Live Chat vs Chatbots: The Ultimate Guide

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December 12, 2019
Live Chat

The way customer services departments operate has remained largely the same since around the 1970s. Here’s what happened:

If a customer had a problem or a question, they would get in touch with the company through one of a handful of methods, either post, phone, email, or simply head down to speak with a representative directly. The crucial element was that regardless of which contact channel they chose; they could be sure that the support given to them was coming from a human.

Fast forward to the present day and technology has impacted our lives beyond measure. One of the biggest changes technology has had on our day-to-day lives can be found in the way we communicate. Social media, messenger apps and FaceTime are just some of the channels which are now fully integrated with our daily routines, connecting us with each other instantly regardless of time or place.

As this revolution continues to develop, instant gratification is fast becoming the new normal. People therefore don’t just expect this level of communication with their friends and family, but also with brands companies they interact with. Customers are now less patient than ever; demanding high quality customer service in as short a time-frame as possible.

In an effort to deliver faster, better customer service, companies are rethinking their customer communications strategies and are changing the ways they communicate with their customers. Although the traditional channels still have a place, the fact is they simply aren’t enough for the modern customer. Acknowledging the increasing trend across industries for online shopping, one of the most popular choices for many companies is to integrate a chat solution onto their website.

But there’s a slight catch. There are many types of chat solution on the market and not all are created equal. Should you opt for human-powered chat, or an automated bot? Should you try to use them both together, or should they be kept separate? In short, it can be a bit of a minefield trying to find the best solution to fit your company’s needs.

This begs the question…

Which is better: human-powered live web chat, or automated chatbots?

Chat solutions are split into two main categories: chatbots and live web chat (henceforth referred to simply as ‘web chat’). With so much debate happening around both of these solutions, we thought it would be useful to simplify things a little bit.

We’ve put together this helpful guide to understanding the differences between chatbots and web chat, typical use cases, the pros and cons of both and how you can tell which is going to be better for your business.

To kick things off, we’ll start with some definitions and key differences. Let’s start with web chat.

Live Web Chat:

1. Human-powered

Web chat is a web-based communications feature which uses WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) to allow agents to have conversations with customers through a website. It’s designed to enable human to human conversation and is a communication channel which can be used for direct customer support.

2. Better for in-depth, meaningful conversations

The human-powered nature of web chat means that customers can have a real conversation with the agent. This is particularly useful:

  • If your company’s products are expensive, complex or require a high degree of deliberation
  • If you need to deliver specific or personalised support
  • When creating a virtual in-store experience

3. Escalate to voice or video

Web chat offers the ability to escalate conversations to voice, video, or cobrowsing sessions when required. Crucially, because the chat is already taking place between two people, the customer doesn’t need to wait in a hold queue. They also don’t need to have to repeat their story again from the beginning, as the query is managed by the same agent throughout the entire exchange. This is extremely important for the overall customer experience.

4. Fast responses

Web chat offers customers fast, considered and helpful responses. The agent can make use of canned messages where appropriate to make responses even faster, too.

5. Customer relationship tool

Web chat can help to boost trust and credibility between your company and your customers on your website. People like to speak with people, and being able to showcase the human side of your company whilst delivering high quality support improves customer loyalty and drives conversions.

6. Mostly Reactive

Web chat is fundamentally a reactive customer contact channel, which means that the customer has to initiate the chat in order for it to take place. Having said that, it is common for companies who offer web chat to encourage customers to begin conversations through nudges or prompts, which can pop up for a number of reasons, such as time on web page or if they are a returning customer.


1. Decision-tree or AI based

Chatbots are robots which have been built to answer questions on a website. There are many types of chatbots; there are some which use AI to respond to queries, but mostly, chatbots are based on decision trees and are instructed on how to answer questions.

2. Can be effective as a triage or funnelling tool

Chatbots can’t have proper, human conversations with customers (particularly if they are decision-tree based), so they are better suited to answer FAQs and simply queries. They can also be used to triage website enquiries, organise them into categories and distribute them to relevant company departments.

3. Immediate responses

Provided the chatbot understands the query, customers can get answers immediately because chatbots are built with programmed responses. Naturally, they will be faster than humans as they don’t require time to think, type or spell check.

4. Chatbots can be cheaper

Because they don’t require human management, chatbots can be cheaper overall than web chat, but the lower cost is often reflected in limited functionality or capability.

5. Customer support tool

Their functionality is best suited to fast, high level, relatively simplistic customer support. This is can alleviate pressure on customer service teams, so that they can focus on building relationships and offering more in depth support.

6. Likely to be Proactive

Chatbots are more likely to be proactive on the webpage than web chat. This means that the bot can start a conversation without any initiation from the customer, which has its pros and cons. Whilst proactive chat has been shown to increase the overall number of chats on the website, companies who adopt this method must be wary to not come across as invasive to the customer journey.

Now that we have a better understanding of the key differences between the two types of chat solution, we’ve summarised the main pros and cons of web chat and chatbots in this helpful table:

How to tell if you need live web chat or a chatbot

Here comes the crux of the argument: is it better for your business to have web chat or a chatbot? The truth is that they can both work extremely effectively when they are used correctly, so it boils down to why you want to integrate a chat solution in the first place and what objectives you’re looking to achieve.

Our world is becoming increasingly digitised, and as technology continues to affect the way we live, work, shop and communicate, it doesn’t seem too far a stretch to imagine a world without real human connection. But before we start to panic about that (and wonder whether it’s time to start wearing tin foil on our heads) it’s important to remember that people still prefer to speak with people.

In terms of customer experience, nothing is more effective than speaking directly to your customers. This is particularly true when they need tailored advice and support. Web chat offers your agents the ability to engage in meaningful conversations with customers in real time, helping to solve their problems and increase their propensity to follow through with online purchases through relationship building (meaning lower cart abandonment rates too).

