Do online chats beat call centers for customer service?

Oct 22, 2014

According to a survey from Moxie Software, a developer of live chat solutions, 72 percent of smartphone users would prefer to use live online chat versus calling to speak with an agent.

Sixty-two percent of survey participants expect live chat to be available on mobile devices, and 82 percent would use it.

Another survey from eDigitalResearch earlier this year found that satisfaction rates were high for those who had used live chat online to communicate with a brand. Three-quarters (73 percent) were "extremely satisfied" or "satisfied" with the level of service live chat afforded them. Furthermore, 30 percent expect live chat to be an option to contact a company.

The positive response to live chat comes at a time when waiting too long on hold, not being able to reach a human, and navigating convoluted menus regularly rank among the top customer service complaints.

Still, the survey of 2,000 consumers from eDigitalResearch found only one in four (26 percent) had used live chat to contact a company in the last year. One downside often noted is that online live chat scripts can be even more "robotic" than agent phone calls.

Live chat proponents argue that wait times are often much shorter than a call center, partly because customer service agents can more easily handle multiple communications at one time. According to Moxie, online live chat agents also have access to a list of pre-prepared responses that facilitate interactions with consumers. Having access to key information, including device information, webpages being viewed by consumers, and even GPS-enabled physical locations, helps agents deliver personalized experiences. Photos, videos or documents can also be shared during chat sessions.

For consumers, the promised benefit is also being able to multi-task while waiting and avoiding the chore of punching numbers into an automated system.

Does online live chat offer more promise to improve the customer service contact experience versus phone calls? What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of online live chats?

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18 Comments on "Do online chats beat call centers for customer service?"

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Keith Anderson

Perhaps, but at a Mobile Mindset panel in Minneapolis yesterday the e-commerce director for a leading hotel chain noted that they actually get superior conversion rates from click-to-call functionality on both desktop and mobile. She also cited a Google study that found that 70 percent of mobile searchers use click-to-call.

Live chat has potential, but I’m not sure it’s ready to replace call centers.

Don Uselmann
Don Uselmann
2 years 11 months ago

I think the fourth paragraph, describing the current frustrations of utilizing the phone, says it all. However, the more complex the issue the more a live phone conversation becomes relevant, so the consumer needs to decide the trade-off between phone frustrations and the amount of typing they may need to do. I recently experienced what I think is an even better solution. I had ordered a non-returnable piece of furniture but when it arrived neither the dimensions listed nor the depiction matched the actual item. The company had an option where I could email them to set an appointment when they would call me. The time I selected was “now” and on two occasions I received a call in 30 seconds. I thought, amazing service. That and the entire process to resolve the issue was terrific—they have a great recovery process in place.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

If one accepts the results of this research at face value, it does appear to offer mutual benefits to customers and companies. We know Millennials prefer texting over live conversations. Therefore, these benefits will continue to grow in importance as this generation matures. One other noted benefit, chats via mobile devices, should become more widely used particularly with the growth of mobile payments options.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

It all depends upon the consumer experience.

All too often, online chat is seen as a way to dramatically reduce consumer contact costs. When chat is reduce to “scripts” so that chat operators can attempt to handle multiple consumers simultaneously, the value of chat drops precipitously, and may be far worse than a phone experience.

In contrast, those implementing online chat as true interactive engagement with consumers can create tremendous value and increase conversion rates.

The question of what you get out of online chat truly depends upon what you put into it, and whether it is seen as a value add or as cost cutting.

Bill Davis

Live chat is more immediate if you don’t have to wait to connect to an agent, but that’s not always the case. And I’m not sure having agents work with 2 or 3 customers at a time makes sense because it would be challenging to follow each conversation closely. I like live chat as it usually offers me a transcript of the dialogue once completed, so I have used it extensively.

Ken Lonyai

Execution and authenticity are the real keys to the support issue. The mode of communication is secondary.

In the past few years, it seems that credit card call centers have vastly improved and often the support people are based in the U.S. While sometimes web chat has been helpful, I’ve experience many very slow sessions, support people that disappear every time a question is asked (possibly fielding multiple sessions), and quite a number of “chat support is off-line at this time” experiences.

So most companies that want to help their customers need to commit to it and, at least in 2014, offer multiple ways to interact that work.

Jason Goldberg
Online chat and phone-based customer service both have an important role. The important thing is to be able to communicate with the customer over the vehicle that works for the customer. That might be a phone for one shopper and live chat for another, it might also be a social network, video chat, email, etc. It’s easy to think of use cases where a customer would have a particular preference, for example, if a shopper and her spouse are in front of the TV and she needs some help via her phone, she may not want to interrupt her spouse with a voice call. Conversely, if she’s having a problem with a product that requires a visual aid, she may prefer video chat to a call. This study doesn’t help us decide how to prioritize our resources (see my usual rant about declared preferences vs. revealed preferences). It is important to make sure that the customer is being treated fairly via any vehicle. You want to avoid the impression that some vehicles (such as a social network) have better response times or more capabilities than another channel. If you are going to have a presence via any digital touch point,… Read more »
Warren Thayer
I’ve had experience with both, generally favorable, but greatly prefer phone calls versus chats. Faster, you get to the point more readily, and you don’t have to wait around for a minute or four for a response to each question. (Obvious that the chatters are handling several queries at once). I don’t mind waiting on hold, since for years I’ve just been putting my phone on speaker and doing other things until a person answers. No biggie. Why on earth would you just sit there on hold when you can continue working, watching TV or talking to friends? Finally, it’s hard to carry on a live chat on a device with a small keyboard. (On my laptop, though, live chat is OK.) And on chats, you can’t really go off and do other things as easily, while watching your device to see if you’ve had a response yet. This seems somewhat generational. My grown kids seem fine with live chat and seem to prefer it over a phone conversation, even with friends. So I wonder about this research done by a company with a vested interest in live chat. How was the study done? What were the demographics of the… Read more »
David Livingston
2 years 11 months ago

