ELI5: how does live chat work?

How does live chat work, exactly? You’re probably familiar with the friendly ‘Chat’ button splashed upfront on websites, and you’ve no doubt used the option for yourself to get service or support.

Few people, however, are as familiar with the stuff behind the scenes. That is, the mechanics behind the chat channel that make real-time support so readily available online.

So, for the curious, here’s a super-simple ‘explain like I’m 5’ overview of how live chat software works.


Live chat overview

Before answering ‘how does live chat work’, it’s important to know exactly what live chat software is. (Hint: it’s not the same as mobile IM services or messaging apps.)

Live chat software is a tool used to offer real-time service online. It allows your website visitors to get immediate support or information, via a handy chat window. So, the website visitor types a message inside the live chat session, and a business operator types back.

Now, it’s understandable why live chat software is often confused with other messaging services. It’s not worlds apart from the messaging apps you see on social media. The difference is that you know that when you send a message, you’ll get a reply within seconds. The clue is in the name: it’s live.

So, having a chat channel means having a powerful customer service tool at your fingertips.


The back-end

You’ve chosen a live chat vendor, evaluated the pricing and bought your subscription. The first step to answering the ‘how does live chat work’ question from here, is how to put the channel on your website.  

Unlike some software solutions, there’s more to deploying a live chat channel than downloading the software and pressing go. Rather, you need to put the chat channel onto your website(s). You’ll need to copy a few lines of code (provided by the chat vendor) and paste it into the back-end of your website.

Only by inserting the custom code will you get the chat option to appear on your site. If you want it on every page of your website (which is a recommended practice) then you’ll need to paste the code onto every page of your site.


The front-end

So, how does live chat work on the front-end of your website? Putting the code on your webpages puts the chat button on your website.

The best practice is to put this button in the bottom right-hand corner of your website. This is where people expect to find it. Your chat button is typically a box with a “Chat” label, but you can customise this in any number of ways. For example, you might use an icon or an image.

When the visitor clicks the chat button, this causes a chat window to open up. We recommend using an inline chat window. This allows your visitors to continue to browse your site while chatting, without swapping between windows. (As they would with a pop-out chat window).


The business set-up

On the business side, you need more than a bit of custom code on your website if you want to take chats. You also need access to a chat client.

For web-based solutions, this simply means logging in to an online chat account and accessing your chat client from inside a browser tab. For desktop chat (more common for most solutions), you need to download a chat client onto your machine. This allows you to sign in to chat from your workstation and start receiving any requests.

After the code and the client, there are still a few more elements you might need as part of your chat deployment. For example, if you’re hosting the chat on your own servers (not using a cloud option), you’ll need an accompanying server kit.

Then, you might also use separate portals for things like chat settings and reports. This depends on how advanced your chat solution is, and how many features it offers.

Once you’ve accessed all the bits you need, the next thing is to complete your account setup. This includes things like creating user accounts and setting your chat rules and permissions. So, you can make sure that your live chat software is suitable for your team and your needs.


Inside the session

Next, how does live chat work inside the chat? There are two sides to the chat session: how it works for the customer, and how it works for the business chat agent.

For customers, the live chat process starts when they click on the chat button (or a chat invitation). This takes them to a pre-chat survey. Here, they can enter some useful information to inform the chat session. For example, their name, desired department, or their ticket/order number. This puts them in a chat queue, for relevant agents to pick up. The customer then gets friendly, empathetic replies in real time. Like a face to face conversation.

For agents, the chat session starts when they see a chat request within their client. They can see how long a visitor has been waiting to chat. So, they can ensure the shortest wait times possible for every visitor.

During the chat, the software supports agents. Canned responses help keep replies speedy. It aids empathetic support by identifying key terms to track chat mood. It also allows teamwork, with internal chat and whisper messages that your visitor can’t see.


It’s that simple

So, how does live chat work? It’s as simple as copy-pasting a few lines of code onto your website, running a chat client, and setting up your accounts and rules.

From there, the functions of the software are available for you to set to your needs. And, your online visitors can start to chat with you in real time.

Customer service has never been so accessible. So, why not take advantage of the simplicity, with a free trial of WhosOn?


Useful links

How to improve live chat usability: a quick-start guide

Is the cloud strangling the self-hosted model? Don’t believe the death knell

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