February 9, 2022

What to know about launching live chat support vs. live phone support

Ryan Wang
Co-founder and CEO

You don’t need to spend much more than a few minutes on LinkedIn to run into an “Our team is growing! 🌱” post. If it’s from someone in the customer support space, this post is more than an announcement that they’re hiring. It’s also a clear indication that the company’s customer base is expanding. It won’t be long before the support team starts exploring new channels of communication. 

For support professionals like you, launching another channel is an exciting prospect. But determining which channel to launch can be challenging, especially if you’ve already mastered asynchronous forms of communication — email, online forms, knowledge base, etc. — and want to get into live customer support.

Should you start with live chat support or live phone support? Exploring how other teams typically progress and comparing some nuances between these channels can help you decide which basket to put your eggs in. 

How support teams usually progress to different channels of engagement

Email might seem old school, but it’s still a critical channel of engagement. Recent research shows that 54% of customers say email is one of their top three preferred methods of communication. 

The results of our own State of Customer Support Software Survey also show that email is by far and away the most heavily used channel of engagement among support teams. There are a few potential reasons why this is where support teams (perhaps even yours) start:

  • Email is easy to set up and manage compared to other channels
  • Email is slightly more forgiving compared to live channels where customer inquiries are often more urgent
  • Maintaining service levels and building schedules is relatively simple given the asynchronous nature of email

There are other asynchronous channels support teams typically leverage as well, including online forms, knowledge bases, community forums, and FAQ pages. Not every type of asynchronous channel is right for every organization, but most support teams rely on at least a small handful of them before progressing into live channels. 

This just makes sense. Working with customers in real time is inherently more complex. Both phone and chat are more personal in nature than asynchronous communication. This means agents need appropriate training to navigate those interactions, especially when you consider how high customers’ expectations have become

Let’s compare email to chat as an example. According to HelpScout, while some customers expect a response via email within 1 hour, many people are satisfied as long as they receive a response within 24 hours. The bar is far higher for live chat, with a survey from Leadferno showing that more than 50% of customers expect to receive a response within just a few minutes.

So, how do other support teams typically proceed when delving into live channels? The results from our State of Customer Support Software Survey show companies that leverage three channels of engagement are 21% more likely to use chat than phone. 

Graphic that reads: Companies that use 3 channels of engagement are 21% more likely to use chat than phone

This likely has to do with how complex phone conversations can be. Customers often call when they’re dealing with a complicated issue that they can’t easily resolve through other means. From an efficiency standpoint, live chat is also a good option because agents can navigate multiple conversations at once. That’s just not possible — and certainly not advisable — over the phone. 

The importance of live chat support vs. live phone support

While it’s clear that support teams have a tendency to adopt chat as their first live channel, that doesn’t mean phone support is dead. Remember, there’s also the customer perspective to consider. In fact, research from Statista shows that 42% of U.S. adults prefer to resolve customer service over the phone. This compares to 38% who prefer to use digital channels and just 20% who prefer email. 

It’s also important to consider how communication preferences are changing. Yes, phone support is popular among customers, but live chat is gaining traction. According to Call Centre Helper, the portion of conversations that take place via live chat has more than doubled in the last five years. It’s unlikely this trend will go away, especially when you consider how heavily younger demographics leverage messaging apps. For Gen Z, life before live chat is ancient history. Or at least ancient tech history. 💾 📟🖨

So, if phone is currently reigning but the future is chat, which live channel should you pursue? Consider the advantages and drawbacks that Zendesk lays out:

Pros and cons of live phone support 

  • Pro: Enables more personalized connections with customers
  • Con: Less efficient given agents can only manage one ticket at a time
  • Pro: Offers the best experience for complex problems
  • Con: More difficult to scale
  • Pro: Generally faster resolution times
  • Con: Very complex to offer 24/7 support
  • Pro: Allows more in-depth analysis thanks to recordings
  • Con: Customers often face longer wait times

Pros and cons of live chat support

  • Pro: Enables agents to provide proactive support
  • Con: Can feel slightly less personal than phone
  • Pro: Somewhat easier to offer 24/7 support
  • Con: Complex issues tend to get lost in translation compared to phone
  • Pro: Greater efficiency since agents can help multiple customers at once
  • Con: Customers may be especially quick to abandon if they assume it’s a bot
  • Pro: Easier to scale
  • Pro: Transcripts are easier to analyze

With these pros and cons in mind, you can see that live chat has a slight advantage over phone when it comes to driving efficiency and enabling in-depth analyses. This matters because it means chat has the potential to significantly impact your organization’s bottom line. 

