Customer experience is changing. Research from Merkle shows that customer loyalty increasingly relies on an emotional connection, with frictionless interactions a core requirement. This means that the days of strictly regimented, one-off customer contacts are over. Instead, customers today expect an ongoing relationship with the brands they trust.
Done well, live chat can be the ideal way to provide that ongoing connection. Whether you’re providing customer service, connecting people in a two sided marketplace, or building a community, live chat suits a world where many people need to divide their attention among competing demands.
But not every live chat implementation meets the expectations set by the likes of WhatsApp and iMessage. So, what functionality do you need in order to deliver modern live chat? Here we look in detail at 15 essential live chat features, along with an overview of how you might implement your live chat service.
15 features to make your live chat experience competitive
1. Low latency message sending and receiving
A study by Pew Research shows that 30% of Americans say they’re almost constantly online. That comes with an expectation of flawless, instant message delivery, with fast replies.
Whether you’re building live chat for customer service or connecting users directly, the quality and capacity of your infrastructure will decide whether you can meet the expectation of low latency message delivery.
2. Automatic reconnection
More than 70% of people expect natural, conversational live chat experiences. Noticeable disconnections and, worse still, having to reconnect manually, pull people out of the live chat experience and lead to lower customer satisfaction.
It’s not always possible to hide the fact that the connection is interrupted, but you should always attempt to reconnect where possible. And if something gets in the way of automatic reconnection, the next best step is to provide a URL or button for manual reconnection.
READ MORE: Learn how Ably manages connection state recovery
3. Channels and private messages
Whether you enable direct private messages between users or channels with multiple users will depend on your live chat use case. Often, you’ll need a mix both as they serve different needs.
For example, in-game chat for video games often has both private messaging and channels. Players working together on a team will hang out in a channel together, where they can chat without the risk of their enemies overhearing. Whereas two friends who just want to hang out and exchange jokes might use private messaging.
4. Online status
At its most basic, online status shows whether each person is currently connected. For a richer experience, users can communicate their precise status such as Busy or Back soon. Such status indicators are a key feature of live chat, since it lets individuals looking to start a chat know whether or not the recipient is available. In the context of customer service, this helps customers to know if support is available via live chat, rather than making a query and then waiting for a reply that won’t come for some time.
READ MORE: Learn how Ably uses presence to show who is online, where they are, and what they are doing
5. Typing indicators
Like online status, typing indicators provide a visual replacement for the social cues we get when chatting face to face. A small, usually animated, icon shows that the other party in a chat is currently formulating their response.
According to HubSpot, 82% of consumers expect an immediate response when they have a marketing or sales question and that goes to 90% for customer support queries. But even the fastest typists will struggle to respond immediately! A typing indicator lets customers know that someone is handling their query.
6. Read receipts
Your live chat users will bring with them expectations set by tools such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Viber. Those services have made read receipts a core part of the live chat experience, allowing people to make a decision about whether to follow up or wait for a response.
Using emojis and GIFs to react to someone else’s message is now commonplace on instant messaging and live chat platforms.
Smileys, or emoticons, used punctuation symbols in the early days of email to provide a layer of emotional context. Today, their modern equivalents - known as reactions - are a core part of how people communicate online, adding back some of the depth and color that’s missing from plain old text.
8. File and image sharing
Live chat is now central to the way that teams work together within companies, to how communities of volunteers communicate, and to the customer experience provided by companies large and small. Having largely taken the place of email, live chat needs to handle more than just text, emojis, and GIFs - making file and image sharing a core live chat feature.
9. Targeted messages
Targeted messages let chatters alert other users - usually by @ing their username. Large channels can get busy and it’s not possible for every member to keep an eye on every message. With targeted messages, individuals can work on other tasks safe in the knowledge that other users can alert them to anything important.
10. Push notifications
In an age of SMS fatigue, people still care about push notifications. In the US, 60% of smartphone users opt-in to receive push notifications from apps. That willingness to use push notifications means that they are both an essential tool for live chat and that they must be used carefully, otherwise the risk is that people grow tired of them and disable the alerts. Why are they so important to live chat, though? Primarily, it's because they enable the asynchronous nature of live chat. A person taking part in any kind of live chat can go about their day without needing to check for updates.
For customer service live chat, push notifications let customers continue with their day knowing their phone or browser will alert them when there’s a reply. Similarly, in the context of social messaging between friends, push notifications allow each person to come back to the conversation when a new message has been received. This becomes even more useful in a group chat setting, since it lets message recipients decide when to re-engage without having to keep the chat app open.
