Your customers can always reach you by phone or email—but increasingly, those means of communication aren’t fast enough for time-pressed customers, especially younger customers who’d much rather type than speak. Today, they expect to get answers in real time, from a live person, via a friendly chat feature on your website. In fact, demand for live chat grew by more than 43% between the end of 2014 and the end of 2016, according to one report.

Live chat is especially important for small and local businesses, says Jennifer Shaheen, president of the Technology Therapy Group in White Plains, New York. “People like to work with small businesses because they can get more personal attention,” she says. “It’s a huge competitive advantage, and live chat is one way to shine a light on that benefit.”


‘Installing live chat software can take as little as five minutes—it’s as simple as adding a piece of code to your website.’


Managing the ‘speed’ factor


New tools make providing live chat relatively easy and affordable. “Installing live chat software can take as little as five minutes—it’s as simple as adding a piece of code to your website,” says Robert Brandl, director of the ToolTester Network website. “For branding-free paid plans with unlimited chats, you are probably looking at paying $10 to $15 per month per agent.”

Affordable, yes. But the speed can prove challenging for small businesses with lean staffing. It’s important, Brandl says, for customers to receive a reply via live chat within 60 seconds of their queries—not a lot of time for employees to respond when they are multitasking on other things, such as speaking with face-to-face customers or answering emails. One way businesses can meet the “minute” standard is by limiting the hours during which live chat is available.

“Your website analytics will tell you which times of day tend to be your busiest. Assign designated employees to man the chat system during those times,” Shaheen advises. “Then put the word out on social media that live chat is open during these specific periods if customers have any questions.” At other times when chat is not available, you can offer an email option with turnaround of one day or less.


How to choose the best live chat app


Live chat software systems vary, so consider your needs carefully. If, for example, your business requires you to share files or product photos during chats with customers, be sure the software you choose allows this. You’ll need a system that is compatible with your website and CRM, and you should understand what types of data it will capture for you.

Start your search for apps by checking out review sites such as, and “Create a shortlist and start trying them out using free trials,” Brandl suggests. These three live chat apps cater to small businesses and consistently receive high marks on review sites:


    • Olark has premium features that include chat reports, transcripts and shortcuts (i.e., canned responses to frequently asked questions). Reviewers give it high marks for ease of use and quality of support.


    • Zendesk Chat, formerly known as Zopim, has some sought-after attributes, including live analytics and proactive chat, which is when your chat system automatically reaches out to a website visitor based on certain informational and behavioral triggers, such as geographic location or time spent on your website.


    • PureChat is praised for its simplicity and intuitive user experience. It is compatible with many popular web-based content management systems, as well as CRMs and email marketing systems (Salesforce, MailChimp).


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