely to have an entire team of dedicated agents ready to take chats as soon as they come in, possibly 24/7.

In this kind of customer service channel, incoming chats are allocated either on a first come, first served basis to the next available agent, or go through some selection process like a questionnaire to puts customers in specific queues to chat with specialist agents. It will run alongside more in-depth chat software (see below).

Use it alongside knowledge management tools

Whatever the size of your business, it’s handy to have the agent or staff member connected to a CRM or some kind of knowledge management system. That way, they can deal with any query, complaint, or problem armed with all the knowledge they need about the customer and the issue.

For customers, it’s great to know they are not going to have to explain their situation time and time again, as the agents will have their complete purchase and communications history right there.

What is live chat software?

Live chat software has two main components. First, it’s the application or program that makes the chat window open or pop up on users’ screens. It’s as agnostic as you’d imagine nowadays, and works with all the major platforms, operating systems and devices.

Second, the software integrates with the dedicated chat software held by the organisation. Specifics vary from provider to provider, but it’s essentially a dashboard where agents can view incoming chat queues, open up the ones relevant to them, and re-allocate them to other agents if they’re more appropriate.

The agent picking up the enquiry can read the conversation so far, and get further instructions from the first agent via text or voice, and they’re up to speed. The software then keeps a record of all chats for future reference, CRM and training. It’s all geared to speeding up the experience for customers and businesses alike.

Do customers respond to live chat?

There are plenty of studies that suggest that customers really do like the live chat format for their enquiries, complaints and sales. Its main benefit is that it’s instant and synchronous – it’s one on one, and both parties are able to ask questions and get answers in real time.

Because visitors know they are speaking with a human, it can build trust with the company because they don’t feel like a number. Put simply, it removes a layer of distance and friction between the customer and the company, and because it’s there on the screen, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t just give it a try – what is there to lose?

Companies that introduce live chat and run it properly usually notice that they increase sales. You’re simply offering customers one more communication channel that works alongside marketing. Those who want fast answers will almost always turn to it as their first choice, whether they’re on a desktop PC or a smartphone.

What are the alternatives?

Live chat isn’t every customer’s first choice, but that doesn’t matter because you can use other channels of communication too. Also, not all businesses have the resources to dedicate to live chat. Here’s a quick look at the alternatives.

  • Chatbots feel a bit like chat, but they’re actually using language recognition or multiple choice questions to help customers answer common questions. They could end up referring customers to a live agent, however.
  • Call centres are perfect for customers who prefer the sound of a human voice, simply don’t like typing, or need to be hands-free.
  • Email help might be slower than live chat, but that suits customers who want to raise a query but can’t commit themselves to a chat right now. Email is also great for when there’s a single question and answer, or indeed the opposite – when a long, considered response is needed to a complex question.
  • Knowledge bases let customers search through categorised FAQs, customer forums and other knowledge management tools, and can remove the need for any human (or bot) interaction altogether.

Start the conversation

Live chat benefits businesses and customers alike, for a host of reasons. If you would like to see it in action and find how it integrates with other channels, why not get yourself a free Zendesk trial?

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