A group of call center workers are pictured sitting at their desks. There is a young man at the forefront who is wearing a headset, looking at his computer screen, and typing on the keyboard.
Live chat is not only beneficial for customers. Small businesses can harness live chat tools to qualify sales leads, cross sell products and services, and schedule meetings. — Getty Images/vgajic

Live chat isn't a new capability, but it's gone mainstream, with more than 5 million websites using live chat technologies. Consumers expect to see that small widget in the right-hand corner of a web page. They want to speak with a human when they have a question about sizing or shipping. Since many buyers multitask (shopping while cooking dinner or eating lunch), live chat is preferable to calling or emailing sales and support channels.

Real-time chat software helps small businesses reduce shopping cart abandonment and customer support costs. It also collects visitor data, informing decisions and improving outreach. Discover how live chat works and enhances your sales and customer service strategies.

What is live chat, and how does it work?

Live chat is a communication method that occurs in real time between people in a pop-up window on a company or e-commerce website. The chat feature may connect customers directly to a live representative or use a chatbot to collect information and route requests to sales or support agents. After hours, the live chat tool may be offline or redirect customers to alternative support options.

Your company may handle live chat in-house using dedicated live chat software or an all-in-one contact center platform. Conversely, you may outsource live chat by hiring a service or independent contractor. Companies wanting to provide 24/7 services often use a hybrid solution with in-house employees handling business hours and a third party managing off-hours.

Unlike instant messaging on Facebook or other channels, live chat platforms provide features beyond simply interacting with customers. For example, live chat tools track visitor movement on your website, so you can proactively message them if they click away from the shopping cart or hesitate over product details. It also shows what they're typing in the live chat box, which allows agents to prepare a reply before the visitor hits Send.

Live chat platforms let businesses use templates or canned responses, speeding up replies to frequently asked questions. Additionally, real-time chat tools collect conversation data and transcripts. Both help small businesses evaluate and improve sales and customer support services.

[Read more: Apple’s Small Business Strategy: Offer Tools to Connect, Collaborate, Scale, and Stand Out]

Kayako reported that '52% of consumers are more likely to remain loyal to a company that offers live chat support.'

How do small businesses use live chat?

People want to shop with small businesses. And you want to deliver the human touch that small companies are known for. Yet that level of service is challenging if you have a brick-and-mortar store or anything else going on in your professional life. With live chat, you can multitask and still monitor your website visitors' needs.

Live chat platforms offer deployment flexibility. For example, a local housekeeping service leverages a prechat form. Site visitors enter an email address and question. They can click to Send an Email or Begin a Chat. A specialized women's clothing company only asks visitors if they need assistance when they visit the sizing page.

Real-time chat for sales

Marketers and salespeople can connect with prospects and leads via live chat. It allows your team to approach potential buyers and offer assistance without being pushy. Since most chat platforms provide visitor analytics, you can target prospects based on site activity.

Here are ways to use live chat for sales:

  • Prequalify leads.
  • Shorten the sales cycle.
  • Upsell or cross-sell products or services.
  • Target visitors to high-intent landing pages.
  • Schedule demos or meetings.

Live chat for customer support

Real-time chat for technical and customer services is advantageous for clients and small businesses. It can reduce calls (which tie up your phone lines and employees) and emails (which take forever to prioritize).

Live chat tools integrate with your customer relationship management (CRM), payment, and help desk software, allowing personalized experiences. Each interaction is also an opportunity to direct customers to appropriate self-help tools so they can track their order or start a return without using live chat again.

Consider deploying real-time chat for customer support to:

  • Onboard new customers.
  • Handle billing questions.
  • Process returns and refunds.
  • Provide the status of an order.
  • Give shipping and delivery updates.
  • Accept payments.
  • Update address or contact information.
  • Assist with login access.

[Read more: Klarna Bets on Live Video Chats to Connect Shoppers With Businesses]

Which industries have the highest live chat satisfaction rates?

Nearly all sectors leverage live chat. However, the e-commerce, automotive, travel, and real estate industries have the most to gain from offering live chat. High-dollar purchases require high-touch sales experiences like live chat. And online shoppers expect seamless digital sales and customer support.

According to Comm100's Live Chat Benchmark Report, the average live chat customer satisfaction rate is 81.1%. The real estate sector has the highest positive customer satisfaction rate (97.7%) followed by the insurance industry (92.9%).

Core benefits for companies and customers

Live chat improves the customer journey, increasing satisfaction and experiences. One reason for this is shorter reply times.

SuperOffice noted that the average email response time is 12 hours, whereas the average live chat response time is 57 seconds, according to Comm100's report. Consequently, Kayako reported that "52% of consumers are more likely to remain loyal to a company that offers live chat support."

Real-time chat platforms integrate with CRMs, giving agents customer details, including transaction and support histories. This data enables representatives to personalize conversations, which is essential considering that "70% of consumers expect anyone they interact with to have the full context," according to Zendesk.

Aside from customer support, live chat boosts sales. An organization using Zendesk Chat for lead outreach increased conversions by 29%. Overall, 79% of businesses told Kayako that "live chat has had a positive effect on sales, revenue, and customer loyalty."

Other live chat benefits include the following:

  • The ability to communicate with multiple people simultaneously.
  • It is less expensive than phone-based support.
  • Live chat has faster response times than email or ticketing solutions.
  • It helps you decrease your churn rate.

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