It's no secret that live chat is growing in importance as a customer service channel. People have gotten used to messaging with their friends and family, so it's no wonder many want to interact with businesses in the same way.

Chat is popular because it works -- it enables customers to get their questions answered quickly. In a Zendesk survey of more than 2000 customers, 92 percent said they were satisfied by the service they received on live chat. This was higher than the percentage of customers satisfied by any other channel.

Still, the growth of live chat in just the last few years has been notable. Use of live chat nearly doubled between 2013 and 2017, with nearly a third of customers saying they used chat to resolve their issues in 2017. Today, live chat is growing into the preferred customer service channel for many customers. 

Yes, live chat is increasingly becoming critical. But doing it wrong carries a number of risks. Below, we'll describe the benefits of live chat -- and the perils to avoid in order to get it right.

1. Live chat enables instant responses.

Live chat offers near-immediate access to the customer support representative. In comparison, an emailed query may go unanswered for 24 hours or more.

Furthermore, it saves customers' time by allowing them to multitask. A customer engaging in live chat can continue to use other browsers, switching back to the conversation when the agent is back with an answer.

Risks: At some companies, the average wait time for a chat response is over a minute. If you make your customers wait too long, they will get distracted by other tasks and you may lose them entirely. Wait time should be 30 seconds at the most, and under 10 seconds is even better.

And make sure someone responds! The worst case scenario: a customer is prompted to chat and then gets no response. When that happens, you've inconvenienced the customer and wasted their time -- the opposite of what you were aiming for.

2. Live chat allows for conversation.

Unlike email, chat allows back-and-forth, to clarify information or to ask multiple questions. As a result, a conversation that might require 2-3 emails -- or even more -- can be resolved in under a minute. Customers can even send screenshots or pictures to describe their problem precisely and quickly.

Risks: Chat agents need to be well trained in order to manage real-time conversations. An email support agent can ask for help if she's unsure of an answer. With chat, that's harder.

At Peak Support, we typically require agents to master email before moving them on to chat. And when agents are new to chat, we'll have them share the chat link with an experienced agent who can monitor their conversations in real time.   

3. Live chat is more human than other customer service channels.

Live chat feels as human as a phone call -- but without all the hassle. A chat agent can evoke customer confidence simply by responding quickly and in a friendly, conversational way. By contrast, sending an email to "support@company.com" can feel impersonal at best.

Risks: Chatbots! Chatbots are computer programs conversation designed to simulate a human. Chatbots have their benefits, but they typically can't answer complex questions. And they can't fulfil customers' need for the human touch. A chatbot that just returns articles from the company's self-help knowledge base may enrage your customers, rather than helping them.

If you want to deploy a chatbot, do it carefully. We recommend always having the option to transfer to a human agent.  

4. Live chat can drive sales.

Done right, live chat can drive sales. An agent can suggest related products or describe the benefits of upgrading to a premium plan. Potential customers can get their questions answered while getting reassurance that you offer great customer support.

Risks: Done poorly, live chat can lose sales! A potential customer who receives a sub-par experience might just decide to go to a competitor. Make sure agents are well-trained and keep those response times low. 

Live chat is a critical customer support channel in 2019. If you do it right, it can yield huge benefits. But you have to staff the channel adequately, maintain a rapid response time, train your agents well, and avoid alienating customers with poorly-designed chatbots.​

Published on: Feb 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.