The Best Live Chat Tool
If you've popped your head into Satchel anytime in the past three weeks, you might've seen one of a few (okay fine, one of many) live chat widgets on the bottom-right of the site. If you had the suspicion that we were testing something out, you were right. We've pretty much done a gigantic A/B test (in this case, more like an A/B/C/D/E/F/G test) to figure out what live chat software you should use if you're an early-stage startup.
Here's the punchline: use Chatwoot. We think it actually beats out a lot of the big-name, established chat tools out there (and by more than a small margin). It's open-source w/ a hosted optionRead: free or low-cost., has all of the core functionality you need, was best-liked by visitors when we tested on Satchel (tied with Intercom), and, importantly, passed all of the engineering litmus tests that we've developed over the past few weeks. More on these in a bit.
We were originally going to split our recommendation between Intercom and Chatwoot, but after talking to a lot of later-stage Intercom customers, we've heard enough stories of price-gouging that we think that there's a big red flag. The full story is a bit more nuanced, but we'll dive into it shortly
We're focused primarily on the core live chat use case — human-to-human communication. Some chat tools come as part of a larger "customer relationship platform," with things like email marketing capabilities, help desk software, a customer CRM, etc. While some early-stage startups take advantage of this functionality, we find that most of it usually goes unused. Of the 18 founders we surveyed, all but one said that the human-to-human communication was overwhelmingly the most important aspect of their live chat setupThe remaining founder saw the live chat messenger as another communication channel for marketing automation. Marketing automation is a closely related usecase, so we'll talk about that in a bit.. We aren't going to outright dismiss this auxiliary functionality — we'll go more in-depth when we make our rounds discussing each specific product, as these features are product-specific — but much of early-stage startup usage of these live chat products is for, well, liveOr almost live, in the case of continuing a live chat conversation over email. human-to-human communication. Therefore, we'll be focusing our evaluation on the aspects of a product related to human-to-human communication.
Affordability and ease of use are straightforward and easy to understand, with the latter encompassing both our high-level evaluation of ease of use as well as our assessment of quality-of-life features (e.g. canned responses). Closely related to ease of use is our appraisal of each product's core functionality, which encompass any features that are directly related to live chat. We categorize any functionality that could warrant a standalone article (e.g. marketing automation, help desk, customer CRM, etc.) as adjacent functionality
After testing for a few weeks, we formulated two new criteria: robustness and end-user preference. We realized that these criteria are substantially more important than we initially gave them credit for, and are the basis of our litmus tests.
The Litmus Tests
Here's where it gets interesting — we did a meta survey of 50 visitors via live chat (doubly meta) to learn more about live chat and live chat products from an end-user perspective. Initially, what we heard didn't surprise us too much — if you've implemented a live chat widget but don't respond, then your users will get frustrated; if you cover up important content with an immovable floating chat button, same deal. These are pretty obvious.
But we quickly started to see the emergence of an interesting, less obvious trend: that visitors often over-index on the quality of a live chat widget. Specifically, we found that visitors had a worse impression of a live chat widget when it had worse design, and, importantly, that impression translated to the rest of the webpage.
In other words, using a poorly-designed live chat widget lowered people's impressions of the rest of our website. That said, this observation didn't go in the other direction — that a well-designed live chat tool didn't leave a better impression on visitors than without.
We initially thought this entire observation was an oddity, but it does make intuitive sense. People are naturally drawn to things that look out-of-place. If you have a well-designed site with well-designed live chat, then your visitors' impressions will be that it's business as usual. But if you have a well-designed site with a poorly-designed widget, then your visitors will start to anchor on that one poorly-designed element. This is compounded by the fact that a live chat widget will likely be the most prominent thing on your website that you won't have styling control overPlus, whether you like it or not, some live chat providers try to make their widgets as eye-catching as possible., so it tends to draw lots of attention.
As we wrapped up testing, we came across another realization: the best products to use (for both us and visitors) were those that had the most attention to detail in the live chat widget. This should make intuitive sense — if a company doesn't address some easy-to-fix (but important) details when engineering the part of the product that people will see and interact with the most, then that's usually an indication that other things are broken behind the scenes. For example, there are plenty of ways for a widget to expand the chatbox when you click on a live chat button: CSS fades, CSS resizes, JS resizes, etc. If a product chooses one of the few approaches that lag and drop frames, especially when there are perfectly performant and usable alternatives, then that's usually a pretty good predictor that the overall quality of the product isn't top notch. The same goes for positioning issues (broken CSS
position), formatting problems (inconsistent, out-of-whack
li margins), etc.
Our Recommendation: Chatwoot
We think that Chatwoot has produced a better live chat product than a number of companies that have had a lot more time and manpower. This wasn't a conclusion we expected to make going into our testing process.
First off, Chatwoot is built well and designed well. The two litmus tests we mentioned earlier? It passes both with flying colors.
