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Live chat vs chat bots: which to choose and how to do it well

4 minute read

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live chat or chatbot. There are of course pros and cons to each option. We’ll take you through both options and help you to decide which would work best for your business goals.  

Building good relationships with your customers is the focus of all SMEs, and at the heart of this lies customer service. According to research by Gartner, 46% of consumers value customer service higher than price when it comes to making purchases.

For online businesses, being available to answer your customers’ enquiries instantly is a valuable service. According to Forrester research, 66% of adults feel that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do when providing good customer service.

With speed being of the essence, you have two options: live chat or chatbot. There are of course pros and cons to each option. We’ll take you through both options and help you to decide which would work best for your business goals.  

Live chat

Overview

Live chat is a customer service software that enables real-time customer support via an instant messenger widget. To get started you need to download and sign up for the live chat software of your choice (there are plenty available online). When your customers contact you for support, they’ll have the option to click on “live chat” to speak to you in real time. Then a trained support assistant can respond to their needs via the live chat window.

There are a whole host of live chat tools available online, with varying price points and capabilities. But they all seem to work in similar ways: download the software and integrate a few lines of code into the back end of your site and you’re up and running.

The pros:

  • The human interaction

According to research by Forrester, 44% of online customers say that having the option to interact with a live human during a purchase is the single most important thing a website can offer.  And with human interaction still being important to consumers, the advantage of live chat is that it allows for a natural human-to-human conversation to develop.

  • A better quality of communication

The way you communicate with your audience says a lot about you as a business, and live chat allows you to control how you do this. Even if your support assistants are following a script, you can design it to reflect your brand voice and style. 

  • Varied requests can be dealt with

For the kinds of businesses for which questions and answers aren’t necessarily straightforward, live chat allows the operator to deal with more complex queries and, if necessary, pass the query on to someone more senior.

The cons:

  • It requires staffing and training

Live chat requires dedicated personnel to be hired and trained specifically to provide support to online customers. The costs of hiring and training staff to do this must be considered when weighing up the ROI of live chat.

  • It’s not a 24/7 service

Because live chat relies on personnel to be ready to respond to support requests, it’s generally only limited to working hours and not available 24 hours a day. In a 24/7 consumer society, this is a big drawback.

  • Can’t deal with multi-lingual requests

Although the human at the other end of the support line can respond to a variety of support queries, they’re only limited to the language or languages they speak. For businesses that have a global audience, this may be a big problem.

Chatbots

With recent statistics showing that 80% of businesses will have integrated chatbots into their businesses by 2020, it seems there’s a thirst for more efficient alternatives to live support.

Chatbots are essentially AI-built programmes that are designed to simulate interactions between humans, whether written or spoken. They’re developed using Text Classifiers, Suitable Algorithms, Artificial Neural Networks and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to form a realistic impression of a real human.

There are varying degrees of capabilities available, from simple Q and A chatbots, through to complex machine-learning bots that are personalised to customers’ specific needs. 

The pros:

  • Multilingual

One of the main bonuses of chatbots is that they’re not limited by human constraints. For global businesses, multi-lingual chatbots can be installed so that support can be provided to customers in their mother tongue.

  • They process high volumes quickly

Chatbots excel in dealing with vast numbers of requests instantly. They can deal with up to hundreds of thousands of requests for support at the same time (depending on the capacity of your server) which, in an age where immediacy is key, is a valuable bonus.

  • No human resources needed

The costs saved on human resources, such as salaries and training, is considerable. With no need for a dedicated staff to man the lines, chatbots tick away with the task without any need for input from staff.

  • Business intelligence

The smarter chatbots available on the market are designed to improve customer personalisation. They collect data on your customers, learn their habits and preferences and then customise journeys accordingly. What bots lack in human interaction, they make up for in personalisation.

The cons:

  • Only responds to specific questions

The downside of automated chat is that there’s a limit to how open-ended support requests can be. Chatbots are programmed to respond to specific queries, and so the bot is unlikely to be able to respond appropriately to more unusual or elaborate lines of enquiry.   

  • Requires accurate spelling

Linked to the last point, if queries are misspelt then this can cause problems for most chatbots.

  • No human interaction

For those customers for whom human interaction is important, chatbots are rather a clinical second-best. For all their speed and efficiency, they don’t allow you to build a relationship with your customers on any level.

The verdict: the best fit for your site

Providing some level of online support is important for businesses, particularly e-commerce sites. Customer support of any kind is shown to improve the customer experience, increase conversions and encourage brand loyalty.

With the rise of chatbots, it might seem as though human-operated chat might start to disappear. But for now, particularly while there are still deficiencies in chatbots, there’s still room for live chat as an option for support.

For SMEs, the choice comes down to your type of business and the kinds of queries your customers are most likely to be asking. For straight-forward businesses for whom simple question and answer support requests are common and whose audience is large and global, then a chatbot is a good investment. However, for the more multifaceted, local businesses, live chat can provide more tailored support.

The decision also impinges on return on investment, with both requiring a monetary investment. With live chat requiring paid staff, it’s a more ongoing investment; whereas chatbots need an upfront payment (or a monthly/yearly subscription) but generally tick on without the complications inherent in HR.

There is, of course, the option to try a combination of the two, using live chat during working hours with the option of chatbots for 24-hour support.

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Charlotte Jenkins is an Oxford-based content marketer. She has several years’ experience in content writing, editing and digital marketing, helping clients communicate their businesses online.

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