What Problem is Your Chat Interface Trying to Solve?

I’ve been rereading The Lean Startup (👈 a link to Eric’s talk at Google, not the book) again, this time taking copious notes, as I hope to apply the principles one-to-one to a venture I’m kicking off soon. At its core, the Lean Startup methodology is all about eliminating waste. The most impactful way to eliminate waste is to make sure that what you’re building will actually get bought.

You can spend all of your time building a high-quality product, but that time is wasted if no one uses it when you’re done.

A few chapters in, my brain has been on overdrive trying to reconcile the amount of energy—in design, in development, in strategy, in maintenance—companies have spent developing conversational user interfaces with the relative outcomes of that energy.

Is chat an effective product that is being used enough to quantify companies’ investments, or is the energy we’re spending on this buzzword mostly waste?

I don’t have an answer to that question. Everything I’ll imply here might be totally wrong. However, given the sheer deluge of blog posts devoted to conversational UI as well as the number of companies that have been founded solely on the basis of developing chatbots for businesses, I’d like to explore two functional use cases for conversational UIs and attempt to imagine a future where the effort spent developing them is hardly worth it.

The Customer Service Chat

One of the primary metrics customer service chat companies use to sell their products is the rapidly rising expectation of consumers that customer service should be done via chat. Our customers already use messaging apps all day long, companies think, so we might as well develop something that looks like the apps they’re familiar with.

There’s actually nothing wrong with this logic as a starting point, but it does reveal a critical fallacy inherent among product developers. Just because a solution exists doesn’t mean the problem you think it solves actually does.

Research shows that, while the popularity of support chat is absolutely growing, many customers still prefer to pick up the phone and give a company a call, especially when the topic they want to discuss is more complex. And, at the end of the day, regardless of the contact medium, customers who need service still expect the problem to be resolved.

This means companies will still—at least for now—need to fund the hiring of human employees to help resolve human issues. Another statistic companies enjoy citing is that conversational UIs can help deflect call volume, saving companies money. This may be true, but if the problem is reducing call center costs, it’s questionable that replacing the medium a customer uses to access the call center provides the best ROI.

Why not attempt to remove the problems in the first place?

Simply put, customers don’t want to experience frustration. Chat may be one way to create a less frustrating process for resolving inevitable frustrations, but is it really the best way to deal with the problem of frustration across the board? Adopting chat may be a great decision for your business. However, adopting chat because it exists—no mater how attractive the statistics—is a mistake if you haven’t yet decided how to fix the issues causing your call center headaches.

The Sales Chat

Visit the website of most conversation UI companies, and you’re almost guaranteed to encounter a chat interface that automatically appears in the bottom right corner of your screen. In my experience, it doesn’t matter if this is for first or fiftieth visit to the website. The company still wants to chat with you.

Again, that strategy makes sense. Not only do these companies believe their approach to service works (why wouldn’t they?), they also want to give you a taste of their product before you get too deep into the research process.

But, here’s the rub. The vast majority of visitors to your website go there to anonymously research your product or service in advance of a pending purchase. More likely than not, they’ve either bounced to your site immediately after conducting research on a competitor site, or they’re about to leave your site to go to the next one. They don’t usually have the time nor do they really have the questions ready to engage with a human sales agent or bot.

Simply put, the motivation to visit your site and the motivation to discuss a purchase with a person are not the same. So, why make your website do both?

One reason chat may actually satisfy the needs of possible buyers is when a chat agent is capable of discussing how their company’s service can work specifically for a buyer’s bespoke use case or industry. Many marketing websites lack some of the critical details necessary for buyers to make a decision quickly. Chat can help apply a company’s offering to the real world by allowing humans to connect one-to-one. However, is that juice really worth the squeeze?

Let’s assume that, for most online B2B purchases, buyers will still need to walk through a traditional sales journey with pitches, decks, and a lot of follow-up emails. Let’s also assume that, since the fictional buyer talked with your sales rep, using chat, they also did so with several members of your competition. The potential competitive advantage you gained by using chat during the process is lost, and you’re still spending the same amount of resources closing the deal as you would have if you never used chat to begin with.

Alternatives or Not

As with every new business, the alternatives to chat are abundant. In some cases, implementing an alternative may be the best approach. In others, maybe chat really is worth the squeeze. Whatever problem you’re attempting to solve, it’s worth the time to consider whether your decision to involve chat is based on some real analysis of the problem, solutions, and alternatives, or whether you feel inclined to adopt because it feels like the easy (buzzword-y) way out of a more complex problem.

❤️ Billy

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash