A young customer service representative is seated at a desk in front of his laptop. He is smiling while he types a message on his computer keyboard.
Many live chat tools offer free plans, but upgrading to paid plans supports more agents and conversations, chatbots, and social media integrations. — Getty Images/Westend61

Live chat software enables real-time communication between website visitors and your business. It can improve customer experiences, increase sales, and lower operating costs.

However, live chat features vary among applications and subscription tiers. Some vendors offer free versions with limited customization and premium options. Paid live chat tools have advanced capabilities, like detailed agent analytics.

Aside from functionality, mobile and browser-based chat apps differ in their ease of use, security features, and third-party software integrations. Explore live chat features to learn about your options and then check out providers offering small business live chat software.

Standard live chat features

Live chat applications typically offer core features with all accounts. Certain capabilities vary by subscription tier, like the length of chat history or number of conversations. Although paid plans allow chat widget customization, some free versions, including HubSpot's free live chat tool, retain the vendor's label unless you upgrade to a paid plan.

Common live chat features include the following:

  • Mobile accessibility for agents and consumers, like mobile apps and mobile-responsive chat boxes.
  • File-sharing capabilities let visitors and representatives share links, media, and files.
  • Web dashboards that provide real-time information about agent activity, customer satisfaction scores, and the number of concurrent conversations.
  • Basic visitor information, such as name and email address.
  • Audio and visual notifications to alert agents when a web visitor requests assistance.
  • Chatbox customization allows businesses to add branding, change the button style, and more.
  • Canned replies triggered by a shortcut key, such as "We're fixing the issue now."
  • Basic reports and analytics showing the last seven days of live chat activity, missed chats, and average wait times.

Security features

Standard live chat security features include encryption for agents and customers, which keeps information sent and received confidential. Vendors also use secure data facilities for storing customer information and chat transcripts in the cloud. Some companies comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards, upholding data privacy rules.

Other security tools vary by provider and may include:

  • Credit card masking: This feature detects when users enter credit card information. It only shows the digits your business requires for identification.
  • Two-step verification: With two-factor authentication, your agent inputs credentials and the software sends a code to their email or smartphone.
  • Visitor blocking: Spam, bots, and disruptive users can waste your time and session credits. Most live chat software lets you block users or IP addresses.
  • User permissions: This tool allows administrators to set different access levels for supervisors and agents, ensuring each employee can use but not abuse the software.
  • HIPAA compliance: Several tools and features support the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The software may redact visitor information from transcripts, gather prechat consent, and encrypt data at rest.

Since pricing and features vary greatly, it's essential to understand what challenges you want to solve and find a chat platform purpose-built for your needs.

Software integrations

Many live chat applications integrate with third-party software. Customer relationship management (CRM) integrations provide customer information without requiring agents to switch between apps. Connections to business phone systems and video conferencing tools let employees escalate a live chat to a voice or video conversation with one click. By syncing your real-time chat software to help desk or CRM systems, you can record interactions and create a ticket to streamline the support process.

Other software integrations may consist of:

  • Application programming interface access.
  • Social media channels.
  • Content management systems and online stores.
  • Contact and call center software.
  • Third-party support centers.

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

Advanced live chat capabilities

Several live chat providers use a tiered pricing model with higher-priced plans offering sophisticated features. More expensive packages usually include artificial intelligence and automation tools, like chatbots, to greet and route site visitors. In addition, many help desk platforms provide live chat and messaging functionality. Companies needing sophisticated customer support capabilities may prefer an all-in-one system as an alternative to a stand-alone live chat tool.

Look for solutions with features such as:

  • Automated greetings and answers.
  • A sales tracker.
  • Real-time metrics and statistics.
  • Agent groups, queues, and routing options.
  • Customer satisfaction surveys.
  • Chatbots.
  • Real-time translation.
  • Cross-team chat transfers.
  • Lead scoring.
  • Real-time typing view.

Live chat software solutions for small businesses

Several providers offer free live chat software for one or more agents and 100 monthly conversations. Paid subscriptions start at $7 per agent monthly with annual billing.

Basic plans store chat history for seven to 30 days, whereas enterprise tiers can retain it for years. Some solutions offer more features for sales, while others focus on customer support. Since pricing and features vary greatly, it's essential to understand what challenges you want to solve and find a chat platform purpose-built for your needs.

Check out the following live chat platforms:

  • Smartsupp: It's free for one agent, 100 conversations, and 14 days of conversation history. Paid subscriptions start at $19.50 monthly, with annual billing for three agents and unlimited conversations. Smartsupp offers chatbots, customer satisfaction ratings, detailed visitor information, automatic messaging, and routing tools.
  • Freshchat: Ten operators can use Freshchat for free with unlimited contacts. Paid plans start at $19 per agent monthly, with annual billing. Subscriptions include 500 chatbot sessions, social media integrations, canned responses, file attachments, and advanced workflow management. Additionally, Freshchat supports scheduled, targeted, and triggered emails.
  • Zoho SalesIQ: The free version supports three operators and 100 monthly discussions. It includes 30 days of chat history and 25 canned replies. Paid plans start at $7 per agent monthly, with annual billing for 1,000 conversations. Zoho SalesIQ subscriptions come with custom chatbots, click-to-call tools, and social media integrations. Alternatively, Zoho Desk provides a live chat feature for customer service teams.
  • HubSpot: Live chat is one of several free tools HubSpot offers, and it comes with Marketing Hub Starter and Professional subscriptions. The free version has HubSpot branding, whereas paid plans allow customization. It supports unlimited conversations in a central inbox in HubSpot's free CRM.

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