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Is Customer Service Ready for the Nonstop Chatter of Messaging Apps?

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‘Call me (call me) on the line /Call me (call me) any, anytime’

—Blondie (‘Call Me’)

For the past several years, the big thinkers in our industry have warned companies that they will need to adapt to the ways that consumers now want to communicate. Businesses used to dictate how customers interacted with them—we dialed toll-free numbers, contorted ourselves through the menus of interactive voice response systems, and then maybe we spoke to a live person. Social media began to break down that paradigm, allowing the everyman to rant and rave about poor products or services to untold legions on Twitter or Facebook. But that now seems like a half-step to me. Communication might be about to get very weird.

Look at WhatsApp. In the summer, the insanely popular persistent messaging app had more than 1.5 billion monthly active users. For scale, that is about the same as the number of people who live in the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Russia—which are the third through the ninth most populous countries in the world for you pedants out there. In short, WhatsApp is really bloody huge. And yes, customers want to use the tool to communicate with companies, just like they communicate with their bae. That is where things will start to get strange.

First, let’s look at sheer volume. The average active user of WhatsApp is insanely active: On average, users send more than 1,300 messages per month. People who use WhatsApp really like to chat with one another. If they bring that tidal wave of communication to companies, could companies handle it?

“Hey, Mr. Telco, what’s up? How you doing? Yeah, I mostly hate your guts right now because you keep dropping my Netflix signal. So I was cooking up some sardine salad—my nana’s recipe is off the hook, I’ll send it to you. Anyway, I was cooking and watching Black Mirror and the signal conked out right as the metal dog things were getting fierce.”

I think you get the picture. The crazy-high volume of messages indicates real back-and-forth communication. What companies are ready for that? Do they have service and salespeople ready to shoot the breeze while still being efficient? Is that even possible?

Next, let’s look at new interaction methods. WhatsApp users also send a lot of voice and video messages. These are not voice or video calls—although the platform sees at least 100 million of those per day as well. No, these are recorded messages sent to other users who need to listen or watch just like they would with a voicemail, more than a billion per day. I don’t think many of us are going to send Comcast a voice message saying “Hey, you up?” and certainly not “Netflix and chill?” But consumers clearly like this way of interacting with each other, so businesses might need to figure out how to handle these quick-hit voice and video memos that could storm their walls soon. B2B salespeople: Get ready to see a video message of your prospects chilling in a hammock asking you about the number of sprockets in your latest widget.

Of course, WhatsApp has company in the messaging world. WeChat. Kik. Line. Facebook Messenger. Secure messaging tools like Signal. And on and on. While my goofy examples might seem silly today, just wait. After all, we forced companies to start responding to us on Twitter, Facebook, and social forums and review sites. We might yet get them to join fully in the messaging revolution. Here’s to the weird!  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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