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By now, those of us who use the internet regularly are familiar with a live chat experience. You can initiate a live chat on practically any website that sells or supports something. The live chat UI is pretty standardized with conventional elements: a field for the user to type in her query or information and a “Send” or “Enter” button to send/submit what was typed to the agent or customer service representative on “the other side.” As the chat or conversation continues, the user and the agent responses are visually distinguishable with time stamps, customer name and agent name or roles represented, and additional graphic elements to further separate the two, such as colored backgrounds and horizontal rules, are often implemented. Like I stated, pretty standard stuff.

Recently during a live chat “optimization” project, I was asked if any of the recommendations I made were based on a “heuristic analysis” of other chat experiences across the site (it’s a large site with lots of different product groups). The answer was No, partially because that was beyond the original scope of the project, but also because the other chat experiences were standardized. It did, however, get me thinking about what makes a live chat experience successful for both the user and the customer service representative? Is it the UI? Is it the context and placement of all the chat elements, starting with the chat button? Or is it the human element – the  personality, empathy of the agent?

The answer is, all of them.

Starting with the live chat UI, it should meet the expectation of the site’s visitors. While the UI design should align to standards and conventions (discussed above), audience familiarity also needs to be taken into consideration. For visitors unfamiliar with the concept of live chat, it may mean more emphasis on directions/information to set proper expectations, whereas a site with more savvy users wouldn’t require such emphasis, and minimal direction is likely appropriate.

If the site has more than a single live chat experience (they do exist), unifying the look and feel of all the UIs under a single brand standard with a secondary nod to the product look and feel shouldn’t hurt the consumer experience. It would most likely enhance the perceived brand value. But implementing and maintaining a standard UI is also imperative as well.

In my search for what’s out there on live chat user experience, I came across an article on Usability.com that discusses a best practice, holistic approach to chat, starting with the look and feel of the chat icon button, the availability and placement of the live chat option, and content and interface design of the live chat screen.

Look and feel of Live Chat icon

Live chat buttons/graphics/tiles vary across sites, and deciding what type of visual representation to adopt should depend on the demographic segment of the site’s target visitors. However, if the site has a broad swath of gender, culture and geography, than a gender- and culture-neutral icon or text link may be more appropriate.

Availability and placement of the Live Chat icon

Some sites attempt to aggressively establish live interaction with their site visitors by presenting visitors with a chat window within a few minutes of visitors arriving at the site. This could become a distraction which may cause visitors to leave the site altogether. To that end, discretion should be used when considering whether to push unsolicited live chat onto visitors.

Many retail sites choose to place the chat option link in the text links area at the bottom of site pages and the homepage (often within a Customer Service category of links). Placing the chat link at the bottom of the page still gives access to the option, it may be easily overlooked or unnoticed. Users may think the live chat option doesn’t exist.

However, there is an emerging trend of placing the chat feature in the general area of the top navigation bar could serve visitors better by making the chat icon fairly inconspicuous, but at the same time giving it more visibility than a text link located within the page footer.

Many retail sites are placing the chat option in the vicinity of “Add to Cart” buttons on product pages, as well as possible points within the site where customers may need to seek answers to questions, such as the Check out process, as well as Help, Customer Service and Contact us. Placing the icon next to the search field may also increase the visibility of the chat option, as search typically generates a significant amount of use.

Content and User Interface design of the live chat screen

Once visitors access the chat functionality, the site needs to provide them with a user-friendly and seamless user experience. Usability.com gives us the following guidelines to be mindful of:

  • Avoid requiring users to enter personal information such as their telephone number and email address, as this may discourage users from initiating the chat.
  • When a visitor initiates a chat, ideally, a representative should be available to respond immediately. If that is not possible, the visitor should be shown a message displaying the estimated wait time.
  • In situations where representatives have to leave the chat momentarily to check records or obtain additional information, ensure the representative informs the visitor of this by saying something to the effect of “Give me a moment and I will check that for you.”
  • When representatives are typing their response, display a message on the chat screen that reads, “Representative is typing a message.” This will keep visitors informed and they will be less likely to question a delay in response time due to a lengthy message.

You could leave it at placement, look and feel, availability, and best practices UI. But in a live chat experience the customer/visitor is interacting with and having a conversation with another human being. How can that exchange NOT affect a successful user experience?

Recently, Netflix made headlines when one of its customer service chat representatives took on the persona of a Star Trek captain during a live chat. Mike Mears, a Denver-based Netflix customer service rep and fan of Star Trek started a chat with “Norm,” a Netflix customer who was having problems with streaming “Parks and Recreation.” “Norm” played along, and both stayed in character the entire time.

In any other company, this might have gotten Mears reprimanded or fired. But apparently not at Netflix. The company doesn’t allow its agents to follow a script and supports the agents letting them be themselves. Apart from asking customers to take a one-question survey at the end of a chat, the agents can say whatever they want, joke with a customer, and do their absolute best to relate to the customer all while solving their problem successfully (transferring the customer to another agent is discouraged).

Once upon another lifetime I worked for Nordstrom, and while I never had a customer try to return any tires, the mantra of “ownership” was loud and clear. Literally, the only rule we followed was build the best customer service relationship ever. Later in life, I did a stint as phone customer service representative for a large insurance company and then a water sports company. The difference between customer service as culture vs a department was never more obvious.

Which brings me back to live chat experience. Any online company can implement a branded, targeted, best practices chat experience.  But don’t overlook the power of the human element at the other end of the chat experience. At any given moment, chat agents are the company representative. A poor chat experience can affect the how the customer perceives the company. (Not to mention, the company may want to reevaluate the chat agent job requirements and training).

Failure to give the right representatives ownership and authority to solve problems means the overall user experience of the live chat will only be partially successful, if at all.