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Buyer's Guide

by Craig Borowski,
Market Research Associate
Last Updated: March 29, 2017

Live chat software allows companies to have real-time conversations with website visitors. It is by many measures one of the most effective tools for improving customer service, and can help to increase online sales and encourage repeat business by giving customers exactly what they want. It can be used for both pre- and post-sales service and, to top it all off, can help businesses save on the costs of providing support through other channels, such as phone and email.

We’ve prepared the following software guide to answer the most common and important questions that come up when businesses consider implementing a new (or replacement) live chat platform. The guide covers:

Here’s what we’ll cover:

What Is Live Chat Software?
Common Features of Live Chat Software
Strategy Tips for Live Chat Implementation
What Type of Buyer Are You?

What Is Live Chat Software?

Live chat is a communication channel that lets customers and businesses converse in real-time directly on a company’s website. It usually appears as a small box or window on the page; a live chat conversation can be initiated by the customer, the company or both, depending on how it’s configured.

Live chat software can be deployed either on-premise (hosted on the company’s own servers) or from the cloud (hosted on the vendor’s or service provider’s servers), typically under a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. On-premise installations are becoming less common, and are generally used when a company needs a high degree of customization or integration with other on-premise software platforms. The SaaS deployment option is growing in popularity, and is the more common choice for companies that want to add live chat to their websites quickly and easily.

In both deployment models and in most cases, the live chat function is added to a Web page simply by inserting a line or two of code, provided by the live chat vendor, into the page’s HTML. This code tells a visitor’s Web browser to display the live chat box or window whenever a certain page is visited or certain conditions are met.

Live chat is a highly flexible service channel, which is part of what has made it so successful. One-size-fits-all solutions are rarely ideal in the world of customer service, as there are simply too many changing variables that need to be considered in order to deliver the best outcomes.

For example, one company may find that visitors to its website have lots of questions and really appreciate the chat option, so wants the live chat window to feature prominently for all visitors. Another company might find that live chat is best used selectively, not wanting it to become a distraction to visitors, and might only have the live chat option display after certain conditions are met.

For example, live chat can be set to only display to:

  • People who have spent over a specific amount of time on one particular page, as this could suggest they’re having difficulty understanding it.
  • Customers who’ve been searching for topics on the company’s frequently asked questions (FAQ) or help pages, but seemingly not finding the answers they need.
  • Visitors who go back and forth several times between two different product pages, as this suggests they might need help deciding which of the two to purchase.

Once a company decides exactly how and for which visitors it wants to offer live chat, the live chat platform can be set to automatically follow these rules.

Common Features of Live Chat Software

Live chat is one of the most feature-rich communication channels available, and platforms are offered by a great variety of vendors. Some platforms are intended for general use, while others are tailored to specific business models and/or industries. All vary somewhat in the breadth and depth of the features and functionality provided.

One functionality common to nearly all live chat platforms is the “dashboard” or “control panel.” This is used by the business owner or supervisor to monitor current and past live chat interactions. In the following example dashboard, we see a variety of key indicators showing how well a particular agent is performing. Some of these indicators include: the number of chats queued up for this agent, the number of currently active chats and the longest amount of time any customer has had to wait for a chat session to begin.

Example of supervisor dashboard


Example, from Help.com, of a supervisor’s dashboard used to monitor chat usage and agent performance

The following table lists and explains a variety of other live chat functionalities. Not all of these are offered by all vendors, so buyers are advised to consider their live chat purchase carefully.

Functionality Description
Ticketing Lets agents create new tickets for customer support issues directly from the live chat with the customer.
File-sharing Allows agents and customers to send files (documents, images) to each other from within the chat window, often aiding in troubleshooting.
Co-browsing Lets an agent take control (with permission) of the visitor’s Web browser to lead them to specific pages on the website.
Surveys and feedback Allows for automatic surveys, such as those to determine customer satisfaction, to be given at the end of the chat.
Email transcripts Gives customers the option of having a transcript of their live chat session emailed to them when it concludes.
Mobile support Makes it easier to offer live chat to visitors using mobile devices: something many consumers have a preference for.
SMS (text message) Allows customers to use their phones to send a text message to a company and the company to respond from its live chat platform.
API (application programming interface) Some live chat platforms come with an API that allows for more granular customization.
Social media integration Some platforms can be integrated directly onto a third-party social media site (for example, a company’s Facebook page).

Strategy Tips for Live Chat Implementation

Since live chat is a Web-based technology, a company’s decision to implement it should begin with an examination of its existing website. Buyers can start by asking themselves two broad questions:

  1. What are the goals of our website? Companies should determine whether the site is mainly selling products, providing information, giving customers technical support or some combination of these (or other) goals. This will lead to a clearer understanding of how live chat implementation will fit into the company’s larger online strategy.
  2. How are customers actually using the website? Customers’ real-life usage should compare to the company’s stated goals. Website-visitor metrics can reveal which pages are most viewed, which pages customers spend the most time on and a variety of other browsing behaviors. The discrepancy between what a company wants customers to do on the website and what customers are actually doing is where live chat implementation should focus.

These questions are important because live chat is not an automatic ticket to online success: It should be implemented with specific goals in mind. Most of these boil down to encouraging customers to do what the company hopes they’ll do when they visit the website.

What Type of Buyer Are You?

Different companies have different goals for implementing live chat—and most have more than one. To help buyers understand the variety of goals live chat can help meet, here is a short list of the most common. Most live chat software buyers’ goals include:

Reducing support costs. Providing customer support over the phone is expensive, as each support agent can only handle one phone call at a time. But live-chat agents can handle multiple conversations simultaneously. Because of this, live chat allows companies to serve the same number of customers with fewer agents.

Increasing online sales. Most online retailers know how customers interact with their website: Records of sales along with basic engagement metrics reveal which pages (or products) are viewed most often, which products customers have questions about and which products are often bought together. Live chat can be implemented to help direct visitors to less trafficked product pages, proactively answer questions they are likely to have and make suggestions (using co-browsing) about products visitors might like to purchase.

Improving customer service. Surveys repeatedly show customers prefer finding the answers to their own questions. Catering to this preference, many companies have invested in detailed online self-service resources, such as searchable knowledge bases and FAQ pages—yet customers may not use these effectively. Offering live chat assistance alongside self-service resources can help customers make better use of them, increasing satisfaction while reducing the company’s costs on phone service.

Converting more traffic. In some industries, websites are used mainly to get the company’s foot in a prospective customer’s door, advertising services or products and hoping visitors will get in touch. However, customers may be hesitant to contact some types of businesses (such as car dealerships, insurance agencies or law firms) until they know what they’re looking for. Live chat is a low-barrier, commitment-free way to help with the easy questions that might be keeping customers from officially getting in touch.

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