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Live chat plugins have become an increasingly popular tool for customer service and sales. Thanks to Google and digital voice assistants, people are used to having their questions answered and problems solved almost instantly.

And this has translated to sales, customer service, and customer support. Instead of waiting on hold during a phone call, or waiting hours for an email reply, your customers and potential customers are turning to live chat plugins for their answers.

Live chat can be divided into 2 types. The first of these is human chat, where a customer support person or sales rep waits on the other end to answer questions in real time. The second is automated chat (otherwise known as chatbots), programmed to “read” messages with algorithms and answer questions through your knowledge base, based on the words and context they detect.

Of course, both humans and bots have their shortcomings. Humans can’t always respond instantaneously, and can become burnt out. And bots aren’t always able to respond to people’s questions properly, leading to frustration.

So, is the live chat plugin really here to stay, or is it just a passing trend? And if live chat retains its prominence, will the future of chat be bot-dominated, be human-centric, or balance human and automated chat?

We asked marketers about their experiences with live chat, and about where they think the future of chat is headed. 23 marketers shared their insights. We’ll cover their predictions about live chat’s future later in the article, but first, let’s examine the statistics we gathered.

Live chat experiences as a consumer

All 23 of the marketers reported that they have used live chat as a consumer. We were curious to find out about their live chat experiences on this end. So, we asked them how they would rate their overall live chat experience as consumers on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 meaning “least satisfied” and 5 meaning “most satisfied”). On average, they rated their experience as a 3.47 out of 5, indicating slightly positive but still very mixed satisfaction.

17% rated their experience as a 2; 26% rated their experience as a 3; 48% rated their experience as a 4; and 9% rated their experience as a 5.

Live Chat Experiences: The Business Perspective

Most of our questions, though, dealt with live chat experiences as businesspeople, including the plugins they use, and their thoughts on user experience and productivity. Overall, the majority of people we surveyed believe that every business should use live chat plugins, but at 65%, this majority isn’t overwhelming. This makes sense given that our group’s average live chat experience as consumers was mixed to positive.

Type of plugin and volume of responses

When we asked whether the marketers currently use live chat plugins on their own websites, we found that the majority (88%) do. No one plugin clearly won out over the others in popularity, however. We received 10 distinct answers: ActivEngage, Drift, GupShup, Intercom, LiveChat, Manychat, Tawk.to, Tidio, WhosOn, and Zendesk Chat. And the four most popular programs were separated by eight percentage points or less: Tawk.to won out (but not by much) at 17%, followed by LiveChat and Manychat at 13% each.

We also asked them about the average volume of customers who reach out through live chat plugins daily. Understandably, this varies based on the size of each company; here’s how they responded. 26% have an average of 0-10 customers reaching out daily; 30% have 11-50 customers reaching out per day on average; 17%  have an average of 51-100 customers reaching out daily; and 4% have 100-500 customers reaching out per day on average.

Live Chat, User Experience, and Company Productivity

Despite the mixed consensus on whether live chat is a beneficial tool for every business, most agreed that live chat notably impacts user experience and company productivity.

A staggering 96% of marketers feel that live chat support has a significant impact on user experience. Of course, we weren’t asking if they think that live chat usually has a positive or negative effect on user experience in this question.

However, it seems like this impact is usually positive based on the results of our next survey question. 91% believe that live chat makes their brand’s support team more productive. This seems to indicate that live chat is effective, as customers who aren’t satisfied with a response would keep trying to contact customer support, clogging support’s load.

Live Chat and Leads

Live chat can also be used as a potent lead generation tool, if set up correctly. 65% of the marketers we surveyed reported that their company definitely tracks leads that come through their chat plugin. (9% told us their company does not track chat leads, while 26% weren’t sure.)

But does live chat work well for bringing in leads who actually convert? Our survey seems to indicate that it works reasonably well for generating new customers, but not notably better than other methods. 47% report that at least 10% of their live chat leads convert into customers, while 30% report that at least 20% convert.

The full breakdown of percentages is below.

The Future of Chat

With the increasing popularity of chatbots, we wanted to see just how many of our respondents’ businesses currently use these automation tools. Interestingly, the slight majority do not use chatbots; 57% do not use chatbots, while 43% do. This likely reflects the current fallibility of bots—they can’t always understand queries at human level (especially more advanced ones), often return incorrect and confusing answers.

