The “contact us” page is one of the most visited pages on any website, along with the front page, the about us page and the blog page. Companies have different preferences on how they want customers to contact them through their websites. It is very common for companies to display contact forms and/or their email addresses, but now a days it gets more common to use some type of a chat platform, either a chatbot or a live chat with a real person. Some companies take no risk and display everything from above so their users can choose which way they use to contact the company. This led me to wonder, what do users think is the most convenient way to contact companies now a days? Does everyone just copy/paste the email address? Are people still using contact forms? Do users trust chatbots?
During my research I stumbled upon many articles that tried to explain the best contact method from the company’s point of view, instead of focusing on which method provides the best end-user experience or the one that their users prefer and end up actually using. In light of this, I conducted a small user survey, where I asked participants which method they’d prefer to be available in order to contact companies through their website. The survey was made with Google Forms and 307 people took part in it, of which 73% were 26 – 45 years old. By doing this survey I found out that most people’s preferred method is contacting via email (41,8%), either by clicking a hyperlink (16%) or copy/pasting the email address into their preferred email client (25,8%). Surprisingly the second most popular method was via chat platforms (27,5%). On the other hand, one thing that did not surprise me at all was that people tend not to trust contact forms and if the website displays both a contact form and an email address, most people will use the email address (67,3%).
Chatbots and live chat
There has been an unusually large focus on chatbots within the tech community since 2016. It first became a buzzword when Microsoft launched the twitter chatbot Tay in March 2016, however Tay was later taken offline following numerous racist and political tweets. Facebook then firmly secured chatbots position in the public eye with its announcement in April 2016 of Facebook’s integrated chatbot capabilities in Messenger for businesses to deliver automated customer support.
Chatbots are still in their early days but their usage is increasing each day and there are many companies and organisations that have now started to try out chatbots as part of their operations and users seem to like it. Today users can for example book their flights and get information about check-ins, boarding passes and other information from a chatbot. They can also get tailored fashion advice, book events tickets, challenge parking tickets, report damage to an insurance company, get some technical advise and even get help with some kind of mental illness. All of the above just from a short conversation with a robot.
There are two kinds of chatbots, the rule-based approach and the machine learning approach. The rule-based approach is when the user is given an option of a handful of basic sentences to advance the conversation, similar to a RPG video game. The machine learning approach requires the system to learn on its own and users can write any questions in their own words. According to Gartner, chatbots will power 85% of all customer service interactions by the year 2020. The average person will have more conversations with bots than with their partner. The developers’ future goal is to create such an intelligent robot that the user won’t even notice that he is talking to a chatbot, not a real human being.
The quality of company’s service is maintained with chatbots, is easily measured and in some cases the service gets even better as robots commit less mistakes than humans. Users can rely on twenty-four hour service and it might save a lot of money and time. Problems that once could only be solved with a phone call or face-to-face conversation in the old days can now be solved online and takes less time. Chatbots have also proven to improve human interactions and are able to connect with hundreds of humans at any moment, which will help them develop a better sense of how to fulfil the emotional needs of customers.
In some cases, the chat conversation will start with a chatbot and develop in to a live chat with a real employee if the problem was to compound for the chatbot to resolve. Nevertheless a recent study shows that 80% of customers queries have been resolved by chatbots without human supervision.
Even though chatbots resolve customer’s problems in most cases, people do like to chat with a real employee using a live chat platform. Live chat user interface is comparable with chatbots but is way more personal. It is live during working hours, users see the name of the employee and even sometimes a profile picture of them. The employee can service many customers at a time and can “know all the right answers” and make less mistakes because they can just quickly ask their colleagues if they get a tricky question on the chat and the costumer won’t even notice it. The employer can also easily send helpful links to the customer through the chat and type complicated names that the customer can copy/paste for a future purpose, something that could not be done so easily with a phone call. As one individual said in the survey:
“Chatbot, it combines the written text interface of the email and the swiftness of a phone call”
The difference between phone service and chat service is that the user do not have to listen to some boring on-hold music through the phone while waiting for someone to answer. Instead they can do something productive while waiting for the chat to connect. In some cases the chat platform offers the user to download a copy of the conversation for later or allows to email a transcript of the conversation when the chat is completed. That is a huge factor and might be the biggest reason for people to stop using emails and might think that a chat platform does it all.
But in what situations will users use a chat over just sending an old school email? According to the HubSpot research report, 71% of people use chatbots to solve their problem fast. 56% of people would rather message than call customer service and 53% of people are more likely to shop with businesses they can message.
But will people ever stop using emails for other purposes than problem solving? How about the circumstances when users want to seek a business relationship with the company, are asking for subsidies or inquiring about employment or other circumstances when a personal conversation might feel inappropriate. Could all conversation online end up in a chat format or will email still be more convenient in some cases?
Displaying email addresses or contact forms on a contact us page is a very basic approach to get the user to contact the company. In many cases the user has the choice to use one or the other, as it is very common for companies to display both. In the survey I asked “If a website displays both an email address and a contact form, what would you rather use?”. Most people answered that they would prefer sending an email (67,3%) than using contact forms (32,7% ). Then I wonder, when companies want to display their emails online, how should they do it and in what way will users be more likely to use it?
