Web chat finds growing adoption for tech support

In a previous post on the appropriateness of email for tech support, several folks added comments suggesting a post on Web chat, so here it is!  I think Web chat is already hugely successful in the consumer world, and I frequently use it to communicate with my wireless carrier and various eCommerce retailers.  But what about tech support?  When I first joined the SSPA 2.5 years ago, chat was hardly a hot topic with our members, and I was told repeatedly that “chat doesn’t work” for tech support. Since then, I’m slowly seeing adoption growing, with a few great success stories.

The biggest eye opener for me was a webcast I did quite a while back, in which Symantec gave their case study on a huge success with chat support. I am also working on a case study with Linksys, which mentions the work they have done to turn their chat channel from moderately successful into a highly adopted and highly rated channel. Dell also has a huge chat operation. So adoption is growing.

But not very fast. When we rewrote the SSPA Benchmark Questionnaire last year, I was successful in getting Web chat added in a few places. One of those was incidents by channel. According to the current benchmark data, 1% of consumer incidents, 0% of SMB incidents, and .1% of enterprise incidents originate via chat. So while some companies are finding chat as a great way to interact with customers, others have yet to jump into the chat pool.

From my perspective, here are the advantages of Web chat:

  • Easy transition from unassisted to assisted.When a customer is already on your Web self-service site, trying to find an answer in your knowledgebase or forum, offering a chat option is an easy way to allow them to transition from unassisted to assisted support, while keeping them in their channel of choice: the web.
  • Ability to easily control volume. The ‘click to chat’ control can be easily enabled/disabled for specific customers (like giving premium customers the chat option), or by agent capacity (too many calls/chats in queue, turn off the chat option).
  • Offshores easily. In the Symantec case study, they were able to send chat interactions offshore very successfully since there were no issues with ‘accent neutralization’ common with phone calls. I often recommend offshoring chat and email, and keeping phone calls onshore.
  • Leverages new collaboration capabilities. Chat is just one tool in a Web collaboration platform. Remote Support vendors (Axeda, Cisco WebEx, CitrixOnline, LogMeIn, NTRglobal) allow you to start with chat, then fire up a remote control session if necessary. eService collab platforms (Kana, LivePerson, Talisma) have lots of cool features like screen sharing, page push, joint form fill, etc.

Again, from my perspective, here are the disadvantages of Web chat.

  • Cost. When I was at Forrester, I talked to a support manager at one of the largest US banks, who said chat cost more than phone. Why? When they talked to a customer, they had the customer’s undivided attention. But when they chatted with a customer, the customer was often in a meeting, on a call, or just not paying attention, so the lag between responses grew longer and longer. The same problem took more than 3 times longer to resolve by chat than phone. So even if an agent can do 3 chat sessions at one time, the agent cost was higher for each chat interaction on average.
  • Applicability for tech support. I agree with some SSPA members that certain technical problems are hard to solve via chat. How can the customer explain the weird noise a device is making if they can’t talk to you?

I came up with 4 advantages and 2 disadvantages, does that mean the good outweighs the bad? In my mind, it at least make chat worth testing. Of all the channels, it is the easiest to manage a small, controlled test. Just make the ‘click to chat’ option visibile to a small number of customers.

If you do want to give chat a try, I offer a few suggestions.

  • Empower agents to pick up the phone. If chat isn’t working for a particular problem, the agent needs to pick up the phone and call the customer. A co-worker told me a horrible story about becoming frustrated trying to resolve an issue via chat, and when he said, “Will you just call me?” the agent replied, “We are chat-only agents. We don’t even have phones on our desk.”
  • Don’t go crazy with multiple sessions. Having talked to most of the US airlines and a few large retail companies about this, the average number of simultaneous chat sessions is 4. Never 5. And start agents out with 1, adding an additional session only when they can handle it. If the customer detects a lag in response time from the agent they will abandon the session.
  • Train, train, train. Linksys greatly improved chat success and satisfaction by increasing agent training. Chat communication skills are not the same as phone skills. You need to be fast, accurate and succinct. I’d suggest putting your youngest agents on chat–they are likely chat experts. Just make sure they cut the cute shortcuts/acronyms. LOL and various emoticons do not belong in business chat. IMHO. 😉

Judging from past comments, a lot of you have strong opinions on this subject. Are you using chat? How is it working? If you aren’t using chat, why not? If you have any nightmares or best practices to share, please add a comment or drop me an email. And as always, thanks for reading!

