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Compare pros and cons of live chat vs. phone support

Customer experience is king, but it's up to businesses to decide what contact channels to use to deliver it. See how phone support and live chat stack up against each other.

Across the contact center world, debate ensues over what channels are the best to implement to support customers. Customer experience is the No. 1 competitive advantage in the war for customer loyalty, and transforming customer contact channels to add customer value is a key component to winning that battle.

According to Walker, a customer experience consulting firm, 86% of consumers are willing to pay more for great CX. In fact, by the year 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. But it's up to each individual contact center to assess which channels are best for business. Here are some pros and cons when considering live chat vs. phone support.

Phone support

"Mr. Watson -- come here -- I want to see you." These nine words forever changed the landscape of the world. In the 143 years since Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, his invention has been through many iterations. As a tool for facilitating business and conversation, the phone has long been the leading channel for B2B and B2C communication. Today, though, there's much discussion surrounding the phone as a delivery channel dying. As the generational composition of the consumer landscape changes, this debate will continue.

Many organizations have tried and failed to push customers from phone support to live chat -- or other electronic channels -- and 83% of customers worldwide would rather interact with a live human being than a virtual agent, according to Forbes. Chat doesn't employ bots 100% of the time, but the perception is growing that live chat isn't necessarily manned by a human being. This perception is causing customers to crave a more personalized approach, which phones can deliver.

SWOT analysis chart for phone support

Strengths

Personal connection. Because tone, inflection and emotion can be felt, customers feel a more personal connection when they speak to someone over the phone.

Handle multiple issues and questions. Agents are able to handle multiple, difficult questions and issues that require higher-order-thinking skills more efficiently and effectively than live chat.

Metrics and data. It can be easier to measure data and metrics through the telephone because it's a one-to-one interaction vs. multiple chats at one time that require systems to calculate advanced data.

Quality and service improvement. The customer's voice and emotion provides a richer input into quality and service improvement analysis.

Weaknesses

Cost. Because the telephone is a one-to-one channel, it requires dedicated support and agents to handle one customer at a time. This increases costs and can decrease productivity overall. A call can cost up to two times as much as an electronic interaction.

Time. The most-hated aspects of phone support for customers are wait time in the queue and time spent navigating through the interactive voice response system.

Documentation. What's said is not always documented; therefore, much of a conversation could be missing unless quality practices are implemented and routinely monitored.

Opportunities

Practices. Ensure that all practices are built around the customer experience, including call handling standard operating procedures, documentation and customer service training. If phone is a channel offered, focus on the components to deliver quality service.

Technology. There are many tools out there to enable full, skill-based routing; priority queuing and routing; call conversion to tickets; click-to-call; and providing real-time information to social or the website to inform customers so they don't even need to call. Are you using the latest and greatest features for your customers and agents?

Threats

Usage. If customers aren't happy with phone support and service, they won't use it, and they may complain (loudly).

Competition. If your competition has more features and functions and handles customer service via the phone better than the rest, this is a major threat.

Live chat

Live chat is a much newer technology, but has risen through the ranks fast. The rise of instant messaging in live chat took off in the 1990s with AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft all introducing their own messaging programs. These tools included features not before seen, such as video, photos, social networking integration and more. That era also introduced chat speak to the social lexicon. So, are there benefits to live chat, and is it better than phone support? What are the key differences?

SWOT analysis chart for live chat

Strengths

Accessibility. Customers perceive live chat as an option that is always there, with someone waiting on the other end to assist them quickly.

Agent productivity. Agents can handle more than one chat at a time, which increases their bandwidth to handle multiple customer interactions.

Automated responses/bots. Technology can scan for keywords and submit automatic responses, and bots can address low-level, easy questions so a human may not even need to be engaged.

Cost. Cost is lower due to agents and chatbots handling multiple chats.

Data analytics. Live chat isn't just about talking to customers; it's about understanding their needs. These tools are advanced, and when integrated with other tools, you can see what your customers purchase, where they get stuck on your site and evaluate their viewing habits and preferences. These tools can provide real-time data and inputs to the overall process to provide a proactive, positive customer experience.

What are the key components of a customer access strategy?

Before you try to decide between live chat and phone support, here are a few key customer access strategy questions to answer:

  • Is it a desired contact channel for all customer segments?
  • What types of contacts will be handled through this channel?
  • Can you offer alternatives? If yes, how? Is it a pop-up? Click-to-call?
  • What services are you offering during key hours? What's in your service-level agreement?
  • How will these contacts be routed? How will that affect your ability to meet service-level objectives?
  • Where should these contacts be routed? Which agents can handle them? Do you have documented routing procedures?
  • Are specialized skills needed?
  • What information is needed to complete requests through different channels? What legal or regulatory requirements do you have?
  • How will success be measured? What are the key metrics?
  • What framework exists related to other departments and roles needed to implement channels?

Weaknesses

Stress/burnout. While the strength of live chat is the ability for agents to be more productive by handling more than one chat, the increased volume can cause stress and burnout. In many centers, agents aren't only handling chat; they're also addressing emails and phone calls. Procedures must be in place to ensure agent workload is properly balanced and monitored.

Limitations. Due to legal, compliance and regulatory guidance, there may be times when an agent simply can't help a customer. This can frustrate both customers and agents. Businesses should make customers aware of the types of questions that can be handled through live chat, and this information should be documented in a master service-level agreement.

Time. What is your average speed to answer for chats? How quickly are you picking up and responding to chats? Again, businesses need to establish and manage these customer expectations. If agents handle multiple chats, there can be a delay in response time.

Complicated and multiple issues. There are times when trying to explain an issue or ask a question via chat just doesn't work. If there are multiple questions and complicated issues, it may be easier to explain over the phone.

Opportunities

Phone integration. Businesses should consider introducing phone integration into their chat tools. Many centers have added a "click to call me now" button within chat that alerts an agent when a customer would like to switch to another channel.

Threats

Processes and procedures. Businesses need to ensure they have the proper processes and procedures implemented to run live chat successfully, including proper scripts, documentation, workload balancing and technology to support processes and procedures. Chat's complicated. It's not as easy as just flipping a switch.

Skills. Being a live chat agent requires proper training and continued skill development, including writing, grammar, sentence structure and switch-tasking skills.

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