How to Screw Up Live Customer Chat (and How to Fix It)

One-to-one interaction with a customer service rep can make or break a brand. I’ve discussed this before in the context of written letters. Let’s look at a more interactive technology: live chat.

Live chat is a great sales tool and a terrific way to provide stellar customer service. It’s more scalable than a call center because live chat technologies usually allow the call service rep (CSR) to conduct multiple chats simultaneously, dramatically improving the ability to service more people per hour. Unless, of course, procedures actively work to destroy the customer experience rather than improve it.

Today, we’ll look at a few ways live chat can ruin the customer experience. I’ve also included a preliminary checklist for implementing an effective live chat feature.

Ensure the CSR Doesn’t Read the User’s Question or the Session Log

This is a personal pet peeve. My early pedigree is in personalization systems and personalized user experiences. A fundamental personalization principle is “never make your users repeat themselves.”

This problem occurs online, on the phone, and in live chat. It’s evidenced online by blank forms that should be prepopulated with existing information (such as user name, if the user’s already signed in). On the phone, it happens when the CSR asks for your telephone number or account number, even though you entered it during the automated portion of the phone call.

In live chat, this happens in two different places. Most chat systems require you to enter your name and a question before the chat begins. That way, the CSR already knows what the problem is and can start helping you right away. Here’s a snippet from a recent conversation I had via live chat with eFax:

You are now chatting with “Cynthia J.”

Cynthia J.: Welcome to the sales team! I’m Cynthia, your online Sales Representative. How can I assist you today?

Jack: hello. I accidentally added a fax number to my account. I thought I would have the option to choose from a selection of numbers before committing. i don’t want the additional number but don’t see how to delete it.

Cynthia J.: We have a special support team to assist you with the cancellation process. I will transfer the chat to this support team.

Jack: ok

Please wait while I transfer the chat to the best suited site operator.

You are now chatting with “Gary G.”

Gary G.: Hello, Member. Welcome to j2 Global Communication Online Support. I am Gary, your online live Support Representative. How may I assist you?

In this example, I have been asked to explain my problem three times. I typed the problem into the system when I initiated the chat session. I repeated it to Cynthia. Then I was transferred to Gary, who asked me to repeat it again.

Is the problem they didn’t read the conversation log before chatting with me? I think it’s simpler than that. Currently, the templated greeting message reads:

Welcome to the sales team! I’m Cynthia, your online Sales Representative. How can I assist you today?

A content creator actually changed the user workflow. If the greeting had been different, the entire experience would’ve been different. Here’s another version that works better:

Welcome to the sales team! I’m Cynthia, your online Sales Representative. Give me a minute to review your question, and I’ll do my best to assist you.

This greeting makes it clear the first action should be done by Cynthia, not me. It also signals Cynthia will read the question I already wrote. Similarly, this would signal to Gary to read the log file instead of asking the same questions Cynthia did.

Don’t Allow the CSR to Type Anything Himself; Insist on Templates Only

I had accidentally added a second fax line, which I wanted removed from my account. But eFax doesn’t have a template response to that question. The closest automated response it has is for someone who wants to cancel his account entirely. Here’s a snippet of my conversation:

Jack: hello. I accidentally added a fax number to my account. I thought I would have the option to choose from a selection of number before committing.

Gary G.: I am sorry to hear that you wish to cancel. Could you please provide me your eFax number and the PIN for verification?

Jack: i don’t wish to cancel. i wish to have one of my numbers removed from my account

Gary G.: Okay.

Jack: [inputs information]

Gary G.: Thank you for the information. Please give me a moment while I quickly check your account. In the meanwhile, may I ask why you are canceling your fax number?

Jack: I already said this twice, but I will say it again: I accidentally added a fax number to my account. I thought I would have the option to choose from a selection of numbers before committing.

Gary G.: Since you have already paid for the current billing cycle I would sincerely suggest you to keep your account till then.

Jack: oh my goodness. I am NOT canceling my account.

Gary G.: Alright, I will cancel your account right away. We are sorry that you have decided to leave eFax, but if your faxing needs do change in the future, we would be more than happy to have you back. Thank you for being with us and for using our service.


Gary G.: I mean to say the number only.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this interaction. The most fundamental is templates cannot cover every possible scenario. I think Gary actually understood what I wanted, but he couldn’t find a canned response that fit. So he kept picking responses that were “close.” I’m not sure whether he just didn’t want to type his own responses or he’s directed not to. Either way, CSRs must be given the freedom to type their own answers when a canned response doesn’t exist.

Further, it’s painfully obvious when a canned response is used. All responses must be written in a manner that reflects the company’s brand. Interactions with JetBlue should have a different style than those from Citibank. The companies have different personalities. They should be reflected in all customer communications.

Live Chat Can Be a Great Asset

When properly implemented, live chat can be a great tool for providing immediate customer service and support. To implement live chat correctly, the following steps must be taken — at minimum:

  • Anticipate and script as many user scenarios (use cases) as possible. This will avoid the problem above, in which no canned response really fit.
  • Write all responses in the brand, voice, and style of your company. Otherwise, the user feels as if he’s talking to a robot.
  • Make sure all CSRs read the information input by the user and review the log before responding to the user. If CSRs ask the same questions repeatedly, it ruins the chat event. If I wanted to repeat myself, I’d have phoned the call center and told my story to everyone to whom I was transferred.
  • Make sure the CSRs understand the brand and voice of your company. This gives them a better idea how to answer questions when there are no canned responses. As a corollary, empower CSRs to type their own responses instead of restricting them to the canned responses.
  • Implement a QA service so a team reviews chat logs. This will hopefully provide insight as to what use cases should exist and what CSRs do wrong. I hope someone at eFax reviewed the log of my conversation. It points out many problems with its live chat implementation. After reviewing logs, QA should be able to create best-practice guidelines to help CSRs in the future.

These are the basic, minimal steps to creating an effective live chat feature on your Web site. Though the list goes on from here, these five steps will ensure users have a better experience with your company than I did on my last live chat session.

Until next time…


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