Creating virtual in-store experiences through live web chat

The reason why web chat is so effective at this is precisely because of the human element- not despite it.

Let’s imagine you’re looking to buy a new vacuum cleaner. In the days before the internet, if you wanted to research the market you would have needed to visit the nearest store which sells a wide array of vacuum cleaners. A sales consultant would then be able to show you different models at different price points, and answer your questions about functionality as they guide you through the products (they may even let you test a few too). Once all of your questions had been answered, you would be able to make a decision and be happy to go ahead with the purchase there and then.

Although traditional shopping still takes place today, customers are increasingly choosing to shop online as it provides a wider variety of choice in a more convenient way. The problem is that customers still want the same level of dedicated support, but the customer’s buying journey is now dehumanised. To combat this, the company decides to integrate a chat solution into the website to assist customers… but which type should they go for?

In this situation, a human-powered web chat option would be the best fit. The customer’s needs here are highly specific and complex, and the agent would need to carefully consider the customer’s personal requirements to ensure they are giving them the best advice. Web chat works here because the human conversation between the customer and agent replicates the experience the customer would receive in store, resulting in a happy customer and a holistic brand experience.

To prevent me going too far off on a tangent, watch this video where I go into more depth about this:

Using chatbots for basic tasks

If you want to use a chat solution to build rapport with your online customers to boost sales and improve experience, human-powered web chat would be the way to go. But does this mean that chatbots are a waste of time?

We’re about to go a bit rogue here, but… no. Chatbots aren’t a complete waste of time.

Chatbots aren’t yet sophisticated enough to have proper conversations with customers, but they can be effective if you have a lot of simple requests coming into your website. Frequently asked questions and generic enquiries, like opening times or questions about tracking an order, can be handled by a chatbot that has been taught answers to basic requests.

Not only can they be used to field basic questions but also they are useful for prompting customers with CTAs depending on the page they are on. For example:

  • Looks like your session is about to expire- do you need help with X?
  • It sounds like you’re having problems with X. Would you like me to put you through to a customer support agent?
  • Seems like you’ve still got items in your basket- do you want me to show you how to securely check-out?

From a customer’s perspective, a chatbot can be useful because their requests are basic and answers are delivered instantly. From a business perspective, this also saves time for the customer services team.

Another use of chatbots is for a triage system. Particularly for companies which experience very high volumes of chat enquiries, being able to quickly and efficiently direct customers to the right person in the correct department can be a huge time saver. This allows agents to focus on assisting customers properly, rather than transferring enquiries between each other and spending time fielding basic questions. Overall, this can help to boost the contact centre’s efficiency and increase customer satisfaction.

Use chat to enable humans, not replace them

However, whilst chatbots do have a place in customer services strategy, it’s important to remember that chatbots work best when they are used to support human to human communication, not replace it.

So to answer the original question, human-powered web chat is better for delivering a tailored and personalised experience to customers, but if you just want to field generic questions, a chatbot might be a suitable option to consider.

Can live web chat and chatbots work in harmony?

Web chat and chatbots work better in different situations, which means that combining them can result in a slick customer experience. It’s important to make sure that if you are going to combine web chat with a chatbot, that you carefully consider the decision. In particular, there has to be a clear understanding about which queries will be handled by which side of the solution.

Chatbots only work properly when there is a defined escalation route to a real person. Chatbots have limited abilities, so if the customer’s needs change mid-way through a conversation this can be incredibly frustrating the customer, because the chatbot won’t be able to fix the customer’s problem.

Likewise, if the chatbot can’t understand a customer’s demand, this can leave the customer feeling as though they have wasted their time and their query is unresolved. In the worst cases, this can result in customers not following through with their purchases and companies can lose customers.

If you are going to use a chatbot, it should always have a pathway which leads the customer to a human agent. That way, simple enquiries which don’t need the expertise of an agent can be dealt with immediately, but this allows the customer to speak with a person if they need to take a query further.

This is an effective method of combining chatbots and web chat, but it isn’t without its flaws.

For example, web chat agents might not have access to the conversation transcript which took place between the customer and the chatbot, so the customer may be required to repeat their query again. This is both time-wasting and annoying for the customer, which makes for a poor customer experience.

Make use of canned messages

Instead of having to use both types of chat solution, an alternative would be to integrate a web chat solution and make use of canned messages. Canned messages are pre-written responses which and agent can quickly select and send to a customer. If needs be, the agent can personalise the responses and edit them as they see fit, depending on the situation.

Some examples of canned messages could be:

“Hi X, how can I help you?”
“Our opening times are…XXX”
“Can you please give me your order reference number?”

Having simple responses and answers to general FAQs can help to speed up customer service resolution times, without having to go down an automated route.

For a more in depth look at canned messages, watch our video here:

To wrap it up…

It’s important to remember that despite there being similarities between web chat and chatbots, their differences are what define them. If you’re looking to boost trust in your brand, improve customer experience and enable meaningful conversations through your website, web chat is the best way forward. Web chat reconnects your customers with the human side of your company in a time where digitisation can make customers feel isolated.

Chatbots may be able to offer a convenient service for those who need simple answers quickly, but their current capabilities are limited, so they can offer little more than that. For those who want to offer your customers the best experience, human-to-human connection is something that simply cannot be replaced.

Being able to bridge the gap between your brand and your customers is priceless. As more businesses focus on their online services, it can be easy to lose sight of real customer connection. With technology available to us at our fingertips, many companies are well-intentioned by choosing to automate processes to deliver a faster service to their customers. However, it’s important to not throw the baby out with the bath water. There are some processes which should never be fully automated, and speaking to your customers is one of them.

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