lost in the desert
PHOTO: Finding Dan | Dan Grinwis

One upon a time, a long time ago, it was easy to reach out to a vendor to ask a knowledgeable human questions as part of a product evaluation process. Today, any attempt to do so will pull you into a vendor’s sales funnel and before you know it, a business development representative will be calling to qualify you as a prospective customer. 

In our attempts to avoid being sucked into the labyrinth of an inflexible sales process, we try and find answers other ways, which frequently becomes an exercise in trying to find a needle in a haystack. We dig through pages of community-generated commentary, which has taken the place of the company-produced knowledge base. We ask questions on Quora, or look for Reddit threads, all in an attempt to find answers for the questions we have about a product or vendor.

Live Chat at a Crossroads

Then came the introduction of live chat. In the spirit of “what’s old is new again,” live chat was an attempt to bring back what we once had: the ability to connect in real time with someone (or hopefully an intelligent bot) to quickly get the answers we need to move to the next step in our product evaluation/decision making process. The early days of chat witnessed a wonderful symbiosis between questioner and vendor, where the questioner was satisfied by quickly getting the answer he or she needed about a product, and the vendor was rewarded by increased conversions as questioners moved more quickly to purchase once their questions had been answered.

Live chat can deliver an exceptional customer experience when implemented correctly. In the early days, companies that added it to their websites were focused on creating a positive experience with the belief that the experience itself would lead to increased conversions.

But I worry we are at a dangerous crossroads with chat today. With prospects actively trying to avoid inside sales calls, and pressure increasing to drive online revenue, increase conversion rates, fill the sales pipeline, and reduce the cost of customer acquisition, marketers are thinking less about customer experience and more about revenue metrics as they implement and manage chat.

You can see this reflected on the chat vendor websites. Many chat vendors are now delivering value proposition statements that prioritize lead and revenue generation with customer satisfaction as a secondary value.

The danger here is that if we architect the chat experience to maximize lead generation we may end up negatively impacting the customer experience to the point that customers avoid engagement. Prospective customers will back away from engaging with vendors that overtly try to drag them into the sales funnel in the same way they’ve stopped reaching out to vendors by email and phone to ask questions.

Some of the things I’ve noticed lately which concern me: being asked to complete a full lead form before being able to engage with an agent. Worse yet, a live chat agent that wanted to ask me questions instead of the other way around, and using that chat to promote their product’s latest features. Both of these were negative experiences.

Related Article: Why I Hate Customer Service Chatbots

Focus Live Chat on Customer Experience, and All Else Will Follow

Now we have artificial intelligence being introduced into the chat experience. I shudder at thought of the potential for a negative experiences this can create. It's rare enough when Siri actually understands me, and last night I spent five frustrating minutes trying to turn off Alexa’s drop-in feature. Now I have visions of chatbots interrupting my browsing experience or leading me down a rabbit hole of irrelevant information.

To be very clear, I’m a big fan of live chat (we’re busy trying to make it successful on our own site). I’m also a big fan of automation and more importantly, increasing conversions and growing revenue. Significant innovation is happening in the live chat industry, which is exciting. However, it’s what you do with innovation that matters. When my younger, very social daughter was in middle school and dealing with typical middle school drama we used to tell her to “use her power for good not evil” in counseling her on being kind and not snarky with friends. That statement applies here. In this case, the analogous statement would be to use your chat power for good visitor experiences, not to trap them into entering a sales funnel they don’t want to be in. I firmly believe if you focus on the customer experience first, all other good metrics will follow.

A good live chat experience can lead to an immediate purchase as well as a positive brand experience that can drive repeat business and recommendations to friends.

When considering your live chat strategy and implementation, try prioritizing the customer experience. I’m convinced that is the secret to getting the business results you desire.

Related Article: A Good Chatbot Is Hard to Find