How to onboard new live chat operators

Take time to onboard new live chat agents on your website - move at a pace that is comfortable for you and for them so that your customer support doesn't suffer.If I told you October is the best month for retailers and eCommerce shops to onboard new operators for live chat...would you say that's insane?

True, the timing is a little crazy - we're less than two months out from the start of the holiday shopping season.

[FURTHER READING: 4 predictions for the 2015 holiday shopping season, via Practical eCommerce]

Yet at the end of last year we did an informal poll of retailers (Retail Lessons for 2015) and when asked what they'd do differently for the holiday rush, many retailers said they would have added more operators on live chat:

  • "While one operator seat is sufficient during the year, having more operators next year should multiply the number of customers we help and sales we convert." -Vince La Rosa of TungstenWorld
  • "Last year we weren't prepared for the demand on our Customer Service team. I learned I need to hire part time staff to spread the chat workload, and that they need to be trained on different techniques to handle a customer's request in a polite and professional manner." - Lisa Chu, owner, Black N Bianco
  • "Next year I'd have more live chat operators on board as customers feel a lot more at ease knowing they can voice any concerns or queries with you." - Curt Soul, Director, Elevate with Wings

It's not such a crazy idea then to start adding more live chat operators and getting them trained. You've got a few weeks to a.) pick the right people and b.) start teaching them the right way to help customers.

With a good plan in place, a few weeks is more than enough time to get everything in place for the Cyber Monday rush, which is why we're saying, "October is for Onboarding." 

So how do you best onboard operators for live chat?

Pick the right people

It starts with picking the right people. For that, our Bill T., our Guru of Happiness has a suggestion:

"Start with the right people. I weight people heavily on their attitude and social skills. Operators who are empathetic, calm, and have a positive demeanor can help your company look good. Skills, knowledge and tools can be taught, but a forward-facing attitude largely cannot."

"Part one of my hiring process is to ask for a short video from a candidate. I ask them to show me something - anything! - that represents who they are and what makes them tick. Sing a song, read a poem, explain how to make a killer artichoke heart and mint risotto. That 2-3 minute video always tells me everything I need to know."

Start new operators on a test drive

When you've selected your new team members, we highly recommend giving them time to 'ride along' with other, more seasoned operators at your company.

Have them sit by your side for a day or two - or even a week if time allows - and let them observe customer responses. Then, flip the roles and have someone on your team sit with the new person and watch them help customers.

It requires some time investment (see why we advocate October for Onboarding?), but it will pay dividends when it's crunch time.

Teach new operators the right way

James Stillian and the Man Crates customer support team is ready for Cyber Monday

Once you've got the right people in place, what should you start teaching them? A few thoughts from our own team:

"A problem well put is half solved." ― John Dewey (words of wisdom recommended by our very own Cat)

"Often, a customer coming to you with a query is flustered and impatient, and not doing their best to explain the real problem or request. Encourage active listening: turn off internal dialogue and truly focus on listening to what a customer is telling you. Ask for clarity and details. Really understand the nature of a problem BEFORE formulating a reply." ― Bill T.

"Remember, when people are upset by an issue they have came across, they are not upset at you, but instead upset at the situation. Be sure to remember that you are a person helping people. Show empathy and let the customer know you do care about them and their problem, and don't let the negative emotions overwhelm you. Helping people is one of the best, and most fulfilling things you can spend your time doing." ― Ryan

"For difficult conversations - imagine you’re chatting with your mom or your favorite uncle. That makes every comment come in the best possible tone." ― Barbara

"I like to remind myself that the point of doing customer service is to try to help the customer, not to figure out who is 'right.'"  ― Zach

But don't take our word for it. Other Olark customers have weighed in on this topic and offer their own advice for new operators just getting started on live chat.

Michael Bohorovski from the Tinfoil Security case study:

Don't overpromise - Don't promise to fix something if you're not sure it can be fixed. If the customer has a question or an issue that requires deeper reflection, let them know that you'll look into it. And be realistic about when they can expect an answer - don't tie yourself to an unreasonable timeline.

Don't talk down to customers - Even when a customer is being annoying or frustrating, chances are it's your fault because the product and/or documentation isn't clear enough.

James from the Man Crates case study:

Don't panic - If you remember to smile while you're interacting with a customer helps that smile to come across in your contacts. Treat every customer like they are your first contact of the day, and don't get discouraged by the number of contacts waiting for your reply.

Get some coffee - If you're into caffeine, arm yourself with the largest coffee possible...I've found it helps.

Be transparent - When chatting I've found if you can handle the multitasking, take as many chats as you can! If you are in multiple chats, I am always up front in letting the customer know we're experiencing higher than normal volume. And be sure to double check that the answer you're providing matches the chat you've just clicked into so that the customer understands you're being attentive and empathetic to their individual needs.

We'll be sharing more tips and tricks all month long -- because October is for Onboarding -- so check back often for ideas on how to get your new team members ready for Cyber Monday.

In the meantime, if you have any best practices to share:

  • Leave a comment!
  • Tweet with the hashtag #October4Onboarding
  • Email them to me:

Check out relevant topics on: Customer Support

Karl Pawlewicz

Read more posts by Karl Pawlewicz

Karl is the Head of Communications for Olark. Got a good Olark story to tell? Email him: