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The Psychology of a Good Live Chat Conversation

What can psychology teach us about a good customer service live chat conversation? A lot, as it turns out. Live chat, as all of the customer support, is more than answering questions quickly and accurately. Robots and knowledge bases can do that. Your main job is to show customers that you’re going to try hard to help them—because you care.

To learn what psychology has to teach customer service reps about live chat, I looked at three recent Psychology Today articles to find out how psychology can make you better at live chat support, and I spoke with reps to get real-life examples from successful, and not-so-successful, live chat conversations.


Here’s what I found:

The psychology

Medical practitioner, psychotherapist, and executive coach Dr. Russ Harris describes the near-universal human tendency to wait to feel motivated before taking any action as the “motivation trap.”

But, as author Rubin Khoddam points out, “While you’re waiting on motivation, motivation is waiting on you.”

The motivation trap is an excuse to stay still, and it prevents you from reaching your full potential.

What’s the solution to the motivation trap? It’s simple: do something anyway. Psychologists have found that when you are proactive regardless of how you feel, when you in essence force yourself to act, the feeling of motivation will actually follow your behavior.

The live chat application

So how do you apply this concept to live chat? Proactively reach out to website visitors and offer to chat with them instead of waiting for them to come to you. It helps to have live chat software that doesn’t charge you based on the er of chats. Olark‘s pricing, for example, offers unlimited chats.

Live chat software Comm100 founder and CEO Kevin Gao recommends you identify which pages could most use a higher conversion rate, and test raising your chat widget automatically to offer help. Wait until after a visitor has been on the page longer than somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds so you don’t interrupt them.

“Customers won’t always initiate the chat conversation,” Gao writes. “So you will need to proactively identify individuals who may need help and then raise the chat window with them. Customers may refuse the offer to engage in live chat, but this is not bad. In fact, just raising the offer to chat is sufficient to convey a sense of goodwill.”

You can also be proactive in offering solutions.

For example, Jordan Vidra, customer experience team member at Homage, was talking to a customer named Katie who had ordered a limited edition Father’s Day tee from the company. “Mistakes do happen sometimes with fulfilment. Unfortunately, she was sent the wrong tee,” Vidra says.

Katie had simply stated the problem, without proposing any rectification or solution, so Jordan proactively offered to send the correct tee and a prepaid way to return. Katie was happy with that solution.

The psychology

Anxiety is often blamed for everything from poor job performance to poor health. But according to new research, anxiety isn’t all bad. In fact, if you harness your anxiety, it could actually improve your performance.

Specifically, people who manage to see a stressful situation as a challenge instead of a threat actually gain energy from their anxiety, according to a study published in the Journal of Individual Differences earlier this year.

The live chat application

If you get anxious when strangers talk to you, or when they ask you hard questions or get upset, you probably aren’t going to be doing customer service live chat long. But even the coolest customer service cucumbers sometimes get that sweaty palms feeling.

Here are some tips to harnessing your anxious energy in a live chat scenario:

Don’t pretend you’re not feeling anxious or downplay what you’re feeling. Instead, accept, embrace, and acknowledge your emotions. Denying your feelings “will reinforce to you that anxiety is bad and experiencing it will harm you,” says Amy Morin in Psychology Today.

  • But don’t let it stop you from acting

When a customer gets angry or upset, it’s natural to want to end the conversation, either by giving pat answers, transferring the customer to another representative, or simply ending the chat. Don’t give in to temptation. Instead, acknowledge how you’re feeling, but then remember that being anxious won’t necessarily cause you to fail. In fact, it can power your next moves.

“You can still succeed when you’re nervous. Building mental strength isn’t about feeling calm all the time. Instead, it’s about feeling anxious and taking action anyway. Being productive, even when you’re anxious, will help you develop confidence in your ability to handle discomfort,” Morin says.

Successful people take action, even when they don’t feel like it.

For example, Shelly Weaver, customer loyalty at Tuft & Needle, says one action they take is trying to go into each chat assuming positive intent. “When a customer enters a chat with scepticism and/or frustration, we try to empathize with their situation, acknowledge their concerns, and humanize the chat interaction,” Weaver says.

  • Manage your anxiety levels

Just because anxiety can help energize you doesn’t mean you want to feel it more than is necessary. To reduce unnecessary anxiety, try eliminating as much uncertainty from your job as possible. Consider a script to fall back on when things go away. Also, make sure you’ve got access to a well-populated knowledge base so you don’t have to waste time hunting for answers.

Do you know the proper protocol for handling an irate customer?

“If a conversation continues to go in a negative direction, we encourage the customer to reach out to us via phone call,” Weaver says. “While we are able to turn most negative chats around, there are instances where taking the conversation offline is best to reach a resolution.”

Being knowledgeable of and trained on best practices removes some of the guesswork and attendant anxiety from your day-to-day job. So when something goes wrong, you know how to handle it, instead of having to worry about whether you’re making the right call in the moment.

The psychology

Well, this one doesn’t have to be stretched very far to apply to live chat. “You need a somewhat flexible strategy to cope with annoying people,” says Michael Karson Ph.D., J.D.

So what are your eight main options?

  • Fight
  • Fly
  • Freeze
  • Surrender
  • Holding your ground
  • Strategize
  • Meta-communicate
  • Self-reflect

Okay, so how well do these tend to work for live chat? Well, you probably don’t want to fight, fly, or freeze. Fighting with your customers, leaving the conversation, and ignoring customers won’t get you anywhere but fired.

Surrender can often be a useful tactic. I’d suggest going into conversations ready and willing to do anything to turn a customer’s frown upside down if it will cost less than replacing them. Remember, the cost of a lost customer is their average monthly recurring revenue, plus your cost per acquisition.

However, if the customer is being unreasonable and can’t be made happy for less than the cost of replacing them, you may need to hold your ground and not give in to a customer’s demands. An agent who’s successfully holding their ground “insists on not being annoyed, on neither caving nor avoiding, in short, on going about your business,” according to Karson.

Meta-communication is trying to fully understand not just the other person’s request, but their ultimate goal in making it. “Being mindful about exactly what a customer needs is a huge factor in successfully turning an interaction around,” Weaver says. “We always want our customers to feel valued and heard regardless of what channel they reach out through.”

Self-reflection is also key to successful customer care. For example, with Katie, Vidra acknowledged the mistake on their end before taking any other action. He even made a joke about the two tees not being the same.

Katie: He got the “Columbus Recreation and Parks” shirt instead of the “I’m Resting My Eyes” one. Jordan: Hmm really odd, they aren’t even close to each other, ha ha!

This helped Katie feel heard. Toward the end of the conversation, Katie said, “You’re the best, thank you!”


The biggest takeaway for me from these three Psychology Today articles is that to be successful in live chat support, and in life, it’s not necessary to feel calm or motivated. Rather, the key is to learn how to be proactive even when you don’t feel like taking action.

What was your big takeaway? Let me know in the comments.

And don’t forget that another key to success in customer service live chat is having the tools to help you succeed. For instance, does your technology allow you to have your chat box move up after 60 seconds? Check out our live chat software directory to compare your options and read reviews if you’re in the market for new software.


And then check out my other posts on customer service success, including:

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