Making live chat for customer services work in the real world

Live chat has quickly become a key channel for customer services, but there are still plenty of CS teams looking for ways to use it more effectively.  Here are some real world tips we’ve picked up in our live chat work to get the best from chat – and avoid the most common pitfalls.

The difference between literacy and communication

It’s a tricky medium to use well.  It demands that your customer services reps are not only properly literate, but that they’re able to communicate effectively.  That’s not the same thing at all.

For example, someone literate reads a customer’s question in a chat and responds.  A communicator actively ‘listens’ for the real meaning, maybe probing with a couple of well-phrased questions.

Is the customer annoyed and needing smoothing down?  Should I change my tone here and be a little less formal?  Does this customer mean what she says or is she actually asking a more important question – is she really thinking about leaving?  

Customers often don’t set out precisely what they want in a chat, so it’s down to your team to ‘listen’ forensically and extract the meaning – and the emotion.  And don’t be afraid to check back with the customer and make sure you’ve got it right.

When they’re writing, good communicators are concise – so they’re much faster.  With more accurate, condensed writing you should be able to reduce your time in chat by at least 40%.

Taking the right tone in live chat conversations

Your teams will develop a written tone of voice whether or not you train them in tone.  Problem is, for most people, the last writing training they did was at school or college, working on essays and papers.  At work, they’ll have been taught to write ‘professionally’.  This usually means writing in a slightly distant, cold, emotionless language with plenty of jargon.

That’s not the tone of writing customers want – they’re after something more informal, warmer and more human.  It still needs to be professional and linked to your brand – so the challenge is helping your teams find and use a tone of voice that works.

A quick, real world example:

“I would like to just to make you aware that, for your protection, I will be taking you through our security procedures to validate your identity…”


“Just a couple of quick security questions…”

The first is perfectly correct, but it makes you seem remote and robotic.  And it takes a lot longer to type, if indeed it hasn’t been lifted straight from a canned response library.  The second is much more human – more as you’d speak.

Some businesses try to take their marketing tone of voice and use it in customer services.  That can present insoluble challenges for customer services reps – imagine having to try to tell a policyholder that their policy has lapsed in an “upbeat, inspiring and inspirational” way.  It’s not going to win you any friends.

Straight, clear English is the way forward – and avoid idiom (phrases like “the ball is in your court now” or “the best thing since sliced bread” that a non-native speaker might not understand) if you can. Many customers may only have English as their second language and struggle with idiom.

More people struggle than you think

Nearly 20% of the UK’s population are functionally illiterate (National Literacy Trust). They can read at a basic level, but any text designed for an average 11 year old will stump them.  That means calling a house or flat a ‘demesne’ or talking about ‘fully validated policies…’ or ‘discussing your entitlement…” will throw them.

It’s not just vocabulary and idiom though.  Structure can phase customers too.  An example from a livechat with an energy company:

“We confirm that your premium (or the balance of your premium if you have paid a deposit) has been applied retrospectively to your Budget Account, and as a result your payments will be £51.91 per month over 11 months unless varied.”

It’s about using clear, human language that explains in a way your particular customers will understand.  And that needs evaluating separately for every customer – some will be happy with more complexity than others.

Standard phrases and canned responses

Standard phrases and canned responses are invaluable – they’ll save a lot of time, thought and effort.  But, like all standardised communication, you need to find a balance.  Unthinkingly stitch a series of canned phrases together and you get this (another real world example):

“I see. I’m sorry. I apologise. For us to assist you further with your technical concern, please call our Technical Team using your mobile at 0000 00000 000…”

It’s so important to give your team training in how to use canned phrases and when to ignore them and write their own material.

It’s also well worth getting a proper customer services writer to work with your CSRs to produce your canned phrases. They’ll be unfamiliar with your internal jargon and phrases, so they’ll challenge them and produce clearer, new material.

Keeping it fresh

Once you have your standard phrases or paragraphs, you need to maintain the library.  If you’re in a regulated industry, put a date in the diary for every three months to review them for compliance.  Otherwise, six months should be often enough to keep them current.

Give every phrase a ‘use by’ date when it comes up for review.  And if there’s a better one that matches what customers are asking now, delete the old one from the system. Keep your canned phrases under review, not just to delete the old and tired, but to add new, better terms.

Get the right people on live chat

Don’t assume that a good phone person is a good live chatter.  The best live chat CSRs are usually your natural writers; the team members who’d rather email a customer than pick up the phone.  But with the right live chat training, almost any of your team should be able to use live chat well. It’s not a quick transition from the phone to the keyboard though.

And if you can get volunteers to work with live chat, they’re nearly always better than conscripts.

On or offshore?

Often, you’ll be dealing with a third-party live chat supplier who’s based offshore.  If that’s the case, be upfront about it with customers.

“Hi, I’m [name] and I’m based in [city] in [country].  We’re using the same systems and training as our UK colleagues, but if you want me to divert you to one of the UK team, I can.  Just let me know.”

Scripts like that have worked very well in reassuring customers that they’ll get the service they want – and very few customers choose the UK option.  And they’re far less resistant to offshore customer service if they know right from the start your service centre is offshore.

Where next for live chat?

Live chat has huge potential to allow you far more flexibility in the way you look after customers.  It works for them too – they can ‘call’ you on the train, in the supermarket queue – wherever there’s a signal. But it’s not simple to get right.  Your live chat team need to be highly literate communicators who understand how customers work, how to draw out what they really want and present the answers quickly, humanly and clearly.

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