How can you engage with customers and prospects on your website while providing a more interactive and personalized experience? Chat may be your answer.


One survey found that 53% of consumers would rather use online chat than call a business. And research has found several other potential benefits to offering chat, including reduced shopping cart abandonment and overall higher levels of customer satisfaction.


“Small businesses typically use website chats for various customer engagement services including customer support, lead generation, lead qualification, appointment booking and product discovery,” says Ravi Sundararajan, chief operating officer of San Francisco-based Gupshup, a messaging service with a platform that businesses can use to build automated “chatbots.”


Chat can be particularly useful for businesses selling unique, innovative or complicated products that prompt lots of questions from online visitors, says Stephanie M. Casey, CEO of Dallas-based website agency Lovage Inc. “If you have a demand for an immediate answer for something and there’s no way you can put all the information clearly on your website, then it’s a great option for you to offer chat,” she says.


For business owners thinking about chat, here’s what you need to know:


How does website chat work?


There are two basic types of online chat: automated (using a chatbot) or live chat. With either type, it’s generally a box that pops up when someone visits your website or another page associated with your business, such as a social media page. The interaction happens via written message exchanges (similar to instant messaging). Most chat applications let you customize how to integrate chat and when to offer it to online visitors.


An automated chatbot can provide pre-created answers to common questions—such as your hours of operation or your return policy—around the clock. It can also help customers schedule appointments or do other basic activities.


If your customers often have more complex issues or questions, you may want to consider live chat (also called live support) with a human attendant. This of course requires that someone be ready to chat with customers online—but live chat can revert to an automated chatbot or request they email or call when someone is not available.


Some chatbots allow you to switch between automated and live chat—so if a customer’s question can’t be answered automatically, it can be referred to a human.


Certain chat applications are based around popular messaging platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, making it easy for people to ask questions about your business over those platforms. Some also allow you to create avatars with names (think “Hi, I’m Shawn. How can I help you today?”)—giving your chat more human qualities.


They can also integrate basic artificial intelligence, working to have a more authentic “human” back-and-forth conversation with the customer.


How do you add chat to a website?


To add chat to a website, first select a software provider with the features that serve your needs. There are many out there, but you might start by checking out Botsify, LiveChat, Chatfuel and Freshdesk to get a sense of the options available.


You can typically add the software to your site by simply pasting a few lines of code into your website’s source code or—depending on the software—via a graphical interface. Chat can be added to many kinds of websites, blogging platforms and ecommerce platforms.


Chat providers offer templates for different businesses, such as restaurants. These can be customized to add logos, make the window a different size or change the widget’s position.


Sundararajan says web chat is increasingly coming into its own as businesses focus on customer engagement and experience. “Website chats will only get more popular,” he says, “as having a personal interactive touch to any customer conversation on any topic will create a more engaging customer experience.”


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