The difference between synchronous and asynchronous messaging

Two types of messaging support have risen to widespread adoption in modern help desks: synchronous and asynchronous messaging. Alongside long-standing options like email and telephone support, these messaging options now form a popular part of the customer service mix.

But what exactly is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous messaging? Both types use a chat-based interface. Both represent an informal communication method. And, in most cases, both operate through the web. But both messaging options are not made equal.

So, synchronous and asynchronous messaging: what’s the difference?


— Synchronous messaging —

What is synchronous messaging?

Synchronous messaging is a two-way mode of communication. This means that both conversation parties are chatting at the same time, or synchronously.

For businesses, you see synchronous messaging in your live chat channel. The conversation unfolds in real-time — so you could think of it as the ‘live’ part of live chat.

Synchronous messaging has a clearly defined beginning and end. For example, the moment a live chat session connects, and the moment the customer hits the ‘X’ on the chat window.  


Pros of synchronous messaging
  • Accessibility

In a business setting, one of the biggest pros for synchronous messaging is that there’s a guaranteed response. This is also one of the clearest differences between synchronous and asynchronous messaging.

When a customer sends a message, they aren’t left waiting, wondering when (or if) they’ll get a reply. The instant response of synchronous messaging, then, demonstrates high accessibility for customers.

  • Efficient

Synchronous messaging is efficient for conversations centred around problem-solving and answering questions. This is because real-time responses allow real-time problem-solving, and real-time answers.

It’s also best for airing frustrations and taking comments. It’s easier to make someone feel heard and understood when you’re actively engaging them in a synchronous conversation.

  • Important to customers

Another difference between synchronous and asynchronous messaging is their popularity for customer service use. Unlike asynchronous chat, synchronous chat has a long history of business use.

And this can be seen in the importance placed on instant responses. 44% of customers say that having someone at the other end when messaging businesses is very important.


Cons of synchronous messaging
  • Availability issues

Synchronous messaging requires both parties to be online at the same time. It also requires attention from both parties for the duration of the conversation. As such, synchronous messaging requires effective queue management for customer service agents, and a block of time from customers.

Synchronous messaging, for this reason, isn’t always possible for 24/7 support. But, this is an issue shared by both synchronous and asynchronous messaging. The difference here is that asynchronous messaging lets you start your conversation outside of office hours and wait for a reply. Meanwhile, synchronous messaging requires you to wait to start your conversation when an agent can reply.

Chatbots can help to bridge the gap for simple queries when agent availability dips.

  • Premature chat closure woes

Another difference between synchronous and asynchronous messaging revolves around closed chat management. With synchronous messaging, closing a chat marks the end of the chat.

This means that with synchronous messaging, you can’t reopen the same conversation, even if you closed it by accident. Plus, message threads aren’t saved when a chat session ends. So, if you need to continue your conversation, you must start a new chat.

This can prove annoying to customers. Particularly if they’re forced to repeat themselves upon the start of a new synchronous messaging session. Fortunately, it’s possible to mitigate these issues. Chat transcripts and chat history can streamline the experience for reconnecting users.


— Asynchronous messaging —

What is asynchronous messaging?

The other side of the synchronous and asynchronous messaging question is asynchronous messaging. This is sometimes referred to as one-way conversations. They involve chat, but not in real-time.

Common examples of this type of messaging come from social media — Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and so on. SMS provides another example of asynchronous messaging. For business use, asynchronous messaging comes in the form of messaging platforms.

Unlike synchronous messaging, asynchronous messaging has no clearly defined end. It starts with the first message sent. From there, conversation participants can pause and resume the conversation at their leisure, dipping in and out of the chat as needed.


Pros of asynchronous messaging
  • Chat messages saved

Synchronous messaging doesn’t save conversation threads. Asynchronous messaging, on the other hand, revolves around the function. The whole idea of asynchronous messaging is that you can hop in and out of a chat — closing your chat window as needed, without losing context or progress. So, an accidental chat closure doesn’t mean potentially starting from scratch.

  • Flexible for agents

Synchronous and asynchronous messaging also place a different level of pressure on agents. Asynchronous messaging is far more flexible than its counterpart, as agents don’t need to respond to customers right away. This means that they can check the message, find out any info they need, and reply when they aren’t busy with other things.

  • Flexible for customers

This flexibility also extends to customers. Synchronous messaging requires customer time and attention for the duration of the chat. Asynchronous messaging, meanwhile, lets customers simply message in a spare moment. Then, they can get on with their day. There’s no time commitment because the chat slots around their life.


Cons of asynchronous messaging
  • Long wait times

Asynchronous messaging is akin to email, in that it involves wait times. Using it in a business setting means customers send their questions into your branded void, and then wait for a reply. There’s no way to know for sure that someone has seen it.

This can be frustrating — often, when customers get in touch, they do so to get answers, not wait for an agent to feel like replying. Similarly, solving a problem can involve many messages with long waits between each one. So, it can take hours or even days to solve an issue.

  • Often intrusive

Asynchronous messaging platforms can prove intrusive for customers. Many of them require links to social media profiles, representing data a customer might not want to share with you. Others, (like WhatsApp, for instance) need a phone number. Others even request a download, taking up space on customers phones.

This marks another difference between synchronous and asynchronous messaging. Asynchronous often involves more intrusive data sharing.


Synchronous and asynchronous messaging: same style, different pace

Whether you do so in real-time, or at a staggered pace, messaging as a customer support option has never been so popular. And ultimately, there’s a place for both live and lagged communication in a help desk.

Synchronous messaging will always be better for resolving customer issues and for whizzing through queries. That’s why live chat channels remain the predominant messaging option in a business context. But asynchronous messaging can still offer value and convenience for non-urgent support requests.

So, synchronous and asynchronous messaging: it’s the same communication style, but unfolding at a different pace.


Useful links

Beyond the [X]: exploring the post-chat process

Accessible customer service: is your business open?

The history of live chat software