Is it time to give up on live chat?

We want everything faster now than we did ten years ago. “Please wait four to six weeks for delivery” has changed to “downloading now” in the music space, and the old-fashioned book-of-the-month club has morphed into electronic books available on demand. The result, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that we buy much more “stuff” now that we can get it quicker.

The “get it now” revolution has taken over our communication needs as well. Voice mail feels like the Pony Express at a time when GenX and GenY consumers are using email less (because it’s too slow). More and more “always available” is an expectation, not a novelty.

A few years ago smart marketers saw the value in being available set up “click to chat” tools on their web sites. The logic being that if we buy more stuff, and we want to be connected, having both in the same place would equate to more sales. There was only one problem. The people selling the stuff forgot that they needed to be available too. As a result consumers found empty chat boxes many times on those same sites.

For fun I took a tour of some different e-commerce sites over the last few days. In the interest of fairness I am not going to call any of them out – but these images will probably get the point across loud and clear:

If you are a small business trying to make your way, which is worse – not having instant chat or having instant chat that is not available? I firmly believe it is the later.

There are better alternatives out there and I encourage you to give them some thought.

1. Upgrade your web-chat system: Many users are opting for the basic systems that require a user to be logged in to the web chat engine in order for the “we’re here” light to be visible to the public. That means being tethered to something (usually a laptop/desktop) waiting for someone to come to you. With a basic upgrade to many of the chat systems you can have these messages routed by SMS to you, so that the “we’re here” light stays on, but you get the freedom to answer from anywhere. Of course to do this you have to be pretty knowledgeable of your systems – or you are going to suffer a far different customer service #fail.

2. Downgrade your web-chat system: Sounds crazy, I know, but there are very basic clients out there that will tie into your existing instant messenger accounts. Depending on your user base you may be able to use a tool like meebo me to create a portal for users to find you. Note that if you do this you had better get the Meebo client for your smart phone/tablet and have it on all the time. You may want to consider not using your personal IM account (as I did here) so that you can delegate responsibility without having your colleagues accessing your personal chat.
[Note: I tried to run Meebo on my Verizon Droid for a few days after posting this – found that you can’t have it running while talking on the phone so this may be a tablet idea more than a phone idea]
3. Give up on IM chat: Instead go to Google Voice. Replace the IM icon on your site with the “Call Me” widget from Voice…the system is designed so that when a user wants to talk to you Voice calls them (at whatever number they specify) and then finds you. You can control when you want to take the calls, and when you want to send those callers to a carefully-worded voice mail message telling them that if they leave a message it will text you and you will get to them immediately. More importantly, you can move the assigned “receiver” of these calls between 15 different people, so you are not always “on the clock” with your web site.


I know as a consumer, whatever system you have it will never seem fast enough. But as consumer spending continues to grow we need to continue to make sure we are there when and how the consumer needs us.

Have other suggestions on how to interact with customers on your site? Feel free to leave them here for everyone to consider.