Giving Web Chat a Human Face

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One of the challenges customer support and sales agents face is the balance between efficiency and humanity. The more efficient methods of communication often are very impersonal, while the personal ones are expensive and inefficient.

On the one hand, a business wants to provide its services as efficiently as possible. This usually boils down to 2 key elements:

  1. Cost:  Having an agent at the customer's home or office is very expensive. Having the customer visit them somewhat less. If the interaction can be over phone or video, it is even cheaper. Live chat costs even less. And email is cheapest of all.
  2. Accuracy: Customer interaction almost always involves transmission of some detailed information. It might be a serial number, an order confirmation, perhaps a URL or SKU. It is slow and tedious to describe these by phone; in person, we tend to write them down and hand them off, which not only is slow but also leads to errors. But email and chat can transfer information precisely and quickly, and allow for saving and cut-and-paste, reducing errors and, once again, overall costs.

Unfortunately, the further we go up the efficiency and accuracy chain - in person to video to voice to chat to email - the more impersonal it becomes, decreasing customer satisfaction. Despite everything we like to believe about rational people making rational purchases, in the end most decisions are emotional. Whether you are deciding to forgive customer support for not being able to help you exactly as you wanted, or choosing whether to buy the $200 suitcase from this salesperson, the decision is far more a result of your emotional state and personal connection with the people on the other end than a cold logical analysis.

And, quite frankly, text just doesn't do it.

A human face, and to a lesser degree a human voice, triggers a personal and subconscious connection. I have seen studies showing that the probability of a doctor being sued for malpractice correlates directly with their bedside manner. Actually, average people can predict fairly reliably the likelihood of a doctor being sued just by seeing a single picture of the doctor's face and body language at work.

Those of us who have used email for decades know how efficient it can be for transferring information, and yet how the anonymity leads to behaviour that would not be tolerated elsewhere. "Flame wars" over the most inane topics erupt regularly, with people writing things they would never dare to say if they could see the person's face.

That is why I found it interesting to see a human face added to a once innovative yet now commodity product: live chat. I was looking at replacing the grates on my barbeque grill - not a simple feat, as Ducane has since been absorbed into Weber and my model long since discontinued - and spoke to several companies that provide parts. Since it is a discontinued model, and the grates must fit precisely (sort of hard to grill when the grates have fallen into the fire box), I needed to ask some detailed questions about model numbers, serial numbers, and dimensions. This was a perfect choice for efficient chat, which, fortunately, one of the companies - - offers.

I was surprised to see a picture pop up along with the agent's name, Ali. Was this really a picture of her? I have no way to know. I am sure LiveChat Inc., has few if any policies requiring agents to use real pictures, and no way of enforcing it.

Nonetheless, this is smart product management - offering features that help your customer get their real job (sales and support) done, rather than the proximate job (talking to the customer).

  1. Adding a face increases emotional customer connection.
  2. Increased customer connection leads to higher customer satisfaction.
  3. Higher customer satisfaction leads to higher sales and profits.

In the end, did I buy from them? No, but mainly because they didn't have the exact part I needed. No amount of human face will satisfy me when the product is not there. But I would have been more likely to, all other things being equal.