Introduction and e-commerce

What’s up with Millennials? They never talk, just chat. Endless one-line text messages and – if you’re lucky – the odd email is how many people now communicate. SMS, iMessage, WhatsApp , Facebook Messenger, SnapChat; their popularity should be enough to convince businesses that live online chat is now a no-brainer in terms of communicating with a sizeable chunk of people. So why are as little as 20% of businesses in the UK and Europe using live chat on their websites and apps to talk to customers?

Phone-centric chat software is vitally important

How important is live chat to e-commerce?

Did someone say ‘game changer’? Throughout society chat is evolving across multiple platforms and apps, and it’s almost always real-time. Texts, tweets and emails are unreliable – they can go unanswered for days, or disappear in overfull inboxes. Cue live chat.

“You can have a digital conversation with someone without the risk of a text not going through or a tweet not being picked up by a social monitoring tool – it’s the closest you can get to a real-time conversation in the digital world without actually speaking, “says Howard Williams, Marketing Director at Parker Software , whose live chat software called WhosOn is used in over 100 countries in 40 different languages.

Canned response tools are useful for common live chat topics

Multitasking agents and marketing

Agents in call centres are trained to answer queries as fast as possible, but what if they could take on multiple customers simultaneously? That’s the thinking behind live chat as a money-saving exercise, though it does mean excellent training must be a priority. “A well trained live chat agent can handle six to eight customer dialogs at once,” says Williams. “This allows you to free up resources in telephony centres and provide support that’s both comprehensive and effective.”

What about call centres, email and social media?

If live chat does turn out to be tomorrow’s critical business tool – and it certainly is not that yet – it will probably be at the cost of email. That’s not to suggest that live chat will replace telephone conversations entirely. “Between 50-60% of communication is done via email – that’s where the big displacement will come,” says Williams, who thinks there will always be a place for telephone conversations. “Why would you wait a day for a response to an email when you can literally deal with it in real time, then and there?” he adds, predicting that we could see email removed from the equation entirely.

Twitter provides a direct link between a company and its customers, but the ‘dirty washing’ problem will not go away; most corporate Twitter accounts are plagued by irate customer rants. The problem? There’s no conversation.

Selecting your live chat software

Why has live chat not caught on in the UK?

About 70% of businesses in the US have live chat, but it’s oddly absent from the mainstream business sector in the UK and Europe. But why?

“Potentially there’s nervousness around pushing large amounts of call centre volume towards live chat and getting staff properly trained up on how to use it, but that could easily be resolved by providing more comprehensive training,” says Williams. “It’s just a natural progression towards a new and emerging standard, and issues will be addressed as more businesses gain confidence.”

So far it’s been most popular with recruitment agencies, universities and IT support – which demonstrates the concept’s versatility – but Williams thinks the tipping point will be when major retail sites incorporate live chat into their websites, saying: “Big brand buy-in will give more people access to live chat, making it widely known and understood. ”

For smartphone users, the online contact form has zero appeal

How to choose live chat software

Platforms that host and handle live chat are not just Skype and WhatsApp in a different wrapper. Good software will produce statistics on customer activity, it will help to identify common customer complaints that could lead to a better website or product being developed, and it will include canned response tools to save time, too (after all, no agent wants to physically retype advice on resetting passwords – always the most frequent question asked by customers).

Since it’s much easier to mine a text document for keywords than go through recorded phone calls, it’s easy to identify common requests. So is real-time document exchange; that contract, statement, form or product manual can be zapped across during – and within – the chat.

Going global

Live chat can also do something few businesses consider – remove the language barrier and open up the global market. “An effective live chat solution lets you speak your customer’s language,” says Williams, and that’s not something a call centre usually offers. “Chat translation is done in real-time, ensuring that both the agent and customer are able to communicate comfortably, and without delay.”

Howard Williams, Marketing Director at Parker Software

The multichannel chat future

Is live chat merely a precursor to the ‘multichannel customer experience’? For now it’s about real-time, instant online support, but digital customer assistants could soon take it to the next level by incorporating face and voice recognition.

In its report ‘Top Strategic Predictions for 2016 and Beyond: The Future Is a Digital Thing’, analyst firm Gartner predicts that future customer interfacing “will mimic human conversations, with both listening and speaking, a sense of history , in-the-moment context, timing and tone, and the ability to respond, add to and continue with a thought or purpose at multiple occasions and places over time. ”

The report states that once face and voice recognition technologies become common and ubiquitous across all kinds of platforms as easy ways of searching for products and sorting through data, customers will be more than happy to use them. “This signals an emerging demand for enterprises to deploy customer digital assistants to orchestrate these techniques and to help ‘glue’ continual company and customer conversations,” reads the report.

From 2015 those scenarios might seem far-out, but we already know that the use of digital communication platforms like Twitter and even websites themselves are not about tech for the sake of it. With Millennials and digitally native customers on the rise, using the latest popular messaging and communication techniques could be about staying relevant – and surviving.