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Don’t be afraid to use live chat for sales

Sales Enablement Specialist, Intercom

Anna Schmitt


Main illustration: Jimmy Simpson

Until relatively recently, salespeople were not too enthusiastic about the idea of using live chat for sales. We saw it as taking away our power to prioritize our time for leads and instead gave that power to whoever happens to be online at that moment.

But by using live chat to capture and convert leads, that attitude has begun to change rapidly.

Traditional sales teams were often taught to pre-qualify their leads before even talking to them. Pre-qualifying simply meant doing background checks on a company to see if they’d be a viable customer that would pay the bills, upgrade their plans, and succeed with your product. Usually this discovery was done before you even talked to them. Put another way, a lot of salespeople looked at a lead and saw a dollar sign. No wonder we got a bad reputation over the years.

A frontline rep for inbound leads would spend most of their time triaging a ton of messages received through various channels. Adding a live chat messenger to the list of ways an unqualified lead could get in touch was often seen as imposing an extra cost, rather than an added opportunity. Wouldn’t the deluge of fresh leads from live chat just slow us down? Wouldn’t this just increase the noise from pointless enquiries? Weren’t we relinquishing control of our daily schedules to be available to answer queries at a moment’s notice?

In fact, it is becoming clear that in reality, far from impeding your work, live chat allows you to capture and qualify more leads and close more deals faster than ever before. Here’s how we came to realize that.

No one likes a gatekeeper

As SaaS consumers began to wield more purchasing power, we knew we couldn’t stick with the traditional sales approach of simply expecting to talk to everyone interested in buying our product. People can now just buy without ever having to talk to us. But if somebody does have a question, we don’t want to make them feel like they had to answer 20 questions before they talked to the right person. An interested party should never feel like they have to jump through hoops, such as filling out an impersonal form, to get an answer. To that end, Operator, our bot, helps give us additional context on who we’re chatting with, without getting in the way.

When using live chat for sales, it’s important to consider the end user experience. If someone is serious about trying your product, they’ll want to talk to someone right away. Live chat lets us take advantage of an important factor – timing – by letting us talk to a person who is online right now. We usually prioritize these conversations over others we’re having with people who are offline, quickly establishing an immediate connection with someone in real-time.

Establishing a connection through live chat

The days when you might have waited hours or even days to build rapport with a potential customer are over. After all, the longer a lead waits for a reply the less likely they are to actually become a customer. Now we can see when they are online and get in touch with them in minutes to provide faster, smarter service – and we’ve found that visitors who chat with businesses are 82% more likely to convert to users. It’s the kind of modern communications experience we’ve all become used to since the early days of text messaging right through to WhatsApp. Chatting with someone paints a better picture of who’s sitting on the other end of the screen and the job they need to accomplish.

Another thing live chat can do within minutes is direct questions to the best teammate to respond. Sometimes this means you need to loop in an engineer or marketer. With a real-time conversation this can be tricky, because the other person might not be available to continue the conversation at that exact moment.

Reframe your sales approach

Using live chat has fundamentally changed how the sales team works at Intercom. Here are four takeaways we learned as we have adopted it in recent years:

Make sales customer-centric

A conversation with a potential customer isn’t one-sided in real life, so why should it be on your website? Change your vocabulary from “qualifying” to “understanding” a customer’s needs. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer and try to understand their goals in order to make the conversation meaningful for both sides. This lets you start building an important relationship right away.

Redefine your role

Similarly, ask yourself what it means to be in sales. Do you want to be a used car salesman, selling whatever’s on the lot? Or do you want to benefit from your customer’s success? At Intercom, we aim to function more like a customer advocate and consultant. This means understanding their specific use case, offering best practices, and putting them on a plan they really need – not trying to make the most out of the sale. That customer experience will go a long way in being a trusted source of knowledge and nurturing return customers who refer others.

Keep it conversational

Keep the tone conversational and human. Think of the different mediums that we use to communicate with each other (i.e. phone, chat, email). The medium you are using is chat, but the result you want is the same – to build a customer relationship. Keeping it conversational is a great way to build rapport or to diffuse angry customers. Another thing to bear in mind is that it’s important to match the tone of your user. Unlike more formal ways of communicating (like email), live chat lets us be our quirky selves – every sales person at Intercom is encouraged to be themselves rather than being robotic.

Set realistic expectations

In sales we talk a lot about expectation setting, but what does that really mean? Setting expectations with your customers establishes trust and brings accountability for both sides. For example, letting customers know you’ll get back within 30 minutes, when your response time is typically 24 hours, is going to irritate people and discredit you. As a sales person you’re already fighting the stigma that you can’t be trusted. Instead, be honest about your current bandwidth, thank them for messaging you and let them know you’ll get back to them as soon as possible.

Ultimately, having gone from a cool extra tool to consider for sales teams, live chat has quickly become an essential solution for capturing, qualifying and converting leads. Don’t let that new reality intimidate or overwhelm you – no other approach is as efficient in helping you scale the relationship-building that is so critical in a SaaS sales cycle. After all, converting more and more visitors into happy customers is the key measure of success for sales teams.