Aside from rare anonymous chat platforms, participants in most chat services need to be identifiable. Whether it’s username and password, or integration with an existing SSO system, you’ll need to consider how and where to implement authentication in your live chat. Authentication isn’t just about locking out potentially bad actors such as spammers and scammers. It also enables many of the other features we’re discussing here that enrich the live chat experience.
For example, the push notifications and targeted messages that make workplace chat so useful are possible only if the live chat platform can identify each person. Massively multiplayer online games, such as EVE Online, continue round the clock. Authentication allows the game’s chat environment to keep tabs on what context a player has missed while they’re away and to give them access to the relevant chat history. In a customer service context, authentication enables companies to tie live chat to other systems, such as CRM records.
12. Roles and permissions
Authentication also enables you to assign different levels of access to certain users. Those permissions–such as the ability to moderate another user’s chat or to be labeled as an official staff member, for example–are usually gathered together under the umbrella of a particular role, such as an administrator.
13. Message history and storage
Unlike email, live chat can often seem to be short-lived. However, many live chat platforms store conversations and provide searchable access to those histories.
For casual conversations, message history and storage can offer a fun way to relive a particular gaming campaign, or to look back at shared memories. In a commercial context, storing message history is often a legal requirement. Creating a record of customer interactions can help clarify misunderstanding, as well as providing training material for staff.
READ MORE: Learn how you can access message history with Ably
14. Message editing and deletion
Not every message comes out right first time. That makes editing or deleting messages a core requirement for most live chat solutions. Without the ability to fix a typo or delete an unhelpful message, live chat conversations become messy and harder to navigate as users are forced to re-type what their message should have been, instead of editing it.
Moderation is a must have feature for any chat platform that’s open to the public and it falls into two parts:
- Proactive moderation: prevent offensive and other unwanted materials from reaching other users by looking out for particular text strings and by using AI tools.
- Retrospective moderation: staff members respond to user reports or AI generated alerts of bad behavior through deleting messages and suspending or blocking offenders.
Such moderation is essential when live chat brings together people from almost every place, background, age, and point of view. Moderation lets those different people communicate together without the risk that one or two bad actors, or simply different cultural approaches, will make the experience uncomfortable or unworkable for others.
Examples of live chat features in action
To put some of those live chat features into context, let’s look at examples of how they add value to customer service, internal company chat, and chat for two way marketplaces.
Examples of customer service live chat features
We opened by talking about the potential for frustration that comes with poorly implemented customer service live chat. Here are three examples of how these live chat features make for an enhanced customer service experience.
Low latency message delivery
One of the main reasons customers get annoyed is the feeling that they are out of touch with what’s happening. Lag and unreliability make it especially difficult because neither side of the chat can be sure if and when their messages are delivered.
When HubSpot set out to offer a live chat service that their customers could implement on their company websites, they made low latency and reliability a priority. Today, more than 128,000 businesses across the world use HubSpot’s live chat to communicate in realtime with their customers. With 80,000 live chats each day and 3 billion messages per month, HubSpot’s customers indirectly rely on Ably’s realtime infrastructure to deliver messages on time every time.
In North America, customers are as likely to contact your live chat on a mobile device as they are a laptop or desktop computer. That brings with it the variability of cell networks as opposed to a fixed line domestic or office connection.
When a rail passenger uses their bank’s in-app live chat to query a transaction, or checks in with their family’s group chat, heading into an area without cell service shouldn’t derail the entire conversation. Instead, the app should keep the user informed and attempt to reconnect automatically.
File and image sharing
It’s a different type of customer service, but live chat is increasingly used as a first step in medical diagnosis via Digital GPs. That’s especially true in remote areas such as the Australian outback where primary medical care is often a plane flight away.
Patients can use live chat to send doctors images of their own medical conditions in order to help the medic decide whether an in-person consultation is necessary.
Examples of two way marketplace live chat features
Live auctions and marketplaces with concurrent live chat are increasingly popular. Bringing together complete strangers in a largely pseudononymous environment can bring with it some challenges, though.
Let’s look at some of the features that can help with live chat in this scenario.
Targeted messages alert individual users when their name is mentioned.
For auctions and other two sided marketplaces, targeted messages can provided the basic infrastructure necessary. For example, when someone gets outbid, a targeted message can let them know immediately. Similarly, buyers and sellers can message each other to dive into the detail of a particular product and to ask questions that aren’t answered elsewhere.
Moderation is an essential part of pretty much all live chat. When voice chat first became technically possible it was mostly used in gaming. Quickly, it became for anonymous, young players to use insulting and highly offensive language. Not only did this make the experience unpleasant for most players but it also opened a potential liability for the games publishers.
