Telephone decline: the battle between calls and chat

In recent times, the phone call seems to have become the technological equivalent of an intrusive, unexpected knock at the door. That loud peal implies a demand for undivided attention, usually without warning.

Just as we’ve all sat in silence hoping that the unannounced knocker at the door will leave, we’ve all watched our phones ring and made no move to answer the call. In fact, one in four UK adults now almost never use their smartphone to make calls.

But why is this telephone decline happening? Here, we explore the pros and cons of a phone call system and its new competitor, live chat software, when it comes to providing customer service.

 

Past vs present

When phones were first in widespread use, they were used privately. You’d have a telephone in your hallway, or your office, shut away from the humdrum of the outside world.

Then the telephone became portable and this seclusion stopped being the case. With phones going mobile, you could be pulled into a conversation wherever you were, whatever you were doing.

Initially, this level of availability was a cool, trendy innovation. But the novelty quickly wore off. Now it’s theorised that increased mobility actually caused telephone decline, sending phone calls down the slippery slope to oblivion.

 

Connectivity

Both mobile phones and chat software depend on connectivity to function. As we’ve all no doubt experienced, connectivity can fail. (A lost Wi-Fi connection here, or a crackly line there.) But if both technologies suffer through experiences of connectivity failure, surely this hasn’t contributed to the telephone decline?

Thing is, because of the intrusive nature of a phone call, they tend to feel a lot more urgent than a simple chat message. So, when poor connectivity causes a call to fail, it creates stress. Inevitably, we become frustrated when a call breaks up prematurely. The perceived cost of a message failing to send is far less, you can just hit ‘send’ again.

And because people find phone calls intrusive in their personal lives, the habit transfers to their dealings with your company. The call is connected to stressful emergencies or errands, and often isn’t a welcome thought. If the issue isn’t an emergency, a chat option is a far less stressful method of communication with your company.

 

Convenience

Customer service telephone lines often mean dealing with tedious automated telephone systems. Research shows that 45% of consumers don’t use the telephone as a service channel due to excessive wait times, and a further 53% get irritated if they don’t speak to the right contact straight away.

Meanwhile, live chat software offers immediacy. A simple pre-chat survey connects users to the correct department in a click, and chats can be just as easily escalated or transferred without extending a customer’s wait. The convenience of chat is just another contributing factor to telephone decline.

And don’t forget returning customers. Over the phone they’re often forced to repeat themselves every time they call, and yet again every time they’re transferred. Live chat software eliminates this issue, conveniently providing any past conversation history and customer data. That means that every member of your team can provide excellent, up to date service without asking the customer to talk in circles.

 
Efficiency

A busy phone line can be the root of immense customer annoyance. Few things are more grating than listening to generic hold music while a pre-recorded voice thanks you for waiting.

If all your agents are busy on calls with other customers, a queue of waiting callers stuck in this endless hold loop will form. But with live chat, users get live service. Plus, your representatives can chat to more than one customer at a time – whizzing through requests quickly and efficiently.

People don’t want wait times, they want efficiency. The fact is that telephone decline is happening because it’s not as efficient as a simple chat, where customers and employees can both complete other tasks at the same time as conversing.

This drive for efficiency is particularly true of millennials, who have grown up alongside instant messaging software. Millennials are pragmatic, and if there’s a more practical way of obtaining information, that’s what they will choose. In this case, the more practical method is through live chat, where available.

 

Anxiety: telephonophobia

Both calls and chat channels allow close communication between customers and employees. However, only the telephone can offer the ability to hear tone and emotions audibly. This, perhaps, is where live chat software falls short. Vocal signifiers are possible over a call, something many people appreciate when seeking customer service.

But the higher intimacy involved in a phone call can be a double-edged sword. Many of us now suffer from anxiety, or even a phobia (known as telephonophobia), around trying to pick up the phone and make even the most simplistic of phone calls.

‘When even initiating phone calls is a problem—and even innocuous ones, like phoning the local Thai place to order takeout—then anxiety rather than habit may be to blame.’ – Ian Bogost

Yes, there are people that prefer the telephone for its intimate nature, but as technology continues to develop, these people become an increasingly small minority. This call-related anxiety is another factor leading to telephone decline. If people have to grit their teeth and brace themselves to get in touch, their customer experience will inevitably suffer. Chat gives a low-barrier alternative, improving accessibility to customers across the board.

 

Not dead yet

We use our phones daily to snap, to scroll, to play, to purchase, to type and to text. We use them less and less as telephones, and nowadays our mobiles are little more than pocket computers.

Despite this telephone decline, calls aren’t dead just yet. They may appear to be on a downhill slope, but they still have their uses in customer service. For now, the best practice is to use both call and chat options and put the choice in the customers’ hands. Your customers know what kind of service suits them – make sure you’re ready to help either at the end of a call or the end of a keyboard.

 

Useful links

The evolution of customer service technology

What questions should you ask in your pre-chat survey?

Emojis in live chat – engaging or confusing? 🤔

Accessible customer service: is your business open?