21/05/2013 11:57 BST | Updated 19/07/2013 06:12 BST

To Live Chat or Not to Live Chat...

Back in the days when I was experimenting with ways to reach my customers online, I implemented live chat functionality on my website (back then there was only one). I admit, I was really quite excited by the idea of talking to my prospective customers live.But eager is as eager does and my buoyant greetings were on many occasions knocked back.

This user is now offline.

Prospective customer, gone. It seemed many weren't as excited about talking to me, as I was to them.

When doesn't Live Chat work?

Well, when it's obvious that the company has outsourced all their customer care to a developing nation many of whom have difficulty with the native language and who really don't know the site the way they should....

  • Giving play-by-play scripts to ill-qualified, underpaid customer service representatives doesn't make clients feel like they care about them - or their employees.
  • It doesn't work when the live chat, is in fact not live. No one connects with Anna the virtual assistant (no matter how hot she is).
  • And when the live chat is online, but then no-one answers. No it doesn't work.

And when your proposition simply needs different positioning (like mine did) then it won't be a 'Live chat' functionality that sells it, no matter how excited you are about your product.

Live chat can work, but in many cases, it's an annoyance that breaks the user experience by appearing too soon in the user journey. If you're going to get the most out of live chat, understand what your visitors are doing on your site - are they surfing through blog posts? You probably don't want to chat to them, and you're 99% certain they don't want to chat to you.

Gareth Cartman, Clever Little Design

When Does Live Chat work?

  • Have they visited at least 3 of your 'sell' pages or are they actively comparing products? If so, a noticeable (but unobtrusive) live chat can spark them into action. This works well for high tech offerings e.g. Microsoft where customers may need to discuss technical specifications before closing the sale.
  • Are they looking for something specific, and can't find it? You can point them there. This works well for sites which have a booking mechanism with different options e.g. for travel companies like WorldEscape (in fact anything requiring several steps to complete a purchase, because this will fox at least 80% of users)
  • Do they have an immediate need? Live chat means you're there before anyone else. This works well for healthcare and wellness industries (where many will require a 'quick fix') like Complete Online Pharmacies; a brief consultation may be what they need to choose the right product.

But don't assume having Live Chat on your home page is going to increase your conversion rate - because if you get it wrong, it could sink it.

Live chat is a powerful tool when a customer is ready to make a purchase but needs some human interaction to add trust to the process.  Customers will believe a typed message from a Customer Services Rep over the same message on the website.

Jonathan Bunney, CEO, Totally Richmond & Totally Online

 And it could be the human touch which makes all the difference between you and a competitor... if you're sure that what you are selling, is designed to meet that customer need in the first place.