A similar temptation exists for trolls active on live chat, whether text or voice based, in two sided marketplaces. Through human moderators, machine learning tools, and the ability for users to block or report other people, moderation makes live chat usable and more enjoyable.
Examples of internal company live chat features
Live chat has become the communication backbone not only of remote-first companies, but also for organizations that previously might have used synchronous meetings or email more heavily.
Perhaps more so than any other live chat use case, team communication needs live chat to be unobtrusive until that person’s attention is needed.
To take on that central role in corporate communication, live chat needs to let team members focus on the chat only when they absolutely need to. And when it acts as a record of decisions taken in meetings, the ability to edit or delete inaccurate messages is essential.
Push notifications and live chat for teams go hand in hand.
Take Slack, for example. It offers varied levels of notification that enable people to control how engaged they want to be on a channel by channel basis. In the case of engineering team using a channel for service interruption alerts, everyone on pager duty might want to get a push notification. But maybe not so much from the joke of the day channel.
Message editing and deletion
Live chat has gone from a tool used on the fringes of companies to become the communication method of record in many organizations. As such, it’s important that the record is accurate.
For globally distributed teams, getting together at a time that makes sense for everyone can be tough. Live chat provides a way for team members to share what they’ve done, what they plan to do, and where they’re blocked without having to be on a voice or video call. But with how easy it is to make a typo or mistate something, those daily stand-up messages could become harder to read and less useful to the rest of the team. As simple as it seems, the ability to delete and edit messages transforms live chat from a peripheral tool to become a team’s primary communication channel.
Message editing and deletion helps everyone save misunderstandings and embarrassment.
How to deliver a feature-rich chat app
Building a feature-rich chat app takes engineering skill and the underlying infrastructure to meet user expectations. The precise steps you take to deliver it, though, depend on your priorities and the resources available.
Here are three options for you to consider.
Build from scratch
Getting a solution that perfectly matches your needs can seem like a great reason to build your own live chat from scratch. But for many teams who do just that, the results too often fail to live up to expectations.
Let’s look at what’s involved. First, there’s the software engineering side. What does it take to architect and develop the code necessary to run a dependable, scalable, and maintainable live chat tool?
Selecting your tech stack will decide much of what comes next. Technologies such as WebSockets, XMPP, and WebRTC each have their own peculiarities, as well as advantages and disadvantages. Whichever you choose, you’ll need to find engineers with expertise in using them to build production systems.
Once you have a working solution, arguably the hardest part comes next. Specifying and managing the underlying infrastructure. Which database, storage, CDN, and other tooling will you choose? And do you have the capacity and in-house expertise to make sure they all run well together, even in the face of unexpected demand?
Use a Chat-as-a-Service provider
Alternatively, you might prefer to focus your engineering efforts on bringing your product’s unique functionality to market. In that case, you could look at using a chat-as-a-service provider.
Chat-as-a-service is ideal if time to market is your priority. While you won’t get the same flexibility as with a home grown solution, you’ll be able to outsource the engineering both to create and maintain the chat service.
And there are other tradeoffs, not just feature flexibility. You’ll need to be certain that the vendor’s DevOps team shares your standards for reliability and that the product team has a vision for their roadmap that aligns with your product’s needs.
Build your own solution using a Platform-as-a-Service provider
The middle route between these two is to use a platform-as-a-service (PaaS). Rather than buying-in wholesale chat functionality, in the case of a chat-as-a-service, or building everything from the ground up, a PaaS gives you feature flexibility while taking care of the hard engineering problems.Ably is one such PaaS provider and offers pre-built components that accelerate your chat development, without dictating the end user experience. With a 99.999% SLA guarantee, Ably also takes the pressure off your DevOps team by providing fully managed realtime infrastructure.
How to deliver a live chat app with Ably
Using Ably, you can ship and scale rich live chat experiences in less time than it takes to build in-house and with greater flexibility than using a chat-as-a-service solution.
Ably’s redundant, fault tolerant edge network spans the globe. By routing chat messages and other data over the lowest latency route available, you chatters get a lag-free experience. And if something does go wrong, Ably reroutes around it seamlessly, while guaranteeing your data integrity.
For your software development team, Ably provides libraries for every popular development language and framework. Just as importantly, Ably can improve your time to market with pre-built components specifically designed for chat use cases.
Sign up for free to try Ably for yourself and see why the likes of HubSpot, Toyota, and BlueJeans trust our platform with their realtime infrastructure.