Visit almost any business website and you’ll spot a chat widget. Customers love chat widgets because they can reach out for help without having to leave the page. Instant support is a click away. In fact, chat has become the leading contact source online, with 42% of customers using chat versus email (23%) or other social media forum (16%).

Businesses like chat widgets because they know it makes them more approachable. They can even start conversations with a potential customer by having the widget pop up and ask “can I help you with anything today?”

But staffing a live chat widget isn’t practical for many businesses. You need an agent ready to jump into the conversation whenever a customer initiates. That’s a big demand.

Some companies get around this by using real-time messaging instead of live chat. With messaging, the customer reaches out, and then gets a reply whenever an agent is free.

42% of customers prefer chat as a channel of communication over others like email and social media.

Live chat is getting ever more popular. The Global Live Chat Software Market size is expected to reach $987.3 million by 2023. But we’ve noticed a bit of a problem lately. There are several products being sold as “live chat”, but when you look under the hood, they’re real-time messengers. It’s important to understand the difference between live chat vs messaging. They look similar on the surface, but they offer a vastly different experience.

Why does the difference between live chat and messaging matter?

What is traditional live chat?

What is real time messaging?

How do live chat and messaging compare?

Which is better for your business?

Our recommendations

Takeaways

Why Does the Difference Between Live Chat and Messaging Matter?

Today’s customers have higher expectations than ever before. That’s good news for live chat adopters. It has higher customer satisfaction ratings than any other channel at 73%, compared to 61% for email and 44% for phone.

Live chat has higher customer satisfaction ratings (reported around 73%) than any other channel.

But beware. If your website offers “live chat”, customers expect instant resolution. A customer clicks that button thinking he’s about to connect with an agent. He takes the time to type out his query, only to see the message "we’re not here right now and will respond in a few hours".

That customer is going to feel frustrated that he went to the trouble to write out his problem, and didn’t even get a response.

That’s why it’s important to understand the differences between live chat vs messaging. Let’s delve deeper, and help you decide which one is right for your business.

What Is Traditional Live Chat?

Traditional live chat means the customer fills out a form, and waits for an agent to become available. The customer writes a message, and expects the agent to respond in the next minute at most. Both parties need to pay full attention to the conversation. When the conversation is over, they part ways.

Traditional live chat is like a phone call. You’re both on the line. It’s ideal for urgent situations that affect your customer’s life. If they rely on your scheduling software to arrange meetings, and it suddenly stopped converting time zones when booking, they’d want to hop on live chat for a quick resolution.

Live chat means:

  • Both the customer and the agent are talking to each other in real time.
  • Customers and agents expect immediate responses.
  • When the chat is done, it’s really done. Customers can start another chat, but will likely end up with a different agent.

What Is Real Time Messaging?

Real time messaging means the customer fills out a form describing their issue, not knowing if an agent is there. They’ll probably see a message saying something like “we typically respond within an hour.” This matters - 73% of consumers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good service. If an agent is available, the customer can chat with them in real time. If there’s no agent available, customers will get an email when an agent responds. They can also revisit the chat window and continue where they left off.

73% of consumers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good service.

Real time messaging is like chatting on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Some delay between answers is perfectly acceptable. Say your client’s having some trouble setting app notifications. The app’s working fine, it’s just a minor annoyance. They can leave you a message, then go about their day while waiting for a response.

Real time messaging means:

  • There’s no guarantee the customer will get an agent live online.
  • There’s no expectation of immediate responses on either side.
  • The chat never really ends. Customers can continue chatting across website visits, and across devices.

How Do Live Chat and Messaging Compare?

Both options start out with a chat widget that appears on your website or mobile app.

With live chat, the agent must answer the chat request and then be present for the entire duration of the chat. It starts when the customer reaches out, they chat in real time, and there’s a clear finish point.

With messaging, the agent doesn’t have to answer immediately. Both customer and agent can add to the conversation at their convenience. It’s like an instant messaging thread on WhatsApp or Messenger. There’s no clear beginning or end. It just continues for as long as one of the parties is adding to it.

75% of customers prefer private messaging apps like WhatsApp over traditional channels like phone or email.

Either way, this is popular with customers. In fact, 75% of customers prefer private messaging apps like WhatsApp over traditional channels like phone or email.

To understand which is best for your business, let’s compare the key features.

Availability

Live Chat. If the agent or customer gets disconnected, the chat ends. If the customer starts a chat with an urgent problem setting up their new software, but their internet goes out, the chat’s over. If either party doesn’t respond within a few minutes, the chat will typically time out.

If the customer’s issue isn’t resolved, they’ll have to start a new chat session. They’ll have to explain their issue again, perhaps to a different agent. This is a pitfall, as 72% of customers expect customer service agents to know who they are, and their customer service history.

Messaging. Customers and agents can message at any time without expecting an immediate response. No more waiting by the chatbox. Maybe your customer has a query about their subscription, but it’s not due for another three weeks. They can leave their question, and pick the conversation up when it suits them.

