The Psychology of Customer Support: Why People Love Live Chat

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Tap
Tap-tap.

You hear that? Fingers on a phone screen.

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

That’s angst. That’s the sound of a customer — a young person named Alex — looking for help. She’s anxious because her problem is time-sensitive. She wants to handle it now, not tomorrow or the next day. She wants to fix it and move on but she doesn’t know how.

And then something happens …

Bloop. A chat box appears in the bottom-right corner of her screen.

Dinggg. “Hello Alex,” says the message. “My name is Dan. Anything I can do to help?”

Alex purses her lips and nods her head. “Hi there,” she types. “Yes, the shoes I ordered arrived damaged. I’d like to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

“No problem,” Dan types back. “Can you send me a picture of the problem?”

Alex removes the left shoe from its box, points her phone’s camera at it, and zooms in on the scuff mark. Then she takes the picture — snap — and sends it.

“Thank you,” types Dan. “Let’s get this fixed!”

Nice, thinks Alex, that was easy. She looks up from the chat box and sips her tea.

She’s smiling.

Customers love live chat

When it comes to customer service, people have a choice: we can make a call or send an email, we can tweet a message or post one on Facebook.

Or, if it’s available, we can live chat online with someone in real-time, a method which is gaining popularity. eDigital’s Customer Service Benchmark reports that live chat has a 73% satisfaction score among consumers today.

BP-LiveChat

Live chat allows your support team to have quick, low-friction conversations with several different customers at once. It gives customers a way to get help for their problems with one click. And while it shouldn’t replace your email and phone support lines, when executed at a high level a live chat system can be a huge driver of happiness for your customers and provide another all-important contact option.

Is live chat the be-all and end-all of customer support? No, it’s not. Different people prefer different channels for a variety of reasons.

But live chat does act on people in powerful ways. It taps into deep psychological inclinations that we all share, and that’s why it can be such a profound opportunity if done right.

Here’s a breakdown of the main reasons we love live chat:

1) It’s fast: People love now.

In 1960, two psychologists carried out an experiment at Stanford University. Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen gave 600 preschool children one marshmallow each. The children were given an option: they could either a) eat the sweet immediately or b) wait for 15 minutes to eat it and then receive another marshmallow as a reward for their patience.

Only a third of the children managed to wait the full 15 minutes.

The Marshmallow Study, as it came to be known, speaks to humanity’s appetite for instant gratification or the desire to experience pleasure without delay.

People love live chat because it provides instant gratification.

Fact is, chatting is 100X faster than any other digital service channel, giving customers a response in minutes — even seconds — not hours. Basically, live chat means getting help now, not later.

We love now. We love instant gratification because it floods our brain with dopamine, the “happy” hormone. Waiting creates the opposite effect, causing psychological discomfort, even anguish, which can register as physical pain.

We hate later — and there are several psychological reasons why, including our:

Evolution

Our desire to avoid delay is instinctual.

Prehistoric humans developed to want immediate rewards because daily life was so precarious. That is, food and shelter weren’t a guarantee so our brains evolved to take what was in front of us. Over thousands of years, this created a deep-seated, biological disdain for waiting.

Patience is a virtue precisely because it doesn’t come naturally. Of course, with live chat, patience isn’t a factor: you’re getting a response immediately.

Mood

Our sense of time is altered by our state of mind: the better your mood, the faster time seems to pass.

That’s why “time flies when you’re having fun.” It’s also why time slows to a crawl when you’re on hold with a customer service rep. If you’re craving something, anything — whether it’s a drink of water or technical support — you’ll experience a time warp, a slowdown. This symptom is your brain saying, “I’m getting annoyed.”

This is also why having a live chat conversation is bound to make you feel satisfied and happy: it’s fast.

Anticipation

Our psyches enjoy anticipating good things and dislike waiting for bad things to happen.

Anticipating a wedding, for example, is exciting. We relish the weeks and months leading up to the big day. Waiting to go into surgery, on the other hand, can be excruciating. We dread every moment before the anesthesiologist finally counts down from three… two… one… bingo.

That said, if your customer service request is to handle something unpleasant (e.g., a traffic ticket; a late credit card payment; a problem you want to fix now, not later) the time you spend on hold can wear you down. 

“I’d like to resolve this as quickly as possible,” said Alex.

“No problem,” said Dan.

2) It’s personalized: People love feeling special.

In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote the definitive guide to human interaction.

His book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, has sold over 30 million copies around the world. It’s one of the most successful self-help books of all time because the value of being a better, more empathetic person is ubiquitous. Carnegie teaches compassion and selflessness, traits proven to foster genuine human connection.

Ironically, most of his lessons revolve around humanity’s obsession with the self.

People love live chat because it makes them feel special.

