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The Great Chat Debate

I recently attended this year’s ICMI Contact Center Demo & Conference and, as a relative newcomer to the space, I was really blown away by the passion and dedication on display throughout the event. Everyone from the ICMI staff, to the attendees – even some of our closest competitors – were all clearly tuned into the customer experience and passionately advocating for the tools and programs needed to engage and empower agents to that end.

Of course, not everyone agreed completely on how to get there. One of the more polarizing topics was that of providing chat for customer service. There were mixed reviews from those who have implemented chat, debates on whether or not chat was truly necessary, questions about how to resource and staff agents across multiple channels while maintaining a seamless customer experience, and a laundry list of challenges and perspectives discussed throughout the event.

And here’s the rub – there was a pretty clear delineation among partisans. Essentially, the analysts, media, consultants and vendors were all pro-chat, while the detractors were almost exclusively the day-to-day practitioners right out of the contact center trenches.  

It’s generally accepted that the digital landscape has shifted power to the consumer – and that they first want to self-serve and then (and only then) progressively engage through additional channels to minimize their interaction and maximize their return. Essentially, consumers now seek to lower their transaction costs instead of the other way around. We as brands must actually invest in the capabilities required to meet their expectations.

So why would a group so passionate about the customer experience - and so close to the customer - have such a different perspective?  As the conference progressed, two issues repeatedly arose that help to explain how we got here.

The first was that it can be difficult to sell higher level management on why chat is needed. And with all the competing pressures on our shoulders to ‘deliver against the metrics,’ the chat initiative simply becomes a battle managers aren’t willing to pick. I can certainly understand that position.

The second issue was more concerning though:  Many of the companies that had actually implemented chat struggled to staff and manage it effectively, with a net result that it was actually hurting their brand experience. Yikes.

So while almost everyone in attendance was passionately advocating for tools to empower agents and engage with customers, when it came to chat, contact center and customer experience managers were still unable to answer two very fundamental questions: Why and How.


The world’s most cutting edge and well-loved brands are meeting customers – all of us – where we live: online. The days of customer service being delivered exclusively by phone are long gone. A significant segment of consumers (80 million strong) prefer live chat over the phone when interacting with brands. And the expert data supports this: chat usage rates have risen from 38 percent in 2009 to 58 percent in 2014. It saves time and energy.

But it’s not just a time saver. The Zendesk Customer Service Benchmark Q2 2015 Report says chat ranked highest in customer satisfaction at a whopping 92 percent. Many consumers like chat because:

  • They typically communicate via text and short messages. Live chatting with a brand is just like texting with a friend.
  • It saves them time and they can multitask. Live chatting makes it easy to set up a dinner date with friends while getting an update about when the product they ordered will arrive.
  • Live chat is usually offered during extended hours. Because not everyone can take a break at work to make a personal phone call.
  • They can save a transcript of their chat. They may never look at it again, but they have it just in case…
  • Their questions are answered while shopping, just as if they were in a store with a salesperson. Personal interaction helps people feel valued and important.

Consumers overwhelmingly state that they don’t want to repeat themselves every time they contact a company. Systems should “talk” to each other and share information. So if they send an email with an inquiry and later start a chat session, they expect the agent to know about previous contacts relevant to their current issue.  

They also want someone to help them NOW. They have no desire to sit around all day waiting for an answer. Time is far too precious.  And, with a wealth of real-time information and opinion available at anyone’s fingertips, decisions can quickly and easily be based on other’s experiences. It’s easy to engage and share this way, so each individual customer experience, whether positive or negative, will quickly become public knowledge.


While there’s ample research and ‘tips and tricks’ articles available on how to effectively implement chat, much of the advice reads like generic consultant speak that could just as easily be applied to the roll out of any software:  secure management buy-in, define your goals, provide training, and so on.  And while that’s all necessary, when it comes to success with chat, it’s still clearly not sufficient.  

So we looked further into companies who have successfully implemented chat to see what they were doing differently, and three very straightforward trends emerged.

Don’t make customers repeat themselves. The first and by far the most critical element to chat success is providing your agents with a 360-degree view of customer interactions across all channels. Period.  When agents engage in a chat session with an online customer, they must have full visibility into all chat history, as well as previous voice call, SMS, email, and social media interactions.  If your agents are blind, they’re doomed from the start.

Expect the Unexpected.  One of the most debated issues around implementing chat is whether to hire different agents for different channels.  But the evidence is clear.  The companies winning with chat train, grade, and track their agents across all channels.  Even the very best forecasting models won’t predict unplanned volume spikes – or what channel they’ll come through.  So while you absolutely need to staff to default-levels by day, time, and seasonality, you also need the flexibility to surge-staff channels on the fly and route interactions to the best-qualified agents in real-time, and you simply can’t do that with fixed-capacity and fixed-skills.  

Mix it up. There’s nothing less personal than a robotic, canned, response, which is why templates win out over scripts every time.  Templates balance the need for faster, more consistent responses, with the personalization and insight required to deliver a satisfactory experience.  The best companies empower their agents with flexible templates and the autonomy to personalize them, instead of rigid scripts that alienate your customers.

Ultimately, chat is a win-win.  It gives yours customers exactly what they want:  Lower-friction access to fast, personal service.  And it’s a goldmine for gathering the digital insights you need to offer both your agents and customers a smoother experience at each and every touchpoint.

Keeping customers happy and loyal isn’t rocket science. It’s based on the basic principles of courtesy and respect we all learned as kids. Put other’s first. Be respectful of people’s time. Listen before you speak.

Done right, live chat can deliver on each of those basic principles, and your customers will love you for it.

So there’s really no question at all.