Live chat was great but now it’s history

Mar 24, 2015 · 8 min read

Why are we setting out to re-invent a product that people think is working just fine?

Better than fine, according to a lot of folks. Recently we’ve been talking to end users of live chat, as well as companies who use live chat to speak to their customers. Both of them love it.

Companies told us it was their “contact channel of choice”; our own customers have been impatiently waiting for us to build it. End users like it too because they get quick answers to their question. Live chat = no waiting. Who wouldn’t like that?

This is why live chat is a thing, and why all the products on the market are pretty much interchangeable. From an end-user’s perspective they are all the same. Innovation is hard to spot.

People love live chat, when it works. But that’s often not the case. That’s why we’ve avoided the temptation to rush out a “me too” live chat product that was just bolted on to Intercom. We knew we could do better.

Live chat is broken; you just don’t realise it yet

Live chat models itself after an analog experience: the phone call. Just to make sure you get it, some products even refer to “live chat operators”, bringing to mind the people in the picture at the top of this post. Chat takes this phone call model and plasters it on to the web, often resulting in an experience that combines the worst of both.

Problem 1: The burden of immediate responses

If you offer live chat you’ve seen these questions. And as a user, who hasn’t had this kind of crappy experience?

The rule of thumb in the live chat world is businesses should respond in less than 30 seconds — some organisations aim to respond in as little as 10 seconds. Because if you don’t, you’ll have frustrated users. This expectation of almost-immediate replies is a huge burden.

So what happens is people simply turn live chat off. Actually, most products automatically switch off when you run out of agents to handle new chats. They have strict limits so each “operator” can have a maximum of 3 concurrent chats — otherwise response times are so slow users don’t feel it’s live.

When it’s switched off, it’s like being sent straight to voicemail:

Even worse is when you’re actually put on hold: “We apologize for keeping you waiting. Our operators are busy at the moment…” At this point you’re only one step away from playing cheesy on-hold music. Some products force you to wait before you can even tell them why you’re there in the first place. This is slavery to the worst part of the phone experience.

Problem 2: Chat “sessions” are a relic of old technology

Once a chat is closed, it’s effectively gone. You have the concept of “missed” or “dropped” chats where the operator didn’t respond quickly enough. And users can’t pick up a chat where they last left off. Once closed, they have to start a brand new one.

This concept of chat sessions leads to slightly surreal interactions:

“Leave a chat”, “You were disconnected”. This stuff can be so awkward.

Businesses optimize for the “3-chats-and-you’re-cut-off” rule by setting up protocols which prompt the user with questions like those above after one minute of inactivity. And then after another minute they’ll just close it. Because if they don’t close the chat, the operator can’t take a new one.

You can almost hear them saying: “Ok, can I hang up now? I’m about to hang up now….ok?…hanging up.” Click. This idea of a “chat session” simply needs to die.

Problem 3: Live chat is siloed

Live chat is rarely integrated with your product, or with information about your users. It offers a disjointed, jumbled experience for customers as they switch between email and live chat, continually sacrificing the context and history of the thread. And let’s not even consider jumping to mobile. Live chat tools are dumb with no memory.

“Well, yeah,” I know you’re thinking, “but I can ask them to email a transcript”. Yes, indeed you can. Which brings us to this:

“Please hold while I transfer you to…email”

The thing is, even if you are available for live chat, and all is going swimmingly with your customer, often you need more time to get the answer, check with a colleague or do some investigation. Phone support stinks at this so it’s not surprising live chat does too. Because both really want it to be now or never. So what happens is you’ll get this response:

“Sorry, but we’ll need one of our engineers to look at that. Can you close this chat and send us an email at ? ☺”

Being transferred on the phone almost never works out well, and the same is true of being shunted from live chat to email.

Live chat is yet another siloed communication channel; it complicates rather than simplifies.

This homepage is a great example of silos. Support! Chat! Why are these 2 different things?

Enter modern messaging

Messaging apps offer a very different model of interaction which has no analog parallel. They sounded the death knell for voicemail, and we think they’ll do the same for live chat.

Think about the last time you used a modern messaging app, like WhatsApp. It probably went something like this:

  • Open the app, send a short message. Perhaps wait a second to see your message was delivered.
  • Close app. Put the phone in your pocket.
  • Go about your life.
  • 15 minutes later, receive notification of a reply.
  • Open app. Read reply. Send another quick message. Then an emoji. Get one right back. Close app.
  • 4 hours later, take a photo that adds some humorous commentary. Open thread. Add the image. Close app satisfied with your wittiness.

We take this experience for granted, but there’s a sprinkling of magic in there. When you get a message from a WhatsApp group, you might respond in 30 seconds, or 30 minutes, or even a couple days later.

The magic comes in the flexibility — the flexibility to imperceptibly move between a live conversation and one that’s spread out across hours and days. And then next week you can just pick up right where you left off.

It lets us jump between the immediacy of a phone call and the permanence of an email and back again, all in a single conversation. And we’ve all adopted this new model without even thinking about it.

This model emerged from mobile, but it’s increasingly desktop too. Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and now even WhatsApp have made the leap to desktop.

These apps have forged a new space entirely of their own, which is why we all use way less of the old stuff. Email feels slow. Phone calls feel intrusive. Live chat sometimes just feels wrong.

Our approach: real-time messaging

Solution 1. The power of live conversations, without the burden of live chat

To remove the burden, you need to directly address users’ expectation of an immediate reply. On mobile, you get this for free. No one is going to stare at their phone with your app open waiting for a response. Of course not; they’ll turn off their phone, or switch apps, and see a notification whenever you reply.

It’s trickier on desktop. We experimented with lots of ambient indicators to help control user expectations. But what we found was that simple, direct statements were by far the most effective. Sure, users would prefer an immediate response, but if they can’t have that, you need to accurately let them know when they will get a response. So we built a simple message responder to do this.

Solution 2. Removing the constraints of a “chat session”

The bedrock of our approach is that every conversation has the potential to be a real-time one, but none of them has to be. There is no concept of a “missed” or “dropped” chat.

We bring the flexibility of the modern messaging model to your conversations with customers. So you have the ability to have a live conversation at any point — it could be at the start if you can respond quickly, or it can be midway through the conversation.

After all, real-time does have an unfair advantage. Our user presence indicators help you capitalise on the opportunities of real-time. And, anyone from your company can easily jump in on a conversation.

Solution 3. A single platform for all communication, including live conversations

Intercom is the liberator of silos. So no longer do you need a separate tool to do live chat. We unify in-apps and email, live conversations and those spread out over several hours.

Mobile and desktop too. So your users could start with a chat on desktop, and then continue that thread on mobile. All in the same thread. Your team can jump across devices as well. And of course it’s all hooked up to your users’ information, so you have all the context you need to handle the conversation. Seamless for your customers, and seamless for your business.

This is the modern messaging model, and the one we think enables businesses to talk and engage with customers in a more modern, and a more manageable, way.

Take the next step with us

There’s an obvious expansion to our current model that we want to address: enabling conversations with people who haven’t yet signed up or logged in to you product. We’re building something entirely new (and better) to replace legacy live chat solutions. Sign up to be added to the invite list and we’ll notify you as soon as it’s ready.

Written by Brian Donohue, a product manager at Intercom. This post first appeared on the Inside Intercom blog, where we regularly share our thoughts on product strategy, design, customer experience, and startups. Intercom’s user communication tool helps internet businesses see and talk to their customers.


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