We’re obsessed with our own needs and desires and ambitions. We love ourselves — and, therefore, we want others to show an interest in us. This makes us feel important and relevant, special. When people show us personalized attention, it gives us a sense of purpose and validation. It screams, “You’re worth it!”

For example, according to Carnegie, people really like it when you:

Ask them questions

“To be interesting,” writes Carnegie, “be interested.” According to reporting by NPR’s Rachel Martin, a Harvard research study shows that people like people who ask questions.

“It’s all about us,” explains Martin. “It’s always all about us.”

Of course, live chat operators are trained to ask questions. It’s the mechanism they use to 1) understand your problem and 2) gather any additional information they need to fix it.

Say their name

“Remember names,” writes Carnegie. “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.”

According to research, hearing your name activates parts of the brain associated with self-esteem, confidence, and pride.

We love hearing and reading our own name. We love it more than anything. Live chat operators know this. They understand that using your name will make the experience better, consciously or otherwise. So they use it often to accelerate the bonding process. 

“Hello Alex,” said the message. “Anything I can do to help?”

Alex pursed her lips and nodded her head.

3) It’s easy: People love simplicity.

Do me a favor: snap your fingers, just once.

According to researchers at the University of Basel and Google, that’s how quickly people decide whether they like a website or not. More specifically, it takes our brain about 1/35th of a second to judge a website’s aesthetic and functionality.

In fact, thanks to our hardwired flight-or-fight response, humans judge most things instinctually — emotionally — rather than logically. Once again, we can thank evolution for this. What was once a self-defense mechanism against predators now helps us decide what to avoid (e.g., hard things) and what to chase (e.g., easy things).

People love live chat because it’s easy.

When something is “easy,” it means our brain doesn’t have to work hard to understand it. Psychologists call this cognitive fluency or the ease with which information is processed.

Compared to other forms of customer service, live chat is pretty easy. Emailing support, for example, usually means you’ll have to wait hours or days before hearing back from another human—if at all. Not to mention having to exchange several emails back and forth to get your issue resolved.

Chatting lets you bypass all that. In other words, it’s:

Predictable

In his TED Talk about the science of simplicity, Harvard professor George Whitesides explains that predictability is an essential characteristic of ‘simple.’

“In general,” explained Whitesides, “one of the nice characteristics of a simple thing is you know what it’s going to do.”

Live chat, of course, is predictable, both in:

1) Form: It lives in the lower-right corner of the screen; it’s rectangular; it’s a chat box with a blinking cursor.
2) Function: It asks the user a variation of one, straightforward question: How can I help?

Accessible

Simple things are also accessible, or cheap.

“If you have things that are cheap enough,” explained Whitesides, “people will find uses for them, even if they seem very primitive.”

Accessibility can take many forms. Live chat is cognitively accessible. That is, it’s easy to find and use compared to a support phone line, for example. A chat box is there, plainly visible and ready to use the moment you have a question. A contact form, email address, or phone number is usually less conspicuous — and once you do find it, there are still several steps between you and a person.

Point being, a live chat window makes getting help far more accessible than other ways of reaching support.

Alex removed the left shoe from the box, pointed her phone’s camera at it, and zoomed in on the scuff mark.

She took the picture — snap — and sent it.

Nice, she thought, that was easy.

Before you get started

Live chat support — executed by trained agents; real people — delivers fast, simple, personalized service, which is what customers want.

Trained and real people are the key words there—the psychological benefits of live chat only last as long as the trusted, human element does. If your team’s support agents aren’t well-versed in how to use live chat and how to solve customer problems through it, you’ll only sow frustration.

Say you decide to implement an AI or machine-learning-based live chat support system without first thoroughly testing and quality-checking the results. As a result, your customers get confusing or irrelevant answers when they ask for help. When these “smart” systems aren’t smart in practice, it makes the experience feel less high-tech and personal, not more.

Or say you only have a few people on your team trained to do live chat support, and one day they’re all out on vacation or sick. Do you have backup people in place, or a protocol for how to deal with this kind of situation? If not, all those “live” customer messages will pile up, unanswered, creating a poor customer experience.

Your overarching goal with support needs to be to make sure that every interaction you have with your customers is positive, and live chat is no magic bullet. Despite all our psychological inclinations towards immediate gratification, you still need to execute your live chat system at a high level.

Dinggg.

“We’re all set,” types Dan. “I just sent a return-shipping label to your email.”

“Thank you,” Alex answers. “You’ve been so helpful!”

“No problem! It’s my pleasure,” types Dan. “Anything else I can help you with today, Alex?”

“Nope,” Alex smiles some more, “we’re all set.”

In the end, the reason that live chat is so powerful is that it gives us another avenue with which to create more customer delight. There will always be reasons to call in or send an email, but live chat presents a unique opportunity to deliver support that’s fast, personalized, and easy — and that’s how happy customers are born.

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