It’s no longer surprising that consumers want to message businesses. Chat and messaging are already common features of many websites and apps, whether it’s for live support or peer-to-peer conversations. Simply put, the face of conversations is changing.

Conversations are important—they’re the building blocks of relationships. Relationships with our families, friends, colleagues, even our mortal enemies are mediated through conversations—or a lack of them.

Nowadays, there’s a lot of buzz around conversational business. It’s important to understand why certain types of conversations provide a better user experience. What is the most natural, intuitive, and accessible? Because chat and messaging intersect support, ecommerce, marketing, and sales with industries like travel, healthcare, finance, and retail, businesses need to get the lay of the land.

What is live chat?

Live chat is the oldest use case for conversational support. Typically, live chat occurs on the web or in a company’s mobile app and is not typically housed on instant messaging channels. Because live chat is session based and synchronous, once the one-to-one conversation between the agent and the customer is finished, the conversational history typically disappears once the ticket is resolved.

Synchronous messaging is the two-way mode of communication that characterizes live chat. It’s limited to real-time in the same way a phone call is. It requires most of your attention, and sessions have a defined beginning and end.

Meanwhile, asynchronous refers to being able to stop and start conversations when convenient. That means conversations can occur in real-time if necessary, but more often than not, the user can concentrate on other things. Most conversations we have with our family and friends are asynchronous. Imagine treating a conversation on WhatsApp or Messenger the same way you would a phone call or even a live chat session, unable to experience any sort of interruption or multitask. That would be a nightmare—but it’s how we treat customers when live chat is the only option.

What is messaging?

Messaging typically refers to asynchronous conversations conducted on social channels, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Instagram. While messaging can include support, it can also be expanded into the realms of commerce and marketing. Support in messaging is not session based. It’s asynchronous and convenient, because the customer decides when it’s convenient for them to reply. If the support case were any more urgent, they’d move on to a different, more immediate channel.

When do you use live chat?

When there’s no other option, but you really don’t want to call. Many businesses have adopted live chat on their websites. Live chat was developed as an alternative to calling, although many features of live chat, like queues and sessions, replicate the call-center experience. If a user doesn’t want to talk on the phone, live chat is totally viable. But when live chat clients lack the messaging features that we’ve become used to, it makes the exchange feel less human.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article about the changing nature of phone calls (which dipped heavily into the features of popular messaging apps, like audio messages and video calls), Katherine Bindley wrote, “Multiple people I interviewed said when the phone rings unexpectedly, they assume someone has died.”

Mike Gozzo, senior director of product of Zendesk’s Sunshine Conversations, expressed a similar revulsion to uninvited calls. “The way I like to think about it is how pissed off I am when somebody calls me,” he said. “I haven’t consented to this call, and it’s occupying 100% of my attention span.”

Live chat poses a similar problem. Because the conversation is session-based, once the user closes the app or loses the connection, it’s all over. When waiting in a queue for an available agent, or when response times leave much to be desired, it’s easy to get bored. When the conversation resumes, the customer has the onerous task of repeating themselves.

When do you use messaging?

Brands that have modern messaging support strategies have the upper hand when it comes to more personalized human engagement. Because a conversation exists in a third-party channel, the entire conversation history is visible—and for modern communication software, it should be visible to the support agent, too. That extends to messaging on a brand’s web properties as well, with asynchronous and cross-channel web messengers taking the place of live chat widgets. The conversation can start anywhere, carry across channels, and resume at any time.

Beyond support, messaging is also making headway in commerce, finance, healthcare, and education, and figures across those industries are leveraging channels people are already using. Conversations on social messaging channels can help brands establish relationships with their customers. Numerous travel and hospitality brands are using messaging during the booking process as well as to create conversational concierge services that address queries and requests from in-stay hotel guests. Retailers are offering personalized recommendations through messaging app-based personal shoppers, who build relationships with clients as they shop. Even banks are using chatbots to dole out sassy financial advice to millennials, reaching out proactively to highlight spending activity. These conversations allow brands to express themselves in an approachable, humanlike way—and consumers are acclimating to the personalization and convenience.

What does it mean for businesses?

Messaging makes it easy to offer personalized and convenient support at scale, while exploring the rich capabilities of channels to create unique conversational experiences. Modern messaging software for businesses also supports integrations for analytics, chatbots, and payments. And crucially, businesses can now retain these conversations with their full context in order to inform future customer interactions.

When customers message outside of available support hours, automation or chatbots can keep them informed about when an agent is most likely to reply or even guide them to relevant self-service content. Because users expect different response times, agents can carry out more conversations simultaneously. Rather than focusing on staffing a 24/7 contact center, businesses can focus on the more detailed aspects of conversations that make for great customer experiences.

Of course, messaging shouldn’t be the end of the road for customer experience. What is truly important for businesses is to make themselves available where their customers are, on every channel. The promise of an omnichannel support strategy is that choice, convenience, and accessibility provide the best customer experience—whether that means self-service, calling, email, live chat, or messaging.