But where do our marketers think the future of website chat is heading? Most agree that there’s no stopping the rise of bots and automation, but some rightfully caution that, although bots are valuable tools, we can’t replace human interaction.

Rise of the Chatbot

Jeremy Lawlor of Active Business Growth says, “The future of website chat is automation via bot capabilities. To some extent, this is already true today. Most Live Chat Plugins allow you to set up an automated chat sequence using IFTTT (if this, then that), where the bot will provide options for a user to click, and then brings the user through a predetermined sequence of messages and additional options based on the initial option the user clicked. This will only become more advanced in the future, where AI will help the bot respond more effectively to consumer needs.”

Michael Anderson of GeoJango Maps believes that “In the future, we’ll see a rise in the percentage of websites utilizing live chat in order to improve conversion rates. Additionally, I believe that live chats will become more automated and that bots will become more sophisticated over time. This will allow business owners to assist prospective customers in completing a conversion without having to spend much time or energy.”

Lightening Customer Support’s Load, Especially After Hours

Laura Ferrari of Hyperchat Social predicts a rise in chatbots to serve customers at all hours of the day:  “We’re seeing a trend in all aspects of our lives, that everything, including communication is going digital and that business is actually being conducted “outside of business hours”. The future of website chat is going to go well beyond just your typical help support and become more sales driven. With the introduction of bots being able to serve prospects customized information during all hours, we’ve actually seen an increase in our business for appointment scheduling in addition to our prospects being more educated about our services by the time they make the decision to speak with a live person.”

Similarly, Charles Floate of DFY Links says, “As companies gather more information on their customers and FAQ’s, robots and AI will be the future of chat, with more than 50% of sites live chat manned by robots, with an option to speak to a real person. Outside 9-5 hours, I suspect bots and AI will cover the customer service angle, with his automation also transferring to social media direct messaging too.”

And Shayne Sherman of TechLoris shares, “I believe that live chat will only get more and more intelligent as AI gets more and more sophisticated.  Soon people will feel like they’re interacting with a person but never need to take up resources.  AI chatbots mean that consumers will never be placed in a queue or with a customer service representative who’s had a bad day.”

Laura Gonzalez of Audi Spokane believes that chatbots will lighten the load of human support teams at early stages of the sales funnel:  “With the developments in AI, I foresee chatbots sticking around for some time. If they can be tailored to interact with clients then they can save your support/sales team a lot of time that could be better spent elsewhere. Your sales team could focus on prospects further along the buyer’s journey and your support team could spend time on more pressing matters.”

Predictive Live Chatbots

Jeff Arnett of Arnett Credentials believes we’ll see a rise in predictive, bot-based live chat: “Having a live chat can answer customer questions right away and keep customers engaged while they wait to get their answers. As technology advances, live chat will help prevent consumer problems and facilitate the customer experience. If not happening now, live chat will have bots to communicate certain messages with customers up to a point where they need a person to respond to their specific request. This will help predict certain issues and overall save time and money.”

Scott Crumrine of Guava Family says, “With rapidly growing customer support expectations, website chat support has become increasingly important for eCommerce businesses. In fact, Zendesk claims that live chat offers 92% of customer support in relation to other support tools. It is critical for website chat technology to adapt to changing industry and customer service standards in order to spur its continued success. Certainly, the biggest factors of any successful website chat are the supporting AI systems in place. A strong, intelligent website chat software eliminates the need for human interaction, which reduces operating costs and streamlines the overall chat procedure. Going forward, supporting databases will have to proactively predict customer issues using historical data. AI’s will also have to engage in realistic, human-like conversations all the while accurately interpreting various linguistic elements. Eventually, support technology will even start to incorporate augmented reality using cameras and holographic displays.”

AR and VR in Chat

According to Anand Iyer, the future of chat is all about voice support and augmented reality:

“Voice search queries are increasing year over year and with the success of Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, this trend will continue. As we make progress in natural language processing and improved voice recognition technology, more customers will interact with brands using live chat software and expect a more natural ‘humanlike’ response.

Augmented reality can be used to provide customers a way to showcase their live environment using their camera and provide technical support. Live chat agents can explain steps to complete an action and answer any questions by analyzing the virtual/augmented environment.”