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7 Comments on “Web chat finds growing adoption for tech support”

  1. Haim Toeg Says:


    Interesting post, I was wondering when it will be chat’s time on the blog. In your e-mail post you quoted some numbers relating to resolution speed. I wonder whether you have those for chat and will be able to post them. Also, in the comments on that same post we discussed the fact that e-mail support is sometimes handled by staff (new hires, offshore centers) not qualified to handle the phone channel. In your list of pros, you list that chat is easily offshored as opposed to voice, therefore this raises two questions:
    1. How do you avoid the second class treatment of chat cases vs. phone?
    2. How do you empower agents to pick the phone and talk when they are supposedly ‘chat and e-mail’ only?

  2. jragsdale Says:

    Hi Haim;
    We do not have response/resolution times for chat in the benchmark. As you can see from the incident volume numbers I included in the post, chat adoption by our members is too low at the moment to collect. Hopefully some chat users will chime in with their results!

    You ask good questions. On the first, having dedicated, highly trained chat agents is a step in the right direction, and seems to be the common theme among the members with great chat success (Symantec, Linksys). Symantec uses an outsourced partner, e4e, for chat in India, and e4e is known for high quality (as opposed to low cost) operations. In this case, you definitely get what you pay for.

    The 2nd question is a quandry. If a chat agent in India is hired solely on typing communication skills, you are right–handing them a phone will likely exacerbate the problem. For onshore support having the agent call is not an issue. I suppose if accent/spoken English is a problem for your chat agents, you need to have a one button escalation that pushes the chat as a warm transfer to a phone agent, taking with it the chat transcript, and the phone agent can transition the interaction from chat to voice.

    Any readers want to share how you are handling this in the real world?

  3. ISPinsider Says:

    In the real world, I work for a major telco/ISP as a project manager in the tech support org. We have a large number of reps on and off shore taking phone calls and some taking chats. Ive been heavily involved with chat for a few years. Were talking millions of calls and chats over the years

    When supporting customers. Some of my take aways to date are:
    Email setup issues are very common in the chat support channel.
    Answer time of chats are usually faster than phones
    Chat is not the best method of support for every issue.
    Chats can be lengthy and more expensive than phone support.
    Some customers prefer chat over phone.

  4. Debbie Davenport Says:

    I’ve managed chat agents and the chat growth strategy for our company’s US chat tech support for over 3 years. We’ve taken chat support ‘global’ this year because of it’s popularity. From this experience, I’d like to share my experience- that differs from what I’m reading above.
    (1)We’ve consistently found that the average handle time for chat support is equal to or better than phone support.
    On the surface – chat handle time appears to be equal – however – in our organization, our phone queues have a much higher transfer rate than our chat support queues (far superior routing in chat). Transferred phone calls are shorter, thereby reducing the “average” handle time overall. If we were to remove transfers from the equation, we would see that phone handle time is actually longer (vs. equal to) chat handle time.

    2)We’ve also found that chat is less expensive than phone. Agents handle roughly 30% more customers on a weekly basis in the chat queues than in the phone queues. Bottom line, it requires fewer agents to handle the same number of customer contacts.

    BTW – we have a strong adoption of our chat support – all of our customer segments – Consumer through Enterprise are in the double digits and growing…

  5. jragsdale Says:

    Hi Debbie;
    Great information! I have talked to some folks there about the consumer chat operation but didn’t know chat had made it to enterprise support yet. From what I know about your company, I suspect you do a great job of training chat support techs, monitoring quality, and providing ongoing coaching. I think the worst chat results are in companies who see chat (or email, for that matter) as a ‘lesser’ channel, and focus primarily on the phone channel.


  6. Hi John,
    Obviously a chat session can be initiated by the browsing customer, but I recently heard of an instance whereby a colleague was struggling with a website when a chat agent came onlinie and offered to help.

    Does this mean that there are one or more agents monitoring web usage for struggling customers or is there a way to embed a monitor or trigger for organisations to alert an agent to a struggling customer?


  7. jragsdale Says:

    Hi John;
    Yes, a rule system is involved, and proactive chat is triggered when one or more rules is met. Rules are usually set to detect situations like:
    * A customer has more than $x in their shopping cart and you want to be sure any questions are answered to help move them to/through the checkout process.
    * A ‘high value’ customer is online attempting self-service.
    * A customer has been online more than x amount of time, or has viewed multiple KB entries–in other words, they seem to be struggling to find what they need.

    Additionally, anytime inbound call/email/chat traffic slows and you have agents sitting idle, you can lower the threshold for proactive chat and starting reaching out to other online customers to best leverage your available resources.


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