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GUEST COMMENT Investing in ‘chit-chat’: Is this British staple the key to online growth during a recession?

Chit chat for Gen Z - totally mobile

For Brits, opening the conversation with a polite discussion about the weather or how you spent the weekend is a vital part of the culture – just as much as enjoying a sociable cup of tea.

A beacon of good manners, this so-called ’chit-chat’ is less about killing time and more about establishing an immediate rapport with someone. Many of us have been starved of this social connection in recent months as the pandemic fuelled a widespread shift to home working and social distancing.

This has been especially relevant to the retail sector with many physical stores closing, either temporarily or permanently, and strict distancing guidelines resulting in new communication barriers between customers and retailers. With many shoppers migrating online, time spent nattering to shop assistants is limited and the very British art of chit-chat is being lost. 

As the pandemic continues to disrupt our social and working lives, and the recession takes hold, customers are in growing need of conversation and reassurance, and businesses are in more need than ever of customer satisfaction and loyalty. But how do we accomplish this? The answer lies in asynchronous messaging.

Modernising chit-chat for the millennial age   

As customers we are generally used to a few ways of communicating with retailers. These are in-person, on the phone, and increasingly, through live chat. While other modes of communication exist, like tweeting brands with our complaints or emailing customer service, the majority of our interactions tend to be synchronous – in other words, a conversation in real-time between two people. As customers, we often choose this way to communicate as we feel it will guarantee results. We can talk to a customer service agent directly, explain our issue from our point of view and keep them engaged until we see action. 

For retailers, an over-dependence on this approach can be negative. It may lead to customers only ever communicating with a retailer to address issues and thus only viewing customer service in the context of problem solving. This, of course, has not always been the case with many highstreet shoppers previously building their perceptions of a retailer through chit chat with the sales assistants. While in today’s digital age, social media presence and content can go a long way in building a brand persona, it’s important that retailers continue to have conversations with customers – and not just for complaints.

In contrast with synchronous communication,  asynchronous communication can happen intermittently – be that in real-time or sporadically throughout a day, week or month. Many of us have become accustomed to this type of communication with family and friends through WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – having a conversation when it’s most convenient for us across a number of devices. If adopted by retailers, asynchronous communication enables customers to engage in the same way with their favourite highstreet or online stores. The benefit being that customers can move away from synchronous interactions, which leaves them having to carve out at least 20mins from their day to complain about a product or service, and encourages them to speak to retailers on an ongoing basis. 

Making the Move to Messaging 

Allowing customers to communicate on their own terms is fundamental to asynchronous  communication and absolutely essential for forward-thinking online retailers. While email is a type of asynchronous communication, retailers are  having to increasingly look to messaging platforms as part of this approach – after all, it is shaping the way we conduct our chit-chat. 

Messaging, if adopted in the right way, can help to positively boost customer experience in a number of areas. For example, retailers can dramatically reduce friction within conversations by allowing customers to pick up conversations where they left off, even on a different device, through one messaging platform.

This means that the customer doesn’t have to repeat information and the customer service agent is able to view the previous conversation every time they connect. Unlike the ’live chat’ function that many retail websites provide, this type of contact is not session-based so it never times out. Instead, the conversation is open ended and the connection between customer and retailer remains constantly accessible.

The key to success, however, is context. To be successful, retailers must adopt the tools that allow previous messages not to be lost. This context allows a customer service agent to offer the chit-chat often missing from these types of interactions, through a more personalised answer or welcome message. For example, following up on the satisfaction of a recent purchase or asking about something mentioned in the conversation like a planned holiday or event. Providing this context, whilst also streamlining operations, allows retailers to maintain a vital link with consumers that can nurture brand loyalty. 

Finding the right balance 

Investing in chit-chat isn’t just about adopting messaging and mastering asynchronous communication with customers. The ideal solution is actually a mixture of both asynchronous and synchronous to meet customer needs at different touchpoints. The powerful combination of messaging and live chat, for example, brings together the best of both worlds by providing 24/7 support through continuous conversation as well as being there in the moment for quick fire questions that must be addressed then and there.

With challenging times ahead, and low levels of consumer confidence, retailers are using every tool at their disposal. Investing in a robust customer support network that truly values and nurtures customer relationships is vital. The service offered must rise up to meet shoppers’ ever-growing expectations, allowing continuous communication that fits in with their everyday lives. People are no longer willing to put up with hours of wasted time on the phone or impersonal automated email responses. Private messaging is swiftly becoming the communication channel of choice. 

As the world changes around us, reliable communication and the art of conversation are becoming more important than ever. For online businesses adapting to meet customers expectations, a shift away from traditional customer service channels is necessary. Adoption of asynchronous communication channels combined with live chat is the key to building up customer confidence in future. By investing in asynchronous messaging and taking a hybrid approach to customer service, online retailers can harness the power of chit-chat. This will be essential in developing lasting connections with customers that will help business to thrive in the coming years.


Julien Rio is Senior Director of Marketing, RingCentral 

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