Live chat is the next big thing in customer service. In the UK, however, many companies have been slow to pick up on its potential. Acting as both a customer support solution and a marketing tool, the best live chat software is a game changer in a market that’s increasingly focused on customer engagement. Howard Williams, Marketing Director at Parker Software, provider of live chat solution WhosOn, discusses the benefits on offer in today’s digital communication age.

Why Do We Need Live Chat?

Essentially, because chat is changing. The younger generation in particular is moving away from the telephone and now prefers digital communication in one of many forms. We’re texting, tweeting and emailing at our leisure – both to companies and on a personal level. Live chat is the only communication method that is truly real time. 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. Simply put, it’s the closest you can get to a real time conversation in the digital world without actually speaking.

That’s not to suggest that live chat will replace telephone conversations entirely. There will and should always be a place for this, but if you look at customer service stats you’ll usually find that 50-60% of communication is done via email. That’s where the big displacement will come. 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? Eventually we could see email removed from the equation entirely, at the end of a slow process of gradually moving towards live chat software as the most efficient service.

Customers are used to getting in touch with companies with one click. If you don’t have live chat, you can’t communicate quickly and might lose customers as they try to find other ways to contact you. From a customer perspective, you’ve already started off on the wrong foot without a live chat option.

Few companies are now offering live chat in the UK, despite the fact that business success in 2015 is all about engaging with customers and building relationships. Businesses using these tools are able to not only fulfill this need but also gain valuable insights, get customer feedback, discover what people are browsing for on a website, what issues they might be having and how visible solutions are. Live chat is more intimate than a social media message, yet at the same time it’s completely unobtrusive. Users can multi-task while monitoring a live chat session and still get fast answers to their questions, which is not usually possible with alternatives such as telephone or email.

How Has It Begun To Penetrate The UK Market?

Slowly, but surely. The UK is still behind the US market – many US contacts actually consider it strange not to have live chat. A study from last year indicated that just 20-30% of UK companies are currently using live chat, compared to about 70% in the US. 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. It’s just a natural progression towards a new and emerging standard, and issues will be addressed as more businesses gain confidence.

Major retail sites incorporating live chat will also drive the market. Big brand buy-in will give more people access to live chat, making it widely known and understood. It’s also vital to use it correctly – buying and deploying live chat but having it hidden somewhere onsite will not realise its potential. We are seeing pickup in certain areas, including recruitment agencies, universities and IT support, which highlights live chat’s diversity. It’s traditionally thought of from a retail perspective, but encouraging more verticals to adopt live chat as part of their communications strategy is important as it gives a cutting edge against competitors.

What Are Companies Demanding From Live Chat?

Because of perceived nervousness, one of the main things we’ve seen companies demanding is someone who knows live chat inside out. If we’re to increase the presence of live chat in the UK, it’s important to not just deploy it and walk away but offer ongoing support to help customers achieve success. Much of our growth as a business over the last two years has been through the use of our professional services team. We send out experts to properly train staff on effective use of software, configuring it to meet their needs. The most important thing here is credibility; that companies can trust a provider to get them up to speed with the product and all that it can do.

In other cases, people who look at live chat from the inside of the market are interested in increased sales and conversions. This means that having a robust, intelligent prospect detection solution as part of your service is going to be majorly important. 95% of people who contact us are just thinking of a text box on their site that allows customers to communicate with their company. While that’s a large part of what live chat does, it’s only really scratching the surface of its full potential. Overall there’s a lack of knowledge about what a proper live chat solution can do. Really, it would be better coined as a “digital engagement solution”.

How Do Live Chat Solutions Vary?

I would say that the vast majority of live chat solutions out there are very simplistic. They allow customers to engage with an agent if they’re online, and have the ability to send a generic chat invite out to anyone who’s on their site. There are only a handful of providers who can claim to offer a true digital engagement solution. This includes things like prospect detection: not just sending out an invite to anyone, but targeted messages to people at the right time and the right point of their customer journey. This requires an advanced tracking solution and is a key differentiator, allowing companies to monitor user activity and get a feel for customer identity and behaviour.

From the customer service side, benefits like CRM integration and the ability to work alongside other systems within a call centre (be it telephony, Office 365 or a customer service department) is vital. For others, features like chat translation are increasingly important for multi-lingual societies. The ability to communicate in real time with people in whichever language they speak has obvious benefits for both businesses and customers. There are also big cost savings to be made by moving people from the telephone to live chat. From a call centre perspective, it’s entirely possible to take on six or seven chats at a time, especially with features such as canned responses – prewritten solutions to common problems that can be copied and pasted.

We’ve recently introduced intelligent response, which takes this a step further by proactively scanning a user’s chat data to suggest possible solutions to problems in real time. Not only does this dramatically speed up operator response time (and therefore customer satisfaction), there’s also less chance of error as these responses can be pre-approved for accuracy.

You’ll also find live chat solutions that are more internally focused. We’ve got lots of customers that use live chat from an internal perspective, which could be an IT helpdesk, support desk or a forum where customers can interact. It might involve a ticketing system that can generate alerts when a ticket is overdue, or the ability to assign a chat to a supervisor or specialist for assistance. Chats can be monitored to, for example, flag negative words or selected words to a manager, who can then join and intervene if necessary. Then there are reports, which can be a great benefit to training. Learning how long someone has spent on a chat and the source of any delays can be a great way to get feedback to a customer service teams. Plus, finding out who is quickest or slowest at responding is a great opportunity to offer additional support where needed.

What’s The Future Of Live Chat?

We can expect to see better integration of live chat with existing services. Facebook is introducing a system in which customers can communicate on Facebook Messenger with a business via their own live chat system. Google has talked about integrating live chat with its AdWords results, allowing users to launch a chat directly. We’re already at a stage where digital communication with businesses outweighs telephone communication, and live chat is set to become the biggest part of this digital segment.

The key factor in this success moving forwards is integrating all touch points together. Essentially live chat will no longer be a separate, distinct channel but will be embedded within a digital communication framework. Email, social media and other forms of digital communication will all take place within a single client, with users able to deal with this range of mediums from one place.

With advanced live chat, customers can expect completely tailored online experiences based on their typical behaviour. This could include changing the content or design to match an individual based on their browsing history, but could also go a step further to integrate live chat, making every customer experience tailored to their habits. In doing so companies can improve the effectiveness of their customer engagement, recommending suitable products or services or simply building rapport. Live chat can deliver very real opportunities to businesses. This isn’t just in terms of improving customer service and customer satisfaction, but also in generating valuable insights into customer demand and feedback on their products and services. Who wouldn’t want to benefit from that?