In this era of texting and instant messaging, web-based chat is the preferred way of interacting with customer service and support for many users¹. It certainly beats spending an interminable amount of time stuck on hold or navigating a baroque call tree. It’s also preferable to firing an email off into the void with no sense of when or whether it will be responded to or understood.
With chat you know that there’s someone on the other end to help you out. Most support requests start out with only a vague sense of what the problem is. With chat, you can quickly iterate towards a common understanding, start using common terminology and get to the root of the issue. For online services, there’s an inherent advantage to using the same medium as the service itself. You can share links, pointing where the problem is or to support articles that can provide more information.
Live chat for customer support
Needless to say, I’m a big fan of using a chat systems as a tool for customer support. I’ve found that it leads more satisfied customers². It provides a great way to turn a potentially negative customer experience into a positive one — especially when adopting Zappos-style fanaticism to customer satisfaction and embracing it as part of your organizational culture. An obsessive focus on customer satisfaction is one of the simplest ways that a company can differentiate itself — especially against larger competitors who view support as a cost centre³.
Many companies are afraid that setting up a web chat interface creates an expectation of availability. Especially when operating in a global market, the prospect of needing to be on call 24x7 can be pretty daunting. However, most chat services provide a way to set “office hours”, so either chat is shown as unavailable outside of those hours or it degrades to an email fallback. Of these options, I prefer the latter as it still allows you to capture the customer inquiry and to respond outside of regular hours, if someone’s available to do so. Most chat apps provide mobile apps which make it easy to respond to quick inquiries on the go.
Live chat for product management
From a product management perspective, chat is such a powerful tool for interacting with customers at the point that they’re struggling. It’s an opportunity to get to the root of a user’s problem to fix or improve user experience.
Most product managers that I’ve worked with struggle to get in front of customers. Spending time in the chat support queue is a great way to interact with users. It’s a way to “get out of the building” virtually. Once you’ve addressed their core concern, I’ve found that customers are generally receptive to other lines of inquiry. And you don’t even have to have a great phone voice or a bubbly personality.
All of this makes it much easier for cross-functional teams to support their own products — especially early stage products — without necessarily needing a dedicated customer support team. It optimizes for learning. In larger organizations, it’s also possible to fallback to a dedicated CS team outside of regular hours to provide broader coverage.
Live chat with Intercom
While there are lots of live chat tools out there, the product that I’ve had the most experience with is Intercom. I’ve worked with both mid-sized companies that were already using Intercom, along with rolling it out for a new startup.
Intercom is obviously a lot more than just a live chat tool. It’s first and foremost a CRM (customer relationship management) system and messaging platform. Live chat is just one of the supported channels for engaging with leads and users.
Having live chat backed by a CRM means that chat history is connected to all customer interaction — so it’s possible to see communication with a user across all engagement channels.
Intercom’s Respond product provides a Team Inbox that inbound chats come into. Anyone using the web interface or mobile app will be notified and can easily jump in and respond to the inquiry. It’s generally best to assign the request to yourself before responding so as to prevent multiple people responding to the same chat. Nice additional features include suggested responses and easy linking to support articles in Intercom’s Educate product. It’s also possible to send chat notifications to other systems like Slack so that other teams can follow support interactions without engaging in them directly.
Future of live chat
Despite live chat being around for several years at this point, it’s still not that pervasive. It’s a technology that has been rapidly evolving and improving. For companies who might have experimented with it previously, I think that it’s worth taking a second look. For companies that have already adopted live chat but are channeling it exclusively to customer support teams, I recommend looking at ways to also include product teams and trusting them to interact appropriately with customers. It goes a long way towards building customer empathy across the organization.
2. One of my clients measure Net Promoter Scores (NPS) after sign up and directly after a customer support interaction. NPS after a support interaction is typically a few points higher than just after product use.
3. Having too many users is not a problem that most startups suffer from. This is one way to turn this disadvantage into an advantage.