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Why Live Chat Usually Sucks

Authors: Jay Baer Jay Baer
Posted Under: Digital Marketing
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Why Live Chat Usually Sucks

It’s the holiday season again, which yields at least four truths:

  1. Huge uptick in cranberry sauce consumption (seriously, when ELSE is that eaten?)
  2. Huge uptick in deck and patio fires, due to foolhardy and drunken usage of turkey fryers
  3. Huge uptick in customer interactions with companies, as we agitate for the best Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals
  4. Huge uptick in consumer frustration, as we encounter truly terrible live chat and chat bot experiences

I get it. I really do.

Every company is reading white papers and sitting in on webinars (some produced by me) that talk about the need for omni-channel consistency and customer-focused interaction mechanisms.

“If customers don’t want to use the phone, let them use chat!” say the white papers.

“Facebook Messenger is all the rage! It’s going to replace email! You need to build a bot!” bleat the webinars.

Consumers not only face a frenzy of navigation choices and special offers when they land on a retail website. Now they also must weigh the pros and consequences of using live chat, Messenger, phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, fax, or needlepoint as a contact mechanism when they inevitably have a question or problem.

For Whose Convenience?

Yes, I believe that companies should interact with customers in the fashion and platform of the customers choosing, rather than demanding customers use phone and email because it’s the company’s legacy preference. I talked about that a lot in Hug Your Haters.

That book was published 18 months ago, and the increase in live chat and chat bots has been remarkable. But here’s the problem:

Most live chat and chat bots's why. Click To Tweet

If you’re going to add an interaction modality for your customers, shouldn’t you take that opportunity to ensure this new channel offers a BETTER experience? Unfortunately, I often find the exact opposite to be true.

I had a problem yesterday with a company I use routinely. I went to their website and decided to use the live chat, so I could check my email during the “conversation.” The agent was incredibly slow and knew almost nothing about the product. Ultimately, after 35 minutes of painful back and forth, the agent gave me a phone number to call.

I called the number and had the problem fully solved in five minutes.

The problem is that companies rolling out live chat and chat bots do it for the wrong reasons. It’s not to offer an enhanced customer experience for consumers who prefer those channels. Instead, it’s to save money on a per-interaction basis. A chat agent can handle three to six conversations at once via chat, and a telephone agent can handle just one. And Messenger bots, once programmed, can handle infinite simultaneous conversations, bringing the average cost per interaction as close to zero as possible. “Hallelujah!” says the CFO, delighted at the cost savings provided by this new technology.

But the customer does not say hallelujah. They say a different exclamation that starts with “F.”

One Chance to Make a First Impression

If the company ultimately wants to encourage customers to use live chat and chat bots to save money, then why do they routinely put their very worst reps on live chat? Why are so many Messenger bots nearly useless? Consumers will behave in a way the company desires, if they are consistently incentivized to do so. A glance at the Cyber Monday phenomenon is all the proof we need of that point. Businesses decided to incentivize consumers to spend money online in a dedicated time horizon and discounted prices sufficiently to force the desired behavior change.

It’s realistic to believe that many customers will opt for low-cost interaction methods like live chat and chat bots, and that’s good news for business, ultimately. (Note that not all customers will do so, as some people really prefer phone and email, and that will continue to be the case until we have full generational turnover). But this gravitation from phone/email to chat/bots will only occur if companies commit meaningful resources to providing an outstanding customer experience via these new channels.

85 percent of Americans say they hate to wait on hold. That makes sense, and every time I hear that stat I wonder, who are the other 15 percent? And why do they have so much free time? Very few people want to call, and not many folks are hoping for more presents in their inbox, either. Chat and bots should be a huge hit among consumers.

But they are not.

My friend Ed Davies is a digital marketing consultant in the United Kingdom. His recent experience illustrates the core problem:

Ed needed to contact, a web hosting provider, about a domain name issue. He chose live chat and was told he was #20 in line (for live chat support!). After a few minutes of waiting, the chat software sounded a chime and nudged him to find the answer himself on the website.

He was never given a sense of how long he might have to wait (something that is common on the telephone), and after 45 MINUTES, a chat agent logged on. With no acknowledgment of the wait, the agent dove into the issue.

During the subsequent interaction, the agent left Ed waiting for 10 minutes, with no message or input of any kind. Even on the phone, when you are forced to wait for a long time, agents typically pop back in every once in a while to apologize and make sure you’re not sharpening an axe.

As a result of this poor experience, Ed took his business elsewhere.

As Ed wrote to me when he told me this tale:

“Chats should provide a better experience for the customer—there are tools available that keep the customer informed, and not just saying ‘you are in position number 14.’ I found myself thinking I’d rather be on hold on a phone than a chatI can stick the phone on speaker, dance to the tinny pop music they have playing, make a coffee, move around the house, etc. It comes down to not respecting my time in a world where I value it more highly than any other thing.”

Ed is exactly right. It’s about respect. Companies are patting themselves on the back after they check the “launch live chat” box on their strategic plan without realizing that the execution of this new option is actually driving customers away.

As always, just because you have technology doesn’t mean it provides a better experience. And in this case, the experience is often worse.

I know there are instances of great live chat and chat bots. I’ve experienced some myself. I don’t want to indict the entire category, as that is both unfair and untrue. But just about everyone I know has a disappointing chat/bots experience. How has your experience been?

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