There is an odd wrinkle in the digital era which is that companies continue to offer customer service like a kind of hostage situation where they won’t take action unless you, the customer, sit and watch while it happens. 

I have just spent 40 minutes in a live chat session with my mobile phone provider to cancel a data plan which has appeared on my account, which had me tethered to my desk because I started the chat session on my PC.

Many years ago, you could post a letter to a service provider making some request about your account, and when they got your letter they would make it happen, while you went about your daily life untroubled by any need to go and stand next to the person undertaking the work and make bright conversation while they actioned your request.

Then the contact centre made it was necessary sit on the telephone while your request was carried out. It was never an option to describe the request and have them call back when they were done. I think this was because contact centres saw themselves as a more convenient alternative to a customer visiting a store, when a better framing of the opportunity would have been to compare it against the customer, you know, doing something else.

Which brings us to live chat. It should be like instant messaging but it’s not.

Live chat is essentially a telephone call with the sound turned off. It is still involves waiting in a queue, getting connected, explaining what you want, standing by and wait until everything is actioned, then being disconnected at the end of the chat.

Real instant messaging really would enable the customer to do something else at the same time because iM doesn’t involve an expectation of an instant reply. And an IM conversation will follow the participants across devices. So if I want to head out to go to the movies, I won’t be ‘disconnected’ if I don’t reply to a question instantly, and the conversation can seamlessly shift from PC to mobile.

This is the kind of missed opportunity that happens when companies start with solutions (‘lets get live chat’) instead of starting with customer problems (‘how can we make routine service interactions easier and frictionless’).

As for me, I am off to the movies at last….