There’s also evidence to suggest that offering live chat is more likely to improve the customer experience. 

A recent Kayako report reveals that 38% of customers say they’re more likely to purchase from companies that offer live chat support. Additionally, the report shows that 51% of existing customers are more likely to buy again if the company offers live chat support, which can go a long way toward improving customer retention. Live chat also helps build rapport with customers, improve productivity, and increase customer engagement.

Graphic that lists the advantages of live chat support: allows for proactive support, enables greater efficiency, easy to scale, improves customer retention, and increases customer engagement

Sounds great, right? Before going all-in on launching online chat support, make sure you recognize some of the inherent complexities of this channel. For one, staffing requirements will look a lot different than phone or email support knowing that agents will be working with multiple customers at once — and in real time. 

Training needs for live chat are also pretty specific because it takes some practice to convey the right tone via message. You might have up to a few hours to craft a proper response with email, but you have to write responses within minutes when using chat. That can lead to some difficulties. How many times have you read a text from a friend and taken it completely the wrong way? It’s not a big deal if you mistake genuineness for sarcasm when talking to a buddy about a movie. A customer who reads a friendly comment as a slight, on the other hand, is bound for a bad experience (and possibly some nasty #CustomerService tell-all on Twitter).

There are also a few technical complications that are specific to live chat. As Kustomer points out, dropped chats require customers to start the entire process of working with an agent over again and they also have to stick with one device to maintain a continuous conversation — they can’t jump from desktop to mobile if they’re headed out the door. 

This isn’t to say providing live chat customer support isn’t worth the effort (it is!), but it does mean you need to be incredibly thoughtful as you prepare to launch. 

How to launch live chat support

Now that you’re thinking about launching live chat as your first synchronous channel, there are a number of steps you’ll want to take to ensure you and your team are poised for success. 

1. Evaluate different tools that enable your team to offer live chat support

Once you know you want to pursue live chat as your next channel of engagement, it’s important to understand whether you’ll need to invest in new software. While some support teams leverage platforms that enable them to effectively use multiple forms of customer communication, there just aren’t many solutions that excel on every channel. Revisiting our State of Customer Support Software Survey, the majority of teams using three channels of engagement rely on three distinct tools. 

Start by evaluating the tools you already use. Can you use any of them to support live chat? If so, does it offer all the features your team needs to effectively engage with customers? 

In the event that you do need to explore new software options, which is likely, make sure to keep integration top of mind. This is something that’s important when you adopt any new type of software, such as a workforce management platform or collaboration app. When it comes to live chat tools, search for ones that integrate meaningfully with the platforms you already use to ensure agents are able to do their jobs easily. If agents need to navigate back and forth between different applications and screens, the experience is lacking for both them and customers. 

As for how to go about finding a new tool that will work seamlessly with what your team already uses, many customer support platforms have already done the heavy lifting by showcasing apps and integrations they support within their “marketplace” or “store.” The Zendesk Marketplace, the Intercom App Store, and the Kustomer Apps & Integrations page are just a few examples. 

2. Give special consideration to concurrence

Live chat support differs from live phone support in one very important way: agents can have multiple conversations at once — usually referred to as concurrent chats. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Just because an agent is usually capable of handling four chats at once doesn’t mean that’s true in every instance. Some inquiries are inevitably more involved and some times of day are inevitably busier than others.

When agents are facing high contact volumes, they’re more likely to miss a few chat requests. Research from SuperOffice even suggests that 21% of all live chat support requests are never answered. 

