Text-based chat is very small talk
By David Walker (Google profile)
Anyone who thinks we've got Internet media all worked out should examine the curious case of text-based Web chat, a medium whose theory is all promise and whose practice is, so far, mostly failure.
What's chat? It's a real-time exchange of typed messages - like the instant messaging offered by AOL/Netscape and Yahoo and Microsoft, except that you use your Web browser instead of some piece of dedicated software. Meg User, confused by the lousy navigation on the big Web site she's using, can click a button and open up a window where she can type questions to a real live person on the other end, who types back right away and gives her the help she needs.
Meg could log off and pick up the phone, of course. But most organisations seem to be working around the clock to make their phone systems even more complicated, understaffed and frustrating than their Web sites. And if you need complex information like product details or instructions, you want a document, not a voice.
Would users like Web chat? You'd think so. Email and instant messaging are essentially just people typing to each other, and they're so popular that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan spent an entire Nora Ephron romance ("You've Got Mail") clicking away to each other on camera.
Would Internet commerce firms like chat? On the surface, they have every reason to. With sites struggling to support customers, chat vendors regularly promise that one chat staffer can do the work of "up to four" telephone operators. And sites struggling to turn lookers into buyers are sold chat as a technology that can cut the abandonment of shopping carts and close more sales. "Chat is fast becoming a key ingredient in customer-centric marketing, employing high-end software and hardware to make the customer/Website interface immediate and profitable," nodded Business 2.0 magazine in mid-2000.
Your columnist put these claims to the test in trials in late 2000 at Internet home loan firm eChoice.com.au. We ignored the claimed one-to-four ratio between telephone and chat support, suspecting (correctly, it tiurned out) that text chat service, like all good service, would require staff to deal with one user at a time. But we weren't looking to save money. For eChoice, the appeal of chat lay in offering more of the detailed advice that people want as they contemplate financing a home. And eChoice's loan experts were already telephoning every user we matched to a home loan - so we had tech-savvy customer service experts able to run the chat process, a daunting hurdle for most potential chat-using sites. We also had a library of documents created for our Web site which could help users understand home loan issues. In other words, we were the perfect chat candidate.
We chose software built and run by an outside group, but customisable for our precise needs. The Java-based technology passed all internal tests, loading acceptably quickly on standard PCs, letting our customer service staff chose from a range of options for helping customers, and giving us detailed and accurate reports on everything that went on during chat sessions. In short, the technology worked.
And in our short trials, how many users wanted to use it? We never got into double-digit figures. The message was clear: invest our time and energy in our Web site, telephone help and face-to-face service, which we know people like.
I've wondered ever since whether our experience was common. During 2001 a report from Jupiter Research report said it was. In a Jupiter survey, only four per cent of online buyers say they'd use text chat on a site. Jupiter described that rate as "anemic". AmericanGreetings.com, with more than 125,000 subscribers, told Jupiter it was logging just a dozen chat sessions a week. Other firms have abandoned the technology because it was less effective than telephone support, Jupiter reports. No wonder that for the people who sell such software, according to Jupiter, chat is a shrinking slice of their business.
My best guess is that when most people type real-time messages into a computer, they want to send them to real people. Meg will happily type chat to Tom, but she won't yet chat to a Web site. Whatever the real answer, this isn't a technology problem; it's a comment on the nature of the medium.