The basic differences between live chat and chatbot

It's sometimes hard to tell if you're talking to a human or not. How can you tell?
James Donald
January 9, 2019

Most people these days have experienced either a live chat tool on a website or a chat bot, but do you know the differences between them? They can be difficult to spot as live chat and chatbots are using a similar website chat feature, like this example below...

Typical website chat tool

These chat tools usually sit in the bottom right hand side of your computer or mobile device. They can even be programmed to pop up and ask you a question like “Hello, do you need any help?”.  That's just an automatically timed message, it's not actually a person prompting that question!

Live Chat Tools

If you have a live chat on a website, the majority of the time you are talking with an actual person at the other side of the chat. You ask a question on the little pop-up on the website and if you are lucky there is someone sitting at a desk on the other end that will answer your question!  In many cases there is no one at the other end, they're still working 8 hours a day. In that case they ask you get asked for your email address so that they can reply to you when they have time.


A Chatbot is like a robot that has been taught a set of questions to answer. Chatbots have a range of intelligence, which will also impact the value of a chatbot.

  • Some chatbots are used to help route someone to the right place, a bit like when you ring a large company and you have to choose 1, 2 or 3 for difference options. These are sort of 'dumb' bots.
  • A basic FAQ type bot, you ask a question and it will check if there is an answer that matches. These should use a natural language processor (NLP) to help yield better matches.
  • Then there's intelligent bots. This means it can have a conversation, where subsequent questions from a user build upon the first question. These are complex to build well. Air New Zealand has a great intelligent chatbot called Oscar. Oscar can answer around 72% of customers questions. If a chatbot can answer over 50% of questions then it is a pretty clever chatbot!!

What are the challenges to build an effective chatbot?

  1. They have to learn all the different ways that people can ask a question which has the same response. There can be thousands of these variations!  A natural language processor does a part of this work but it also needs to be manually trained. If your initial data set is limited then the starting point for the bot will be poor and there will be a steep learning curving
  2. The chatbot needs to understand the context of a conversation. The bot needs to know when a conversation is continuing about a certain topic and when it changes to something else. Imagine a question like "what does it cost?", well what is "it"? The bot needs to understand the context like what product/trip/thing they're talking about to work out what relevant response to give.
  3. Connect to systems to pull in relevant information, like account details or dynamic information like "availability" and weather.
  4. Designing the conversation tone to give a good customer experience.
  5. Time and cost. The technology is mature, it's a matter of man hours to build the framework for the chat bot and then train, train, train. A major telecom in New Zealand has a team of 5 full time staff who build and maintain their chatbot, that's a significant cost!

So next time you go to use a chat tool on a website see if you can workout if you are talking with a human or a chatbot? If it’s a clever chatbot it might take you a while to figure it out! In the future when this technology becomes more mature it will only get harder to tell the difference.

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