Online Chat: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


We’ve all seen them: those little boxes on websites that tell us we can get our questions answered by chatting with someone now.  Only about 18% of web users have actually used the chat function, according to Forrester Research. 

In the August, 2010 report by analyst Adele Sage titled How Satisfied are US Consumers with Online Chat?, Forrester came to the conclusion that we aren’t very satisfied at all.

Chat experiences, according to Forrester, disappoint consumers almost as often as they satisfy them. Why? I would think that the reason is glaringly obvious.

Those who chatted with a representative were less satisfied to begin with.  They were looking for something, or having a problem, BEFORE they clicked on the chat button.  Those who found what they needed had no need to chat with anybody. 

Then there’s the fact that the poor customer service rep at the other end of the chat line (who’s likely to be in the Philippines or India or who knows where else) required to answer any and all questions that come their way.  Let’s face it, most of us can’t answer any and all questions about anything. I certainly can’t.

I helped to set up one of the very first online help desk where consumers could ask questions about a technology product.  That was in 1984, and we routed questions from the message board to an engineer or product specialist, and promised a 48 hour turn-around time on answers. 

Back then, going online meant using a 300-baud dial-up modem and even the simplest computer cost thousands. Frankly, we had the profit margins to staff our online help desk with really good people who enjoyed the challenge of answering questions.

Those days are gone – and they aren’t coming back. Staffing levels in a technology company today are a fraction of what they were even 10 years ago, and consumer expectations are much higher than they were then. 

And instead of talking to a highly paid product engineer, they’re likely chatting to a customer service rep who is working part-time without benefits, and making little more than minimum wage.  It’s no wonder that there’s a difference between what customers want and what they get.

So here’s the good part of online chat: done well, with well-trained agents who can handle the pressure, it provides instant access to product knowledge.

Here’s the bad part of online chat: most companies don’t staff and train people well enough.

And here’s the ugly part: very few people have the interpersonal and communication skills to be really good at handling the kind of interaction that consumers want from online chat. And most of the ones who are good at it would be equally good in a more direct sales role, where they have the opportunity earn more money for themselves and the company.

I once worked with a lady known for “giving good phone” – when you had her on the telephone, you were enchanted by her voice, and she made you feel as if talking to you was the most important thing in her life. She was one of the best “bookies” (someone booking media appointments for PR clients) I ever worked with.

She planned every one of her outbound phone calls with the precision of a military campaign, and carefully researched every reporter or analyst she was going to call.

Still, no matter how often reporters and analysts asked when they were going to meet the charming lady with the beautiful voice, we never put her in the public eye.  And I don’t think she’d be a good choice for an online chat job. 

Why? Because she hated any kind of stress almost as much as she hated people.  She didn’t mind them as long as they were on the other end of the phone, but she had zero interest in meeting them face to face. Her spelling was atrocious, and her appearance and grooming were more appropriate for shopping at the 24-hour Wal-Mart after midnight than accompanying a client on a press tour. 

I haven’t seen her in years, but I remember her whenever someone talks about what it takes to deliver great customer satisfaction because she knew the answer: research, planning, and the right personality to do the job.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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6 Responses to Online Chat: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Hajra says:

    I haven’t had any experience with the chatting thing but I find the customer service a pretty funny thing to go buy. I recently bought this new Internet/ telephone connection and when my bill came pretty high I found that calls which were told to be “free” were in fact being charged. They said they couldn’t understand my accent the first time around and then I had to go through this roller coaster time to get it sorted out. Globalization is a funny thing, we just need to find ourselves around it!

    Found you through LinkedIn.

    • debmcalister says:

      That’s funny! I get told that my Texas accent is hard to understand, too! What a lovely reminder that globalization issues are, well, global! Thanks for the comment!

  2. Deb,

    I really like to be able to chat with customer service before making a purchase. It’s so much easier than putting up with being on hold….I’m disappointed when I can’t chat and have to call live.

    Chris

    • debmcalister says:

      I’ve done that, too. The best chat experience I had was with Rackspace — their online chat leads to an inside salesperson for the company, and isn’t outsourced to a third-party as so many are.

      I am starting to realize that my age may be a factor here — younger readers seem to like the online chat services a lot more than I did! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Fred says:

    Excellent article. I hate it when forced to use CHAT for customer service support.
    I am not a good speller and a slow typer or slow internet connection makes the experience painfully tideous (sp) and self concious. Heck. My cell phone makes any call affordable… toll free or not.

    • debmcalister says:

      I’m a pretty good speller, but many of the people I chat with are not. That annoys me almost as much as the fact that so many of them are just so doggone slow! Thanks for confirming that I’m not alone in feeling this way about online chat.

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