What happens next depends on the software you use and how it’s set up. In some cases, an unanswered chat is immediately redirected to the next agent. But some tools automatically launch the chat, even if the agent isn’t prepared to handle another conversation. Because live chat is measured off first response times rather than simply accepting a chat, an overburdened agent who takes a few minutes to respond to chats can pretty quickly miss service level agreements (SLAs). 

Be mindful of this as you compare live chat tools. If you’re unable to configure a particular solution in the way that works best for your team, it’s probably better to consider other options. 

3. Set your SLAs

When it comes to SLAs for live chat, it’s a good idea to set expectations upfront. By doing this, you reduce the odds of having to change them later. The caveat, of course, is you’ll need to do some research to determine the goals your team can realistically meet on this new channel. 

LiveChat offers some benchmarks that can help you start to formulate your own SLAs:

  • Customer satisfaction score — 77%
  • Average number of chats per month — 5,691
  • Average first response time — 43 seconds
  • Average chat duration — 10 minutes and 55 seconds

Keep in mind that there can be differences based on geographic location, industry, the size of your support team, and more. Use these benchmarks as a guide, and then adjust from there. Also consider what other customer service metrics (if any) you want to track. Once you’ve fine-tuned your SLAs, your agents will know what’s expected of them the moment they begin accepting chats. 

4. Provide dedicated live chat training for agents 

Because every channel of engagement is so distinct, they all require a slightly different approach to training. This is particularly true for live chat. As we mentioned earlier, a text-only means of communication can be tricky to master. You want to make sure agents are able to convey the right tone while helping customers swiftly reach a resolution.

To get started, make sure you equip your agents with the resources they need to answer questions accurately and efficiently. That means updating your internal knowledge base and proactively communicating new product releases/updates. You should also provide some documentation that lays out best practices, including grammar tips, preferred language choices, and how to follow up after the initial conversation has ended.

You might also consider practicing some live chats with your internal team so agents can get used to crafting responses in this new channel. 

One of the best parts about providing customer support via chat is that it’s incredibly easy to go back and analyze transcripts. This means you always have the opportunity to identify areas of both strength and weakness to help agents refine their skills. 

5. Determine your staffing requirements

As you near the date when you plan to go live, it’s critical to determine how many agents you’ll need to support live chat. While you won’t have a perfect picture of how this new channel of engagement will play out, making some educated guesses to determine your staffing needs is essential for ensuring you don’t end up understaffed or overstaffed. 

You can calculate staffing needs by making a few assumptions about volume and plugging those numbers into a simple calculator, such as this one from Zendesk. But it’s even better if you use a workforce management platform that includes a robust forecasting tool. This type of feature is incredibly beneficial for support teams because you can leverage it across channels of communication and make adjustments whenever you need to. 

As your team starts to gain experience communicating with customers via chat, you’ll be able to home in on your forecast accuracy.

6. Make sure your agents feel supported

Transitioning either partially or fully to a new channel of engagement can be exciting for agents, but it can also feel a bit intimidating. Managing four or more customers at the same time can be overwhelming, and you don’t want your team to start feeling burnt out. 

What can you do to make your agents feel like you have their backs? Plenty! As a first step, make sure your team has an abundance of resources that can help them answer customer questions. In the early stages of launching live chat, managers should plan to make themselves more available to help agents navigate chat conversations. 

It’s also critical to keep an eye on metrics, not just to maintain high performance, but to keep tabs on hiring needs. If agents across the board are struggling to hit targets, it’s probably time to bring on a few new team members. 

Lastly, know that showing genuine appreciation for the work your team does means a lot to them. Make sure to recognize a job well done, whether that means sharing public kudos or giving small gifts such as coffee shop gift cards. A little thanks can make a world of difference. 

Ensure your team succeeds with live chat support

Launching live chat support — or any new channel of engagement, for that matter — is definitely an undertaking. You have to consider everything from agent training to software solutions before getting started. But so long as you approach the project in a thoughtful way, you can soon be on your way to mastering yet another channel. 

Perhaps you’ll even feel confident about pursuing live phone support in the near future.

As you continue to build out your support operations, prioritizing your agents becomes even more important. By ensuring they have the support they need, you can help improve retention while ensuring customers receive exceptional service during each interaction. 

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