man holding smartphone
PHOTO: Utsman Media

Session-based live chat: a function universally disliked by customers, and it’s easy to understand why. A customer has a quick question about a product or service. The question isn’t in-depth enough to warrant a phone call but pressing enough that an answer is necessary. They visit the company’s website, hit the live chat option and are greeted with the message: "please wait while an agent is connected." The customer waits five minutes. That five turns into 10, they step away from the computer to fold laundry while they wait, and are gone for no more than five minutes. They sit back down and see an agent had replied. The customer also sees the agent has disconnected the chat due to inactivity. They sigh and start the process again.

The rigmarole and uncertainty surrounding live chat are among the top reasons why many people revert to phone calls after such an experience, which creates unnecessary cost in the contact center. And needless to say, a phone call comes with its own set of customer experience issues. 

Other common complaints with traditional live chat include a lack of follow-up, the inability to save chats in-context so a user can refer to them later, and, of course, the frustration around being forced to start from scratch — often with a different agent — after a disconnect.

Web Chat's Evolution

Thankfully web chat has evolved over the past few years, due to advances in how customer service workflows can be managed. What used to be session-based chats can now be implemented as asynchronous messaging, with asynchronous agent workflows. This is the type of messaging all of us do every hour of every day.

Asynchronous messaging is the ability to send a message at any time, regardless of whether the other party is available to immediately respond. Also, asynchronous messaging has no natural end. Both parties can always add more messages to the same thread to continue the conversation, at any time they like — even days later. In the context of customer service chats, this means you have the opportunity to establish a “perpetual thread” between your brand and your customer, which opens up an opportunity to change the type of relationship you’re having with your consumers.

Asynchronous messaging is perpetual, so customers can refer back to the information shared when it’s convenient for them. And agents can review previous conversations before taking over from a colleague, or continuing an older thread. This has the double bonus of reducing pressure and burden on staff, as customers don’t have to get in contact to ask questions previously asked. Customers no longer have to wait to be connected, there are no time-outs and customers never have to repeat themselves. This kind of chat can even span multiple messaging mediums, going beyond web chat: it can include SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter direct message, among others.

Related Article: Is Messaging the Final Frontier in Customer Service?

Comparing Session-Based Chats with Asynchronous Messaging

Some companies still haven't switched from traditional, session-based chat to asynchronous messaging — mainly due to misinformation on what asynchronous messaging really is and the benefits it provides. To clear up some of the confusion, let me outline the elements and customer bugbears of traditional session-based web chat that have been removed — or bypassed entirely — in the creation of asynchronous messaging.

Forms

This is the first red flag a customer will typically encounter: chats that start with a form versus, well, a chat. Forms are an archaic relic of customer service — they’re time consuming and frustrating for the customer who only has a quick question, and act more as a barrier than a pathway to service.

Related Article: Fix Live Chat Before it Loses Its Way

Agent Availability

The wait time to connect with an agent is another common gripe for customers using session-based chat, and it’s easy to see why. Web chat is usually marketed to customers as a quick and convenient way to get an answer to a question, so naturally, speed and convenience are what the customer expects. Unfortunately this is rarely what's delivered. Customers are often served by the same contact centers as those who handle phone calls, and as such, are subject to the same wait times as those who have called in. While asynchronous messaging does not remove the need to staff properly, it allows the customer to step away from the chat and not fear getting kicked out, which leads us to the next point:

Timing Out

Similar to agent availability, once a customer has finally connected to a chat, with traditional chat they need to stay present and respond within set time-limits to keep the chat running. This places unnecessary pressure on the customer, as they may not be prepared for the chat, or may need time to gather additional information over the course of the encounter.

Text Only

A common drawback for traditional chat is it uses purpose-built infrastructure which only allows raw text. For the customer this means if they need to provide images or photos to support their query, they have to use a different channel, such as email — and vice versa. This cross-channel communication can get confusing for both the business, with lost messages, and for the customer, who is often left unsure of whether their email has been received by the right agent.

Related Article: A Good Chatbot Is Hard to Find

Starting Again

Sometimes, a customer will ask a question and days later, forget the answer. With session-based chat, this means the customer has to start the entire session all over again, just for a simple answer, and often with a different agent who may not give the same information as the first agent.

While it’s near-impossible to ensure every customer leaves every interaction completely satisfied, the evolution of chat is something customer experience decision makers need to both be aware of and take into account when evaluating their customer communication strategies. Technology evolves to make things easier for both the customer and the business, and it’s not only financial benefits that can be reaped by shifting to newer technologies — it’s overall customer satisfaction.