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Live chat vs. phone support: Which should you choose?

Both live chat and phone support are synchronous, which means that customers can get immediate responses to their questions, but there are a few key differences that can impact when and how you use them.

By Laura Shear, Writer

Published February 23, 2021
Last updated May 27, 2021

It goes without saying that today’s customer service tools are not one-size-fits-all. Different communication channels—messaging apps, phone, email, and live chat–offer different benefits to the company and to the customer. When it comes to offering fast responses, live chat and the phone are the most obvious options. Both channels are synchronous, which means that customers can ask a question and receive an immediate response, and saw a surge in users last year. But there are a few key differences between these channels that can impact when and how you use them.

live chat vs phone support

What is live chat support?

Live chat support allows customers to connect with businesses instantly through a website or mobile app. Both proactive and reactive, a live chat window can pop up to see if browsing customers need any assistance or can be initiated by the customer whenever they need help.

Think about the last time you were looking at a company’s website and a chat window popped up to see if you had any questions, or perhaps you weren’t sure on sizing and wanted some guidance. In both instances, clicking on the chat window would connect you with a live agent who could answer your questions in real time.

Tickets over live chat surged nearly 50 percent during the pandemic, according to the 2021 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report.


Customers increasingly prefer to use live chat when interacting with customers, according to the 2021 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report. In fact, 25 percent of customers reported using live chat more during the pandemic, sending support tickets surging nearly 50 percent. Why? Perhaps because live chat can also offer 24/7 support with the help of an AI-powered chatbot.

Chatbots like Zendesk’s own AnswerBot can respond to customer requests outside of normal business hours, troubleshoot common problems, or create a ticket that a human agent can pick up when they’re back in the office.

Pros and cons of live chat support

Pros

  • Offers proactive support
  • 24/7 coverage
  • More efficient; agents can help multiple customers at once
  • Easier to scale
  • Easier to analyze chat transcripts

Cons

  • May not feel as personal
  • Harder to resolve more complex issues
  • Customers can be quick to abandon if agents don't respond quickly or they feel like they're talking to a chatbot

What about phone support?

Phone support is still the go-to for many customers, despite the availability of newer channels like live chat and messaging. With fast resolution times top of mind for most customers, it’s no surprise that phone support continues to enjoy a loyal following.

62 percent of customers say they most prefer to resolve issues with a company over the phone.

But while 62 percent of customers still prefer to call a business, it’s one of the few channels that actually saw declining popularity over the last year. Even so, phone support is unmatched when it comes to answering difficult questions and offering personalized customer support.

Remember the last time you had to explain a complicated issue by typing everything out into a chat window? It certainly takes more time than just explaining it over the phone. And it’s the closest thing to meeting face-to-face, so tone, inflection, and simple conversational touches can go a long way to forming more personal connections with customers.

Pros and cons of phone support

Pros

  • Offers more personal connection with customers
  • Better for complex issues
  • Faster, on average, resolution times
  • Call recordings provide more in-depth analysis

Cons

  • Cost; agents can only handle one ticket at a time
  • More difficult to scale
  • Call centers generally don't offer 24/7 support
  • Customers may have longer wait times to reach an agent

What are some key differences between live chat vs. phone support?

  • Proactive support

    One notable difference between live chat vs. phone support is timing. Whereas phone support is typically reactive (a customer initiates the conversation), online chat can be deployed as a proactive support channel. As such it may be the difference between a customer browsing your site and then leaving without buying anything or finalizing a decision and checking out with a purchase. With live chat, agents can gently nudge customers toward a purchase, and/or answer a question that’s keeping them from clicking “Buy”—something agents simply can’t do over the phone.

  • Real person in real-time

    Both channels allow for real-time interaction, many customer might prefer the phone over chat because being able to speak directly with a person can make for a more personal connection. This is particularly true for complex problems. Literally hearing a human being on the other end can be reassuring to some people, and prevent confusion around ambiguity: live chat support doesn’t always convey tone, so a statement might come off as sarcastic, rushed, or irritated when the sender meant nothing of the sort. That's often not an issue in call centers.

  • Keeping records

  • Another key difference between live chat and phone support? Recording and reviewing customer conversations. Both chat and phone support allow for this, but with chat you have the added ability to search text. This can clearly expose critical information about when customers need help and why. Live chat analytics provide insight regarding referral links (what brought them to your site) operating system and device (how customers want to reach you), active or idle status, time spent on your site, number of visits, number of chats, and location.

    However, as stated above, recording phone support captures an agent’s tone, making it possible to QA how your customer support front-line is making your customers feel, and the tone of their reactions. That’s invaluable information.

  • High-volume, low tolerance for waiting

    Live chat allows agents to simultaneously provide support to multiple customers, which is great for service departments dealing with a high-volume of easy and moderate support requests. Customers hate waiting, and live chat can vastly decrease wait times while easing pressure on agents.

    But what about the difficult problems? Or VIP/long-standing customers? Chat isn’t always the best option for them. Very often, they require the attention and human connection afforded by phone support. That’s one of the many reasons providing support via both chat and phone is great, because it allows companies, and by extension their customers, to use the best channel for the specific requirements of the customer and the issue.

  • Customer expectations

    The landscape of customer expectations is rapidly changing. No single channel will ever be able to meet all the needs of every customer. Your customers, just like you and your team, use a variety of channels in their everyday lives. Social media to share experiences, instant messaging for quick updates, phone calls for in-depth conversations. And they're taking those expectations with them into their customer service interactions.

    Teams that offer omnichannel support typically see faster response rates and happier customers.

    Three years ago, 62% of customers expected companies to respond to emails in half a day. That number is now 79%. Likewise, 3 years ago, 59% of customers assumed their issues would immediately be resolved if they called a company. Now that 66% have that expectation.

So, who's the clear winner? Omnichannel.

These days, customers expect you to meet them where they are, and where they are can vary widely by who your customers are and where they live. Customer support that's designed for omnichannel ensures that you meet the needs of all customers: live chat for those who are on the computer or perhaps have a quick question about an order or product, and phone support for those with larger issues or are on the go.

live chat vs phone support

Only picking one may be the right solution for some teams, but offering both is the best option for many. And what benefits customers, benefits companies. Teams that offer omnichannel support typically see faster response rates and happier customers. Win-win.

How Live Chat Helps Businesses and Consumers

The Zendesk family of products are designed to work together to help you provide seamless multi-channel support, no matter which configuration of channels you choose.