Chatwoot has one of the most well-designed chat widgets both in our eyes and, more importantly, the eyes of our visitors. According to the visitors we talked to, Intercom and Chatwoot were the standouts by far, with Intercom barely edging out the #1 spot. Moreover, Chatwoot, along with Intercom, LiveChat.com, and Olark, was the only chat product that we tested that didn't have a noticeable engineering deficiency on its chat widget. Chatwoot's live chat widget expands from the chat button smoothly without stutters (unlike Freshchat), visitors didn't notice any styling issues (unlike Tawk.to), and the widget loaded in and updated as expected on every website we tested it on (unlike Drift and Crisp). As previously mentioned: while other product's front-end engineering deficiencies might be minor, we found that they're usually a pretty good canary in the coal mine.
For human-to-human live chat, Chatwoot more or less has all of the core functionality that you should need. It has support for tagging, custom canned responses and shortkeys, chat user details (e.g. browser, OS, etc. that are useful for debugging), email continuation (i.e. to allow users to continue conversations over email), a relatively simple analytics dashboard (not the most advanced one out there, but perfectly serviceable as long as you don't have a full-blown customer service division), and a solid implementation of expected API functionality (e.g. for propagating metadata programmatically to show up when you're chatting with a user, e.g. programmatically setting a user ID so you immediately know what account your user is using).
The main thing that it lacks is a library of native integrations and support for prequalification and advanced info gathering (through a chatbot or a custom form). Chatwoot has a Slack integration that can ping a Slack channel when new messages come in, but that's it in terms of native integrations. If you want an integration with another product, you'll have to roll it out yourself via their webhook. There's no one-click solution to, say, auto-populate a new account in your CRM when a new visitor starts chatting — if you have a critical integration, you'll have to fiddle around with some webhook connectors like Zapier/IntegromatThis is likely a downside but not a dealbreaker if you're an early-stage startup.. Secondly, it doesn't have much support for prequalification or information gathering tasks. Specifically: the widget has a well-designed and well-integrated optional email capture field, but apart from that, it doesn't have any capability to add custom form fields (e.g. for requiring someone's name and company size before they can chat). There's also no chatbot support, although this is ostensibly on their roadmap, so you can't do things like auto-route people to a pricing page if they're interested in pricing. That said, we think that this is a perfectly acceptable tradeoff for an early-stage startup. Chatbots and custom fields are typically used for prequalification at high volume to save time by customer service agents, but usually degrade the chat experience compared to a human on the other end. This shouldn't be something to worry about for an early-stage company.
Here's the kicker: Chatwoot is a bona-fide open-source project with a hosted offering. It's not a hedged open-core service that keeps some functionality under the wraps of a paid plan — the open-source version is fully-featured. It also means that if you want to do deep customization of the chat tool beyond surface-level attributes like color, you canChatwoot is the only tool that readily allows for extensive customization if you want.. That said, we recommend using their hosted version — they have an abnormally well-featured free plan that should work well for quite while, and the paid plan is still a good value compared to a lot of the other products out there.
So what's the deal with Intercom?
First things first: Intercom is a great product. Their live chat widget is the most polished one out there and the favorite of visitors to our site, beating out Chatwoot by a hair. By our count, they have the most integrations of any live chat tool, and they have a substantial amount of functionality built around their customer CRM. That said, the important thing for Intercom is that they started out with intentions to be a grander "customer relationship platform." This is why their main focuses is marketing automation, which is otherwise is under the purview of dedicated products like Mailchimp and Customer.io. And this is the root cause of a lot of people's pain with Intercom.
There are two main reasons startups use Intercom: 1. to receive and respond to inbound messages via a live chat widget (live chat), and 2. to send outbound messages via email or the live chat widget (marketing automation). The important thing to realize is that these are two separate products with two different prices, but much of what makes Intercom's live chat unique is its ability to interweave with its marketing automation product.
The issue is that using Intercom's marketing automation product (called Messages) has recently become a bit dubious, but without it, there's no point to use their live chat.
To explain: Intercom gotten a reputation for price-gouging — they've de facto 2x-3x'ed their pricing for their marketing automation product (called Messages) multiple times over the past 24-36 monthsIt's certainly a type of exponential growth, that's for sure., and they've gotten pretty severe backlash for doing soIn light of this, we think that there are much better alternatives to Intercom for marketing automation, but that will be a topic for another guide.. Intercom's live chat product hasn't been affected by these price increases. However, if you aren't using their Messages product, then their live chat becomes less appealing, because its unique value prop is as a medium through which to communicate to leads. Without Messages, Intercom's live chat doesn't have any major distinguishing features above its competition, although it is still generally one of the most pleasant to use. The only reason we aren't giving it our full recommendation is that it still carries on a trend of customer-unfriendly pricing (e.g. you have to pay extra to collect emails, etc.).
The Remaining Competition
Apart from Intercom, Drift is the other well-known live chat solution that focuses on integrating marketing automation and live chat. Drift is also the most common choice for startups looking for free live chat, and is generally viewed as the low-cost alternative to Intercom.