There are two ways to display an email on a website, as a plain text or as a link. Using the the plain text option the user has to copy the email address, then manually paste it in their preferred email client, whether it is an application or browser based service. Although this process might seem straightforward it does present a barrier. On the other hand if the link option is used, the only thing that the user has to do is click on the email and the operating system’s default mail app opens with the relevant email address already in the “to:” field. But what if the user is not familiar with that email client and prefer to use his browser based client, like for example Gmail?
“I prefer copy/pasting email addresses. For email I use gmail in a web browser, and clicking an email link usually does not open my gmail account, but rather a desktop application (such as Outlook) set by the operating system, that I don’t use.”
By displaying your email as a link it can be hard for the user to copy/paste it without inadvertently opening the default email app. People that use browser based email clients or other desktop applications don’t like it when these foreign windows pop up. They are not used to that user interface and prefer to copy the email address and paste it to their preferred email client. Also users might not be intending to send a email right away, they might want to save the email to their address book, copy it to another college or in most cases pasting it to their preferred email client.
But people that do actually use the default email client find clicking an email link the most fastest way and do not understand when the email address is not displayed as a link.
So it is not that straight forward for companies to display their email addresses. If the company wants to do the email approach they have to think of those two different users and trust the developers´ skills.
However using email addresses is very convenient for users and most people do choose them instead of other contact ways. Users have their own reasons why they think it is the best way. It allows the user to collect email addresses from multiple companies before actually sending emails and they have the exact time and date of the email that can be convenient for future purposes. The email goes into a sent folder so the user can be sure that the email was sent. The email client has an environment that the user is used to and users can organize their email client based on their purpose. That might be the reason why users might use email address over contact forms.
Contact forms are great for companies because users won’t need to open another browser window to write their message and the client will probably stay on the website after sending the message. By using contact forms the company can also ask for information about the person to get more data from them or have a checkbox for users to join their newsletter. The automatic confirmation email can also be a platform for the company to let users know about something that is happening soon or some products that the user might be interested in. Even though it seem to be a great format for the company to have conversations with its users, I found out that users are not using them as much as other contact ways. What may cause that?
“I never know if contact forms actually work, whereas e-mail is very reliable (will get a bounce if not delivered). “
“I usually don’t trust contact forms, if they actually do send an e-mail or not. “
“I would choose filling out a contact form — it puts the responsibility of handling my case correctly in the hands of the company. If they do it right, they have my business, otherwise not.”
It seems that the reason relates to trust. Users are not sure if their email will end up with an actual person because they do not know to which email address they are sending. Will it end up in an inbox that is open to everyone in the company and nobody thinks it’s their responsibility to answer it? Or will it get lost somewhere and no one will actually know that it was sent? Also the users are not sure that the message was actually sent because there are no sent folders like in an email client.
Usually after sending a message through a contact form the user receive an automatic response from the company that tells you that the message came through and the company will answer you as soon as they can, but is that enough for users? Those automatic responses are at least not the most trustworthy thing you find out there. In most cases users do not have the option to be emailed a copy of their message after sending it, so if they don’t get an answer they have no proof of what they sent. Other reasons might be that people do find it hard to write an important message in an environment that they are not familiar with. Maybe they find the font to be too small or they find the input field to be too narrow.
“As a manager in a company I know well that posts from contact forms end up in the right place but I prefer to send message in a environment that I am used to in my preferred email client”
So I ask myself, are contact forms dying out?
So what is the best way then?
What do users think it is the best way to contact companies? What method gives the users the most pleasant user experience? It really depends on what is the reason for the inquiry and what kind of company we are talking about.
“Contact form is nice when you have an inquire that is not time sensitive. Chatbots are great if you need something quicker because they give the user the sense someone is handling your inquiry. On the other hand if chatbots are intrusive and not smart I lose the trust in the company.”
As mentioned before, chatbots/live chat are great for companies in the service field to interact with their customers and are most used for problem solving. Users prefer to use chat platforms if their inquire is time sensitive because they expect to get answers right away. Although I find it hard to imagine that serious business conversations will ever be done via chat. At this point people are very used to emails and as email clients continue to evolve and advance I don’t think that email as a way of contacting a company is going anywhere soon. However I’m pretty confident that contact forms are going the way of the dodo bird and I wonder why I constantly find myself designing one for every website I get the opportunity to design.
“When filling out forms on the page, the request seems to often get lost. Calling often results in long waiting times. Chatbots often repeat something like “I don’t understand what you are saying”. Clicking the e-mail opens a program that I have not yet configured for my email since I always just use browser for emailing.”
It seems like it is quite easy to get a bad user experience when contacting a company and the user has to get answers right away. There are lot of barriers that users have fought through in the past but hopefully with research like this, companies will think about all the users groups and find out what they can do to make their users more satisfied.
Conclusion: Users will probably never stop using emails as a way of contacting companies in cases where a personal chat does not fit and their inquire is not time sensitive. But when users need answers right away they might choose to use chatbots/ live chat instead.