Why live chat vs email is a flawed mentality

Live chat vs email: this customer service debate implies a hierarchy between the two text-based service channels.

If you offer email support, do you really need to provide live chat assistance too? Vice versa, if you have a live chat channel – acknowledged as the quickest, cheapest way to provide support – why not avoid email and deflect all queries to chat?

Both live chat and email are established staples in contact centres around the globe. Both options power text-based support given and received over the internet. So, is one channel ‘better’ than the other? Do you really need to put resource behind each channel?

Unfortunately, these kinds of questions are flawed. Pitting live chat and email against each other does not work, and is detrimental to an efficient contact centre.

Here’s a closer look at the ‘live chat vs email’ debate, and why it’s so problematic.


Live chat vs email: a false dilemma

Commonly, live chat software and email are considered to be comparable customer service channels. They’re both digital. They both allow customers to seek support by typing, not talking. And, in so doing, they both offer a convenient mode of communication which makes multi-tasking possible.

But despite these similarities, the two channels aren’t at all interchangeable.

Indeed, asking ‘live chat vs email’ is like asking ‘sales vs marketing’, or ‘jot book vs laptop’. Both are necessary; both important; both wanted at different times.

Any good contact centre will offer live chat as well as email support. (Along with telephone support, ticketing, social media assistance, and self-help resources, too.) Each channel has its place and its use case. And no matter which channel is used, the service will be tailored and high quality.

Understanding why chat and email should not be in competition with each other, then, comes from understanding just how different the two channels are.


Purpose

One of the first key differences in the ‘live chat vs email’ debate is the purpose each channel typically serves.

Live chat serves short, simple support needs particularly well. It allows a contact centre to offer near-immediate support and answers. This means easy clarification of issues, quick problem solving, and essentially pure convenience for customers.

Emails, meanwhile, are better suited to long and complex purposes. Issues that aren’t of immediate urgency, or back-and-forth problems that might take longer to solve. They lend themselves to providing extra details all in one long message.

This isn’t to say, of course, that live chat cannot be used for long or complex issues. On the contrary, the real-time nature of the channel allows for directed questions to gather information. However, it doesn’t allow as much time for an agent to work out an answer before replying to a customer.

Nor is this to say that email is always a drawn-out process. Some queries will be resolved quickly, with a single exchange of emails on each side. But it’s difficult to define ‘quick’ when it comes to email. There’s no promise of immediacy. Plus, response time SLAs vary from contact centre to contact centre. So, even a straightforward email query might not reach a resolution until 5 working days has passed, for instance.

Rather than ‘live chat vs email’, then, customers often seek support with a hybrid approach of live chat and email support.


Time

This brings us to the time-related differences in the live chat vs email debate. To ask live chat vs email is to ask synchronous vs asynchronous messaging — a major difference.

Synchronous: both conversation parties are online and active at the same time, replying to each other as messages come in. Conversations typically take place over a matter of minutes.

Asynchronous: each conversation party is online and replying at different times, as and when queries and answers become available. Conversations can take place over a few days/weeks.

This means that each channel serves a different customer time need. If the customer wants the problem solved now, live chat is the better channel. Email cannot promise the same level of quick answers and speedy solutions.

If, on the other hand, the customer wants a problem solved later, it’s less pressing, or they’re busy, email becomes a more convenient way of reaching out.

Then there’s the experience a contact centre can create using both channels together. For instance:

  • • A customer starts a live chat session
  • • The chat session is used to ask clarifying questions and gather needed details quickly
  • • The live chat session ends when the agent has to fact-find or consult second-line support, taking the customer’s email address and offering an estimated time of resolution
  • • The agent sends over the solution via email

In other words, for the modern contact centre, asynchronous communication can become synchronous as needed or wanted, and vice versa. Once again, it’s a case of live chat and email, not versus.


Audience

Live chat vs email also doesn’t work when you consider the different audiences the two channels appeal to.

Email is now a 50-year old, tried and tested channel that almost anyone can use. It appeals to the less technically literate audience as well as those comfortable with computers.

Live chat, meanwhile, appeals to those that grew up with instant messaging apps. Or people that like immediacy, but don’t like phone calls. (For instance, the average millennial is telephone averse.)

In short, different target markets typically prefer different channels, which means offering both email and live chat support, rather than one or the other.


Expectation

Finally, there are the expectations of consumers to consider. In ‘the age of the customer’, customer service has long been the differentiating factor for businesses. Customers stay with businesses that provide good service — and openly warn against those without. As such, expectations of multiple contact channel options is another key reason why live chat vs email is such a flawed mentality.

Today’s customers expect an omnichannel service offering. That is, they expect not only to be able to choose from every channel — including live chat and email — but to be able to swap freely between them as desired.

They’ll email when they’re busy. They’ll chat when they’re live onsite and need help. They might call if they’re really stuck, or send out a tweet if they’re especially frustrated. And they want a seamless experience from channel to channel.


Live chat and email

It’s time to do away with the flawed mentality of live chat vs email. Both channels have a much-needed place in the contact centre. They serve different needs, different customers, and over different time frames.

TL;DR: Live chat and email aren’t mutually exclusive. Any good contact centre will offer and support both as standard.


Useful links

The Mehrabian myth, non-verbal communication, and live chat software

Clarifying questions in customer support: a best practice guide

The difference between synchronous and asynchronous messaging