Better chat without chat

From time to time, the team I proudly belong to does some customer surveys to optimize our inhouse services. One request we consistently get is the need for a live online chat as extension of our customer support portfolio.

This is an understandable wish, as the advantages of live support and communication by live chat are evident.

  • Individual – you have live communication with a human being, not with an anonymous system
  • Realtime – you get a quick answer at the time you have the issue
  • Guidance – more complex issues can be solved step-by-step
  • Communication best practice – this is real life knowledge sharing at its best

Time for a testimony. Dear reader, I apologize if you are one of the sufferers and ask to kindly not take it personally, but to very honest … I usually switch the preinstalled text chat tools off. Why? Because they are just unefficient and get on my nerves. When it rains, but it pours. And on top of that this tiny little text chat window pops up with messages like “just to say hello” or “what are you doing?”

There is one more fancy attitude of text chatters. “May I call you?” … …. …. Come on!!! Maybe I am utterly daft, but …

  • If you want to call me, why don’t you just do it?
  • If you are afraid for possibly disturbing me, why do you let an annoying chat box pop up on my screen?
  • Isn’t this like asking “may I disturb you” while you have done it alreay by speaking it out?

To me a text chat window appears much more offensive than a phone call would ever do. I like people, and hearing someones voice is much less annoying than dry text messages on the screen. (at least for most voices) And I am always free to not pick up the phone in case it does not suit me … with a chat tool I do not really have this choice as the tool always shows that I am there. This suggests that I am available, and puts some mean subliminal pressure on me not to decline. So, in case you would like to call me. Just do it, please! I will either answer the phone, or call back ASAP.

Yes, I am live available already at any time … by phone. Aaaahh… phone! Dear generation-Y-timers, this old-fashioned voice-thing, you remember? I can be reached by phone as easy as by text chat. But no one ever would call me during working time and asking “what are you doing at the moment?” OK, perhaps my boss could legitimately. But even he does not, because he knows that wasting my time is neither in mine nor in his interest.

With phones people chat live since ages just by simply talking to each other. Well, let’s have a look at the core features of phone communication …

  • Individual – you have live communication with a human being, not with an anonymous system
  • Realtime – you get a quick answer at the time you have the issue
  • Guidance – more complex issues can be solved step-by-step
  • Communication best practice – this is real life knowledge sharing at its best

Weird … somehow having a déjà-vu feeling …

Heavily looks like that phone does already what chat claims to provide. So, is chat a redundant functionality? To my opinion it is even worse. Chat does not offer a dispensible functionality only, it offers even less functionality as phone at lower efficiency resulting in lower productivity.

Only about 60% of chat requests I myself get at work do have a work-related objective and result in a solved task, compared to 95% finally productive phone calls. And the average attentiveness a text chat conversation needs for me is estimated in the range of 12-15 minutes, compared to average 5-6 minutes for a support phone call regarding a similar issue. I found some posts in German newsgroups on real life experienced duration of (business-service) chats and phone calls. They confirmed a strong tendency for text chats to take longer (at least doubled on average). This loss of time is inevitable as typing a text certainly takes longer than saying it. Plus the time it takes for submitting and displaying the message on the other side. More than that, our human brain is able to digest and work with a message while we hear it already. With chat you have to wait for the message to be finished, then it is transmitted, and then you start to read (and think). Phone is true interactive discussion. Text chat is playing Ping-Pong.

But with phone you cannot do such fancy and auxiliary things like file and desktop sharing, I can already hear you say. Sure you can do those things with phone communication! Even better! As both hands are free for working with files and desktop (esp. when you are working with loudspeaker or a headset). Very similar to working with Skype1 e.g. (see below). And by the way, yes, you can do “conference calls” with a phone.