Cart-Integrated, Automated Chat

James Watkins of PHS predicts “90% of customer queries will come through live chat, as it is instantaneous, with the rest coming through phone calls and social media contact. There will be direct options to add products to the cart direct from the live chat, with automated responses available for quick selection for both customer and business.”

Chatbots for All, Regardless of Business Size

Matt McKenna of DELT says: “Our website does not currently have a Chat Plugin, but I have set them up on several other websites. When they first came out, all of our clients wanted them; no matter what the industry. We soon learned that, for the most part, they were doing more harm than good. On one of our client’s site, customers weren’t getting the answers they wanted and about 30% of users were leaving the site (most likely in frustration).

Recently, we have integrated Intercom and Drift into a few of our client’s websites, and have noticed they are significantly more functional and their features are suited for just about every industry. As artificial intelligence evolves and demand continues to rise, I think future website chat plugins will focus on being used on websites with lower traffic (right now they all seem to be geared towards extremely active sites). Additionally, I think we will see them start to be created for specific industries rather than being marketed towards every website.”

Automated Live Chat on Social

Ryan Scollon thinks “Live chat will continue to grow, simply because people do not want to wait anymore as we expect everything to happen so much faster now. Over the last year or so, I have also seen a rise in the usage of websites using Facebook messenger tools as a replacement for a live chat system. The trend I have noticed with this is that people are more likely to use live chat via Facebook compared to a dedicated live chat plugin.”

Don’t Let Bots Kill Human Chat—-Personal Interactions Are Vital

Mathew Richard of TradeKey states, “Though many experts believe that Live chat is evolving and with the help of AI (chat bots) they are able to deal and facilitate more clients, it’s killing the human touch. As a consumer and marketer, I believe that person-to-person interactions are much more effective in live chat sessions. Therefore, we should stick to dealing with queries with human representatives and use automated messages in case of unavailability. Or, websites could also direct users to their learning center where they have published guides and tutorials while a human representative isn’t available.”

Similarly, Eric Anderson of El Mejor Trato emphasizes the need for personalization: “Website chat is heading towards a more personal customer experience, as that’s what I as a customer have perceived. Sometimes website chat may feel robotic and that’s what should be tackled. There are more chances for Live Chat leads to convert into customers when they feel they are getting personalized attention.”

Human Chat will Be Alive and Well

But don’t underestimate the power of humans. Alistair Dodds of Ever Increasing Circles predicts that there will be “more use of customer support teams”  for lead generation and nurturing—that human-centric chat will maintain prominence when it comes to driving sales. Says Dodds, “Companies that focus resources on nurturing leads through this communication medium will see an increased conversion rate. Businesses spend a great deal of money on marketing and sales and yet overlook the simple effectiveness of having trained customer support interacting online with customers questions. Not all customers and clients are ready to buy. So having a customer support team with a sales-led element will become a tactic more companies adopt to close potential leads.”

Balance Automation and Personalization

Caio Bersot of EnergyRates.ca believes that it’s important to strike a balance between human and automated chat: “When it comes to website chats, there are two major trends that sometimes converge, sometimes fight each other: Automation and custom approach. Website chats are becoming increasingly automated, smarter and computerized, which makes communication faster and standardized. At the same time, consumers value each time more efficient, custom communication that makes them feel like they’re talking to someone who cares about their issues, not a bot with a cold tone.”

Continues Bersot, “The balance between these two trends will probably shape the future of website chats. Some time from now, it isn’t too much to imagine AI-based chats that are going to be capable of custom, friendly, engaging communication and, on top of it, problem-solving answers. Quick communication means nothing for consumers unless it’s problem-solving, clear and friendly. That’s why many people nowadays still prefer to contact companies through email, phone or even social media. They want to make sure they are talking to someone who will understand their queries.”

Wrapping Things Up

Our marketers expressed positive to mixed feelings about  the state of live chat today. But based on their predictions about chat’s future, live chat will likely be here to stay for a long time. Although automation will become more and more advanced, we’ll need to make sure that we don’t lose the human touch and empathy that customers need and crave.  So, balancing human live chat with chatbots will be key.

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Jessica Huhn

Posted by Jessica Huhn

Jessica Huhn is a writer at Referral Rock. When she is not writing, there is a good chance that Jessica is singing, arranging songs, sharing and enjoying content on social media, or hanging out with her mini Goldendoodle. She believes that it's always important to cultivate gentle strength.