72% of customers expect agents to know their customers service history.

Agents can reply when they’re available. This also gives them the opportunity to bring in other team members for advice. Your team can serve more customers simultaneously, and they can prioritize requests. And if the customer and agent happen to be online at the same time, they can turn it into a live chat.

Communication History

Live chat. The conversation can only be seen during the live chat session. Once the chat ends, most tools email a transcript of the conversation right to the customer’s inbox. But this only works if the customer provided their email address at the beginning of the chat. If they don't, they won’t be able to access the transcript in future.

Say a customer asks for help setting up a widget. They didn’t provide their email. Now if they can’t remember what the agent said, they’ll have to start a new chat.

Messaging. With messaging, the chat widget acts like a mini inbox for your customers. They can come back and see their history. The software will also send out an email if it can’t reach the customer via the widget.

46% of customers say letting them choose their communication method of choice is the most important part of good customer service.

This is great if a customer needs to find anything. Maybe they chatted with a few agents, and one offered a coupon to compensate for a service outage. If the customer didn’t save the coupon, no problem. They can just look it up in their recent conversations. Messaging interfaces are usually simple and don't allow customers to search the way they could search their email. But the information is all there for them to scroll back through.

Cross-device

Live chat. One big difference between live chat and messaging is that live chat is confined to a single session on a specific device. Just as you couldn’t hang up the phone and then expect to continue the chat on a totally different handset, so you can’t switch between devices for live chat. If a customer starts a chat on their desktop at work, they can’t just carry it on at home.

Messaging. Messaging lets the customer access the history of the conversation across devices. 46% of customers say letting them choose their communication method of choice is the most important part of good customer service.

Messaging lets customers continue the conversation on the go, without losing the context.

If the customer sent a message from their laptop at work, then had to get out of the office to meet a client, that’s fine. They can pick the conversation up on their phone while they’re out and about.

Customer Experience

Live chat. With live chat, customers only get the option to chat with someone if an agent is available. If your customer is frustrated about an order that didn’t ship, and they see you offer live chat, they’re going to expect to get their issue resolved fast. They won’t love it if they have to search your knowledge base for “why didn’t my item arrive?”

Messaging. Most messengers display a welcome greeting that lets customers know the typical length of time it takes a company to respond. This prevents disappointment, because the expectation is clear. Maybe your customer wants to ask about a feature they can’t see. It’s not urgent, so they’re happy to message and get a reply sometime soon.

Letting customers know when to expect a reply means if the issue is urgent, they can reach out via another channel with a faster response time, like phone or social media.

64% of customers agree that 24/7 service is one of the benefit of chat bots.

It’s also common for businesses to use a flow or AI based bot in their chat widget. The bot gathers initial information, and asks questions so it can point customers towards self-service resources. Most bots give customers the option to connect with the support team if the issue still isn’t resolved. Customers have a generally positive relationship to chat bots. 64% say the 24 hour service is a benefit of chat bots, while 55% appreciate that they can give instant responses.

Resources

Live chat. Customers love instant gratification and results. Just look at the popularity of Amazon Prime’s same day delivery service, on-demand streaming like Netflix, or the instant gratification of Uber Eats. 47% of customers said speed is one of the most important features after quality of service. And more than half said they don’t care if support is offered by a human or a bot so long as it’s fast. Live chat offers speed.

Messaging. Not every business can afford to staff a live chat widget 24/7. If you’ve only got a small team, imagine the stress of trying to schedule round the clock live chat agents. Real time messaging is much more flexible. Your customers can still get help, but you don’t need agents there every minute of the day.

More than half of customers don’t care if support is offered by a human or a bot so long as it’s fast.

Reporting

Live chat. Because live chat is based on individual sessions, there’s a clearly defined end point. At this point the software will probably archive the conversation. You can set it to send an automated message asking customers to rate their experience. Now you can look at your customer’s responses and see at a glance if they were happy with the service they got. Do they feel like their issue was resolved? How highly would they rate that interaction? How did that specific agent perform?

Messaging. It’s a bit more tricky to get analytic reports from messaging. The conversation can be dragged out over hours, or even days. A customer can restart the chat for a related question. The agent might return with some follow up questions the next day.

Should you count the interaction as done after a certain amount of time has passed without either party messaging? Or when it seems like the initial query is resolved? When should you ask for customer feedback?

Some systems get around this by encouraging agents to mark the conversation as closed, which prompts the system to ask for customer feedback. This puts the onus on the agent to decide when each chat is done. Some systems force the customer to start a new conversation after a certain amount of time has passed, effectively closing the previous one. And some systems offer a combination of both.

Which Is Better for Your Business?

Excellent customer service is a high priority for any business that wants to thrive. Research shows that 94% of customers say brands who offer excellent service over messaging channels are more likely to have repeat purchases.

94% of customers say brands who offer excellent service over messaging channels are more likely to have repeat purchases.