Let’s directly compare live text chat with live phone …

Text Chat Voice Phone
Functions text chat, live communication, short-term, individual guidance voice2voice, live communication, short-term, individual guidance
Auxiliaries conference (tool dependent), file sharing (tool dependent), desktop sharing (tools dependent) conference, file sharing (with add. tool), desktop sharing (with add. tool)
Productively works on …
  • Blackberry,
  • smartphone with QWERTZ
  •  iPad/iPhone with Bluetooth QWERTZ
  • PC, Apple, …
  • Laptop, Netbook
  • Blackberry
  • smartphone
  • iPad/iPhone
  • PC, Apple, …
    (with Sykpe e.g.)
  • Laptop, Netbook
    (with Sykpe e.g.)
  • mobile phone
  • landline phone
Connection via …
  • cable network
  • wireless network
  • landline phone
  • cell phone
  • cable network
  • wireless network
Communication efficiency
(range = 1* (snailmail) to 6* (interactive talk))
  • 3*
  • easy
  • limited to text input
  • Ping-Pong-communication
  • 5*
  • easy and efficient
  • true interactive real-time communication
  • closest to personal talk
Productivity factor
(range = 1* to 6*, values based on individual, non-generalizable data)
  • 3*
  • 60% of sessions work-related
  • 10-15 minutes average session duration
  • 80% success rate
  • quick connect, time loss by typing input and waiting lags, constricted input via keyboard/mouse/QWERTZ
  • 5*
  • 95% of sessions work-related
  • 5-6 minutes average session duration
  • 95% success rate
  • quick connect, interactive support, need for an additional tool for file/desktop share
 (based on the Swiss industry average personnel costs per hour = € 37.05 (2009 data 1))

calculatory productivity factor = x / %-work-related / %-success-rate

  • € 7.70 per support chat (~5 support chats possible per hour)
  • € 16.00 per support chat incl. productivity factor
  • plus internet connection fees depending on device used and individual contracts
  • plus optional license costs for applications or application services
  • no setup/device costs as device generally present
  • € 3.40 per support phone call (~11 support calls possible per hour)
  • € 3.80 per support phone call incl. productivity factor
  • plus phone and/or internet connection fees depending on device used and individual contracts
  • plus optional license costs for auxiliary applications or auxiliary application services
  • no setup/device costs as device generally present

Too much biased to your taste? Well, sorry, the facts just speak for themselves. As a logical consequence of these facts I clearly need to stick to the phone.

But there is an auspicious eye. As I am strong advocate of multi-channel strategies, I have no issue with redundancy. Each of us should use the channel he personally prefers, even if it might be text chat and even if it might be less efficient. But also be still open for the channels other prefer!

So, even I will start to occasionally switch my chat tools on for internal customer support. Because I want to be were our customers are. This is no inconsequence, this is customer-oriented behaviour and tool-independent knowledge culture. But I will feel free to also share the knowledge how people on the other hand can reach me best.

So, I tell clients asking for a live chat support: “No matter! … I have a live chat tool in place already where you can always instantly reach me!
I call it phone.”

Do you also favour phone over text chat?
Or quite the contrary?
If you really prefer text chat, tell me why and try to convince me!

1 Comment: Skype is another story. In this post’s context it simplified fits to the phone category. But unfortunately in some companies blocked for dubious security reasons.



Moving online

Please forgive an old trapper this melancholic flashback. But one of the most inspiring projects during my career was the successful migration of a business publication from print to online around the turn of the millennium. “Inside-Lifescience” was a multi-channel online-magazine covering latest news and trends in life science, pharma and biotechnology.

But let’s start with the roots. The publication was originally developed in early 1999 by a leading German publisher of specialized journals in the fields of life sciences/medicine and the information broker business that I had just founded. The intention of the publisher was to establish a periodical information resource that reflected the emerging European biotechnology industry. We – with our know-how of information research combined with in-depth knowledge of life science technologies and industry – were found to be the right content partner for this project. The result of both expertises was the printed monthly newsletter “BIONEWS”. “BIONEWS” mainly included news from all over the world arranged in categories. This was complemented by an event calendar, links to web sources, and an editorial. “BIONEWS” contained no advertisement and was exclusively financed by subscriptions.