The benefit is you get someone or a computer right away. The drawback is that its usually pre-programmed canned responses or the answers are mostly a repeat of your question. Online live chat has been around for a long time but I prefer speaking to someone who uses American English with no foreign accent.

Liz Crawford

Phone calls are so 20th century. Millennials text, type and swipe—they don’t want to talk. It’s a question of demand, pure and simple.

Ben Ball

Like so many interactions, it depends on who you are talking to when, and what about. Millennials may prefer text over talk for all interactions. Boomers may be OK with chat if they are already at their computers. They can just look at pictures of the kids on Facebook in between exchanges. But they might not be OK with that on a smartphone. Too hard to type, as Warren says.

Then there’s the issues of urgency, importance and complexity. As all of those go up, any group’s propensity to want more immediate and flexible help goes up regardless of their baseline communication style.

Ralph Jacobson

In a word, yes! It is more convenient to just click on the chat button than to dial a phone. I guess I have gotten very lazy and/or impatient. However, I don’t think I’m alone with those characteristics.

If the chat button reflects accurate actual staffing hours, and the staff is commensurate with the incoming workload, then that is a great start. The next challenge is what limitations the chat service agent holds. Can they truly assist the vast majority of customers?

The immediacy of effective chat help is unmatched by other service channels.

Zel Bianco

I think offering online live chats would appeal to customers since they’re normally a faster and more direct way to reach service than through phone. You don’t have to go through menus and worry about not reaching someone. Customers also have the information they need written out so they don’t have to recall from a phone conversation. The representatives can take the time to deliver the best answers or be able to locate a reference guide if needed. But one disadvantage I see with online chats is that miscommunication can occur since written text can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way. I feel it’s easier to have clear communication through the phone. I also think one of the most important things to consider is that offering online live chats gives customers another option for service. They can choose whether they prefer to speak about their concerns by phone or whether they find it easier to discuss them online. But one problem I see with online chats is that because representatives can multitask while responding to a customer, their full attention is not focused on helping them out.

Lee Kent

Speaking from my own expereince, I am happy to share my thoughts. Live chat is the best and here’s why. When you call customer service you are put into script mode with no way out. Even if you tell them everything you have already done and know, they still take you back to square one and make you feel like they don’t believe you until they can draw the same conclusions. So we are already off to a bad start.

Often, if the issue is technical or has many details, the call center “level one” (or whatever they call them now) is not the right person to help you anyway.

With chat, you can attach the appropriate data and the person you are chatting with can share it with the appropriate associate. Often skipping the script and getting right to the problem.

I engage in chat right often and I can honestly say, my issues are usually always resolved before the chat is over.

And that, my friends, is worth more than 2 cents!

Arie Shpanya

Online live chat can trump phone calls for a number of reasons, but as it is now, it won’t be the main point of contact just yet. No one likes to sit on hold, not sure of when their questions are going to be answered. Live chat is easier, faster, and could even improve cart abandonment rates. It has the potential to keep shoppers on the website, instead of going on to the next task while they wait for a real person.

Age could be a big factor in the adoption of live chat. Older shoppers might be more comfortable with call centers, but millennials usually want a quicker response and be more prone to use live chat.

If live chat is going to be an effective solution, support employees must be able to devote attention to one customer at a time and have a genuine conversation at any time of the day or night.

Jeff Hall

It would be interesting to better understand the distribution of age ranges across the survey respondents. It is likely those skewing younger view live chat most favorably, and would prefer this over a live agent/call center interaction. The context of the customer need also determines whether live chat or a live call delivers the best experience.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper
2 years 11 months ago


Online chat gets the consumer directly to a representative. How many companies still drag you though numerous nested levels of attendant menus until you are connected with a live person?

Chat also eliminates the “dialect” frustration. One does not hear the multiple clicks as calls are transferred to different call centers in different countries.

As long as the execution and average wait times are monitored and improved upon by the customer experience management, these are preferred processes.

James Watson
James Watson
2 years 6 months ago

Live chat is arguably the fastest way to provide support, faster than placing a phone call or submitting an email.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg said that “chat is the future of communication with businesses” as he unveiled the new Messenger for Business that allows chat operators to partner with the facebook’s platform. Judging from previous announcements by Facebook, it’s safe to say whatever decision they take, it’s likely to stick and be embraced by the tech community.

So yes, I definitely think chat is the future, and it will continue to evolve in conjunction with social media, self-service faq systems and software.


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