Happy customers come back. They buy again. They tell their friends. And unhappy customers also tell their friends, which you’d rather avoid. With a staggering 21% of live chat requests going unanswered, you don’t want to join the ranks of businesses who don’t handle live chat well. You want to start offering the best customer service you can, as soon as you can.

But which option will enable your agents to provide the best possible customer support?

To help you figure out whether to choose live chat vs messaging, consider these two things.

First, what kind of business do you have?

Do you have the kind of business where customers arrive on your website, stay for a short while, then make their purchase? Being able to answer their questions quickly is critical to closing the sale. So here, live chat is a good fit.

Do you have the type of business where customers stay on your website for hours (such as an online game or web application)? Then answering more slowly is acceptable, and can even be more convenient for both customers and agents. Here, messaging is a better fit.

Second, think about your resources. How much money can you invest? How many team members can you make available?

Live chat is more expensive to offer, because you need to staff it for a certain number of hours each day. Even if you don’t offer 24/7 responses, you’ll at least need a decent amount of coverage. Customers won’t be happy if they repeatedly get a message saying there’s no agent available.

If your customers see you offer live chat, they’re going to expect to get their issue resolved fast.

Messaging is more cost effective to offer, as you don’t need a certain number of agents dedicated to live chat. And they can handle more requests simultaneously. There’s no expectation of an immediate response, so even a few hours is acceptable. It’s a difference between live chat and messaging that can make a big difference to your budget.

Real time messaging also lets your team prioritize requests. They can respond faster to more critical problems, and then get to the less critical ones after that.

Our Recommendations

If You Have an Ecommerce Business


Then customers visiting your website are used to live chat systems on ecommerce sites, and they expect an immediate response.

If they don’t get answers, they’ll leave. And that means a lost sale. Live chat is your best bet. You can engage with potential customers and help drive the sale.

This proved true for Virgin Airlines. They found a 23% conversion rate for customers using live chat. That’s nearly 3.5 times more than those who didn’t use live chat.

If You Have a SaaS (Software as a Service) Business

Then your customers are less likely to have such urgent questions. Sure, they still need timely help. But their questions are typically support related, and can easily take place over messenger.

SaaS customers are more likely to get distracted or put their device down for a while than if they were on an ecommerce site. Messaging is more convenient for them, because they can pick the thread back up when it suits them.

That’s on the app and support side of your SaaS business. But what about marketing? On the marketing side, such as sign ups for a subscription or free trial, the conversations are more sales oriented.

55% of customers say they appreciate bots because they can provide them instant answers.

Think about a new visitor, arriving on your site and eager to find out more about your product. They want to know if it’s worth hitting that sign up button. Getting quick answers could be the difference between them booking a demo, or losing interest. In this case, live chat is a good fit.

So if you’re in SaaS, your customer support team will likely do well with messaging, but your marketing team will benefit more from a traditional live chat.

Choose Based on the Situation

If you’re still not certain which is best for you, think about the situations where your clients are most likely to contact you.

Whether you’re selling clothes, flights, or electronics, there are some time sensitive situations that need an immediate response. Questions about same day deliveries, flights, or cancelling an appointment last minute all need a quick response. Software failures that leave your clients unable to do business need to be answered immediately. Live chat definitely trumps messaging in providing that.

47% of customers said speed is one of the most important features after quality of service.

And there are some situations where a longer wait time is acceptable. If you run a service that your customers aren’t typically logged into all day, or maybe an app that gets used on the go, messaging is a good fit. If most of your client queries are not urgent, messaging will work for you.

Takeaways

Your customers are used to messaging a friend on WhatsApp and getting an answer an hour later. Their aunt might not respond to their Facebook Messenger dinner invite till the next day.

But don’t assume they’ll tolerate the same sort of leisurely pace when they reach out to your business. When people are paying for a service, they expect focused attention and to be treated like their issues are of vital importance.

To choose between live chat vs messaging, take the time to really understand what your customers want, and the kind of experience you want to offer them. What makes most sense for your team and your resources? For example, 79% of consumers say it’s very important to be immediately routed to the agent most knowledgeable about their issue. How can you best use live chat or messaging to make sure they get that?

Live chat and messaging look very similar on the surface, but they’re very different underneath. Understanding this is key to making the right decision.

Setting expectations upfront is vital for customer satisfaction.

Remember: Traditional live chat demands real-time attention from both the agent and the customer. It’s like a phone call. Real time messaging is more flexible. It’s like instant messaging on Facebook or WhatsApp.

Live chat makes sense when your customers only spend a short time on your website or app. It also works better when you want to capture the interest of potential customers by being available to answer their questions as they decide whether to make a purchase.

Real time messaging makes sense when your customers spend hours on your website, or logged in to your app. They’re happy to send a message and then pick up the reply later.

Whether you choose live chat for its instant resolution, or messaging for its flexibility, always be explicit about what your customers can expect. Solutions that try to hide the fact that there may be a delay or an agent is not online only cause frustration for your customers. Setting expectations upfront is vital for customer satisfaction.