As the aim of “BIONEWS” had always been to cover current trends and to be most up-to-date, we soon realized that a print publication had natural limits regarding timeliness. With the monthly frequency, the news for a single issue had been collected over a couple of weeks. Layout, setting, print, and delivery needed at least an additional week. So, at the time the reader had his copy in his hands, some news were already four or even more weeks old. Not really highly topical! The only way for a print publication to overcome this limitation would had been to shorten its publication dates. But this also would had multiplied the operating efforts and costs.

So, what alternatives did we have? After some discussions we finally decided to move online. This sounds obvious from today’s perspective. But at those times it was absolutely not. Well, honestly spoken, the facts spoke for themselves:

  • an online publication could be updated more regularly (up to several times a day)
  • the editors could react more flexible to incidents of immediate interest for readers
  • there were no more regular expenses for setting, printing, and delivery
  • production could concentrate on content not on layout
  • the production process could be improved through content management technologies
  • new database-based products became feasible
  • the basic content was for free to readers because the financing relied on advertisement and enterprise services

As a result the whole production process from initial content research up to the archives was improved … resulting in a new product and new services at lower costs.

But lower running costs had to be paid with great set-up expenses. As the print version could be produced via the standard production path of the publisher, the online version needed a complete new infrastructure. We found this structure in an information management system that was able to channel incoming as well as outgoing information, and allowed to automatically publish content on the web. This system also could automatically mail electronic newsletters, send SMS messages, and fill WAP pages in parallel to the HTML pages (for generation Y: WAP was an early technology to make web pages visible on mobile devices with – at those times – minimalistic displays). Further technical problems had to be solved. “Inside-Lifescience”, the new name for the publication, needed a web server, and a reader-oriented web layout had to be developed.

Setting up a new information system did not only have a technical perspective but also psychological aspects. Established working behaviour needs to be changed. System users (the editorial staff, e.g.) needed to get an introduction to the new software. The internal “routing” of information was changed. More information has to be shared internally. And I am sure all of you know the sentence “But we have always done it by this, and it always worked fine!”  But I was lucky to have a quite young team showing the flexibility that was necessary to successfully manage those changes.

The publisher now took the marketing part of the project. They had been an established professional marketing partner within the life science industry. They did have the contacts to sell banner places as well as corresponding “Inside-Lifescience” enterprise products (like content delivery for company web sites, e.g.). But they also had to learn, because selling an online banner is not the same as selling advertising space in print journals. So, the project was a challenging and exciting experience for both partners. At those times, somehow comparable to the joint exploration of a new continent.

One important aspect should not be forgotten, as it is still prevailing. Despite all the new media euphoria we did not want to close our eyes for reality. In those early times, only a few online journals and information portals were substantially in financial plus. Online publishing was not really established in means of the return of investment. One reason may had been that internet users were used to have information and content for free, and many people did not really acknowledge the value of high-quality information (to my opinion this has not really changed so far). Back then I was convinced that there was only one promising  strategy to earn the money needed for the maintenance of an online information service: by accompanying products and co-operations. The few financially sound online projects, like “Focus Online” in Germany, showed that this was the way to success at that time. “Inside-Lifescience” had at this point already an advantage because it naturally cooperated with a variety of print journals that were under the roof of the publishing partner already.

Finally, “Inside-Lifescience” started real multi-channel with a web-magazine, an email newsletter, a mobile edition, an AvantGo-channel (at those times for PDAs), and an SMS alert service. And most important … with exciting, interesting, relevant and up-to-date quality content. We offered an always up-to-day view on the biotechnology industry, and had external industry insiders providing editorials. “Inside-Lifescience” lived as a successful online magazine with thousands of readers for a couple of years. It was discontinued when the collaboration ended due to a takeover of the publishing partner. We kept the online platform for a few more years as our corporate publication for clients and stakeholders, resulting in some major project acquisitions. But this is another story.

Revised version of the article “Moving Online – Developing an online information portal”, originally published in October 2000 by Business Information Searcher, ISSN 1365-5760