Why Haven't Bots Improved Web Chat Yet?

There has been a lot of excitement about bots this year, good and bad. But amid the buzz around restaurant bots in China; bot plays from Facebook, Kik, WeChat, and others; and, of course, the racist Twitter bots, is one very simple and completely overlooked use-case: good old-fashioned web chat.

Almost every site has a help-chat feature, usually illustrated by a stock photo of a smiling man or woman with a phone headset. Typically web chat is used to assist product discovery (questions, answers, etc.) or to facilitate customer support.  The experience with these chat features has almost always been the same for quite some time. Click on the help icon, wait for a response, type in your question, clarify your question about three times, wait for a response.

The current state of web chat is WAY behind the times, and I'm not just talking about the stock photos.  How?:

Web Chat Problem #1: The UI relies only on chat. 

New messaging platforms have changed the user-experience of conversations from simple text to hybrid interfaces that leverage many of the best visual interface and content elements from web pages and apps

Compare Comcast's web chat: 


with even a basic Messenger bot, like the Movie Bot

The experience is already better, and then you have the option of adding a variety of other useful buttons and tiles. Like the options for order tracking or push notifications in most shopping apps:

Or the more basic text and response buttons available for information-based apps:

Or carousel options for displaying a variety of options:

Or an intro screen that instantly gives customers basic info

Or any of the various "Message us" buttons available to guide customers into Messenger chats


You get the point: There are now dozens of options to provide a richer and more useful experience for customers (and, for businesses, to engage with customers longer and thus glean more information from them). The modern bot experience renders the simple, text-based question-and-answer sessions of web chat outdated in comparison.


Web Chat Problem #2: The chats are generally with humans

It can take a long time to engage and to get a response. No matter what, a human response is going to lag behind an automated bot response. And here's another thing: In most cases, businesses don't want to pay for 24-7 live-chat support. Nike's web chat, for example, when clicked during off-hours, will guide users to enter their email and wait for a support staffer to contact them later.

Compare that experience with what users are increasingly expecting from brands like Spring and Everlane in Facebook Messenger: 24-7 availability, and instant gratification.

On the business side, providing a web-chat service costs a lot of time and money. Many of the more commonly asked questions could easily be answered by a bot, freeing up human operators to jump in and handle more complex issues, or take over if a bot is struggling.

Compare either of these experiences:


Live Chat in FB Messenger:

With the standard web-chat experience, which generally requires several steps before you can even answer the question you're there to ask.


It's not mobile-friendly.  More traffic in general is becoming mobile and much of that traffic has FB messenger. The average web chat is not only not optimized to look right or perform well on mobile, it's also not set up to capture the sort of user data that makes Messenger so popular with businesses.

Just look at the data you can get with the standard user profile template on Messenger:


And now look at the device-optimized display of Messenger, which lets developers optimize the view depending on device and browser size:


Compare that with the total fail of the Comcast web chat experience on mobile:


On the UI and design front, web chat is an inferior support option on every metric, for both customers and companies. It's hard to imagine why any company would opt for web chat over the more modern-feeling Messenger, except that so many companies have already invested heavily in web chat infrastructure they don't want to scrap just yet, and that not every company wants to be handling the bulk of their support claims through a third-party app like Messenger. 

And then there's the fact that, for all of its issues, web chat is both well liked and effective. It's the highest rated (not most used, but most liked) customer-support channel with 73% customer satisfaction. Businesses like it because it can deflect 70% of service calls, on average. That stat is backed up by the fact that 53% of online customers say they'd prefer to use web chat than call a website's help number.

So you've got a feature that people like and would prefer to use more often, backed by outdated technology that can be easily updated. And you've got companies that could save money on deflected calls while improving service and keeping customers happy (see chart below for stats on how much companies could reduce salary spend by deploying bots to handle the simplest aspects of customer service).

This should be a pretty straightforward upgrade for most websites. You've already got an improved visual paradigm for chat, led by Facebook, Kik, and WeChat. The business case is easy to make: You're talking about a more cost-effective way to provide better service to customers, and to engage with them in a non-annoying way. It's a low-risk proposition, too. Most sites would (and should) keep their best service people around to deal with the more complicated or high-value cases, and let bots handle the basics. 

Of course, if every site in the world were to go out tomorrow and try to create their own custom chatbot it would be an overly complex, expensive nightmare and the value of upgrading web chat would disappear quickly. What we really need is a write-once-run-everywhere option for web chat, one that's optimized for mobile as well, especially since 62% of customers expect live chat to be available on mobile devices, and if available, 82% would use it (per Moxie Software).

Hundreds of sites, and their customers, already see the value in chat -- upgrading the offering with bots will only increase that value.