However, unlike with Intercom, there are some looming concerns about the quality of Drift's product.
Specifically, we've witnessed enough large engineering issues with Drift that we wouldn't recommend it on that basis alone. Two notable examples:
There was an incident about a year ago in which Drift let malware be uploaded to their chat widget, which in turn caused any company websites using Drift to be flagged by Google. These companies had all of their AdWords campaigns immediately removed and took a hit to their Google search ranking. Of the founders we talked to who were customers at this point, we found that a decent number ended up permanently uninstalling Drift to avoid a prolonged service outage.
The Drift widget is surprisingly non-robust. We've seen multiple issues across multiple Drift installations, including the widget flickering on mouse hover and, worst of all, a missing
position: floatwhich meant the widget ended up at the bottom of the page, rather than the bottom of your windowIt reappeared when we went into our browser's element inspector and added a debugging
position: float, meaning that there's either a CSS class conflict (bad because it's easily avoidable) or it somehow went missing in the first place (even worse)..
In general, if you're not actively looking into marketing automation, then we think there are substantially better live chat solutions than Drift.
And if you are looking for marketing automation? That's the topic of another (upcoming) guide.
Olark is one of the most prevalent live chat tools that is in and of itself focused entirely on live chat. It is human-to-human live chat in its purest and simplest form. They were one of the pioneers of Web 2.0 live chat and are now over a decade old.
Olark has used this time to build up all sorts of functionality, and has the most comprehensive set of features built around live chat. This includes things like transcript search and the most comprehensive API interface we found to plug into, to add-ons (which they call PowerUps) like on-the-fly translation and the ability to remotely view the screen of your visitor for debugging.
We're pretty confident in saying that Olark is the most built-out live chat product out there.
Here's the main issue: when we asked, visitors pointed out that Olark's live chat looks like it came from a decade ago. Unfortunately, this translated to visitors rating Olark in the bottom three of the live chat tools that we tested. So while there was a boatload of functionality for us to take advantage of, this didn't translate to a particularly good user experience for an end-userThere's really nothing you can't do programmatically except, unfortunately, change the style of the widget..
We wanted to like Freshchat because it has quite a modern and intuitive UI, and we know a couple of founders who use it. Unfortunately, Freshchat has a number of issues, most of which stem from it being just one of many subsidiary product of Freshworks.
Freshworks is a company that makes, by our count, 12 different products, of which Freshchat is one.
One immediate downside of this setup is that Freshchat doesn't get as much product attention as it perhaps should, which leads to some rather bizarre engineering glitches. One of the things that most of our visitors pointed out was that Freshchat has noticeable performance issues, notably widget expansion which lags up the entire window. It appears that this is due to Freshchat choosing to resize the live chat window using JS rather than pure CSS, which is a bizarre choice given that the latter has a substantial amount of rendering optimization. In another particularly annoying chain of events, our login cookies often wouldn't persist, and we would get an error whenever we try to login, requiring us to dig into our account activation email to retrieve a working login link. Also, we encountered a number of minor yet annoying glitches, such as not validating any website URL without a subdomain (requiring us to prepend a
www. to root URLs to get it to work, even though the two don't have technical parity).
The other downside is that Freshchat sometimes acts as leadgen to get you to buy into the rest of the Freshworks ecosystem. For example, you commonly get upsells to other Freshworks products like an autodialer, which you almost certainly won't need. But this is less of an issue than the aforementioned engineering glitches.
LiveChat.com is the most enterprise-oriented live chat service that we tested, with all of the associated features and caveats. There is a lot of functionality for creating, assigning, and delegating support tickets over a large support team. We found that the startups who got the most use out of LiveChat.com were late-stage companies with a substantial support team, and we think that it's probably one of the better choices for a later-stage startup. However, it's almost certainly overkill for an early-stage startup without a live chat workload that requires multiple support agents, as a lot of the functionality geared towards established support teams ends up bloating the functionality if you have a relatively manageable live chat workload.
Crisp is one of the younger companies on the block, gaining a lot of traction off the back of its generous free plan (two agents free in perpetuity). It has some useful functionality packed into the free plan like 1-click screensharing, and is overall quite intuitive to use.
Crisp isn't our favorite due to a bit of a lack of consistency. In the eyes of the visitors we surveyed, it has a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it design — visitors commented that it looked a bit quirky, which can be good or bad depending on the vibe your trying to aim at with your site. Also, we found that Crisp loaded abnormally slowly for some of the sites that we tested out, sometimes taking over five seconds to load, which was enough to interfere with the end-user chat experience. That wasn't an issue for any other chat product that we tested.
Tawk.to was unfortunately the worst live chat service that we tested, in terms of the trifecta of design, user experience, and engineering glitches. Their M.O. is to provide a completely free live chat service and monetize via low-cost chat support agents. It's free for unlimited usage, but that's about the only upside that it has. Unfortunately, out of all of the chat services we tested, Tawk.to was the only one that was called out as "amateur" by visitors.