Putting Your Business to the Text
In today’s hectic corporate world, convenience speaks volumes, especially when it comes to providing simple but effective means for customers to interact with your business. After all, you can only devote so much of your customer service resources to voice and email channels. It’s no surprise that savvy companies are increasingly exploring live chat and messaging capabilities in their service operations as an efficient way to process more interactions with customers.
To that end, they’re implementing popular third-party messaging solutions like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Apple Business Chat, Google Business Chat, Webchat, Instagram Direct, Snapchat, Twitter, Telegram, and Viber in their channel assortment, along with tried-and-true SMS. But is a third-party messaging app right for your organization? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and the costs involved? Can WhatsApp or another chat option be seamlessly integrated into your customer service department? Experts say the time might be ripe for rolling out one of these text-based solutions.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Messaging apps have been around for many years. But recent data indicate the extent to which we increasingly use these tools in our everyday lives. Findings from Vonage’s 2021 Global Customer Engagement Report, for example, reveal that consumers’ use of messaging apps has doubled since early 2020. One in five consumers surveyed use live chat or in-app chat daily. Consumers now use and prefer WhatsApp both to call and text more than any other messaging channel, beating even SMS and Facebook Messenger; in fact, WhatsApp is now 160 percent more popular than SMS.
According to 2021 data from Forrester Research, Facebook Messenger leads in adoption among third-party instant messaging app sites for chat (with 43 percent of respondents regularly using it), followed by WeChat (11 percent), WhatsApp (11 percent), Apple Business Chat (7 percent), and Snapchat (3 percent).
Yet voice still constitutes approximately 90 percent of customer interactions, per internal research conducted by ASAPP, a call center automation company.
A fresh survey by Dixa, a customer service platform provider, showed that 84 percent of consumers want to meet companies over the phone and 74 percent want to do so over email, but 57 percent prefer to do this over live chat on company websites; drilling down further, 11 percent of consumers want to meet companies on Facebook Messenger, 6 percent favor Instagram, 5 percent desire WhatsApp, and 5 percent prefer Twitter.
However, based on a recent study by digital experience solutions provider Applause, while 93 percent of those polled expect chat functionality on company websites or apps, only 63 percent said they were somewhat satisfied or extremely satisfied with the experience. The lesson here? Just because your company offers handy text- or chat-based customer service doesn’t mean the consumer will like it.
WHY MESSAGING IS ON THE RISE
Chris Arnold, vice president of customer experience strategy at ASAPP, says it’s not hard to understand why third-party messaging is in greater demand among businesses seeking more robust customer service.
“Consumers are on mobile far more than they’ve ever been before; 93 percent of adults in the United States carry a smartphone, and nearly 96 percent of those use their phones to send and receive text messages daily,” he says. “They’re more willing to use apps to engage with brands, and how they engage with family and friends has similarly changed to rely more on messaging on services like Apple’s iMessage and WhatsApp. Increasingly, consumers are looking to interact with businesses in the same way they interact with friends and family.”
Nick Sanchez, technical solutions engineer at Boost.ai, a provider of conversational artificial intelligence solutions, agrees, noting that as companies continue to integrate with social media channels, there is an ever-increasing opportunity to provide customer support through them.
“Why ask a customer to reach out to you via phone or email for support when 77 percent of internet users are already on at least one platform powered by Meta per month, such as Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, or WhatsApp? If a company integrates its CRM with multiple messaging platforms, that increases the number of entry points for customers to reach out for service,” he adds. “Why force customers to use an application they don’t have or make them call when you can meet them on the apps they are already using daily? By pairing that with a chatbot that can start the support experience, you can dramatically decrease the amount of time that service reps have to spend answering simple questions that a bot can be trained on.”
Sanchez believes the end goal should not necessarily be to decrease the workload for service reps but instead to increase the quality of the experience for the customer by giving those same service teams more time to focus on the quality of every interaction.
Partnering with third-party messaging apps is a no-brainer to Deborah Palacios Wanzo, cofounder and president of Tuvis, an artificial intelligence startup based in Brazil.
“It’s a lot more convenient for people to communicate with companies using the channels they are already using every day to interact with their friends and family,” Wanzo continues. “It also creates an easily reviewable record that provides evidence and context that isn’t available over the phone. In general, it leads to more business, saving valuable time, increasing customer satisfaction, and enabling teams to communicate in a more personalized way.”
Consider, too, that today’s consumers expect frictionless and effortless experiences no matter their specific digital doorsteps.
“The adoption of messaging platforms reflects this rapid, fundamental change the customer service function is experiencing as the customer journey moves beyond the contact center and into self-service platforms,” says Laura Bassett, vice president of NICE CXone.
What’s more, consumers are going digital-first more than ever since the onset of the pandemic.
“While they might be transitioning between an office and home for work, they are going to their phones or other mobile devices to receive support from the member-service institutions they belong to, such as banks, insurance agencies, or even mainstream retail outlets,” Sanchez adds.
In Arnold’s experience, customer service agents also prefer working on chat versus voice.
“The Great Recession additionally fueled already sore agent turnover challenges. While it takes a different kind of agent to excel at messaging over voice, such as the ability to type quickly and multitask, on the whole, agents love working on chat versus voice. Agents on chat have lower absenteeism, attrition, and generally face less emotive customer scenarios,” he says.
Ask Devin Poole, senior director of CX strategy at Dixa, and he’ll tell you that messaging will become the predominant way customers communicate with companies in the years ahead, especially as digitally native consumers form a larger part of the economy.
“These buyers have mostly engaged in messaging-based communication with others from the days of AOL Instant Messenger,” Poole says. “The fundamentals of this medium have not changed dramatically since those early days, but there are simply more options available through third parties.”
THE PROS AND CONS OF THIRD-PARTY MESSAGING
The experts universally agree that integrating third-party messaging in your channel mix has enormous benefits.
“Customer care is much more personalized and proactive because brands can respond immediately within the customers’ preferred platform instead of reacting via phone or email—often hours after the initial inquiry was made,” says Fang Cheng, founder and CEO of customer experience automation provider Linc. “Response and conversion rates rise significantly as a result, leading to higher customer satisfaction scores.”
According to Bobby Zhou, associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, the cost of acquiring new customers is also lower with messaging, given that these platforms already have a vast user base.
“Also, the ease of use and convenience has made these platforms a great channel to interact with customers,” Zhou says. “Customers do not need to visit a brand’s main webpage to engage with it. And from the brand’s perspective, the costs of developing and maintaining the presence on third-party messaging platforms can be lower than operating their own online stores, giving brands extra incentives to rely on these messaging platforms.”
Sanchez most appreciates that third-party messaging integration “creates a seamless support workflow for each customer, especially if an enterprise sees a large amount of service traffic.”
But while sending messages is easy, perfecting messages is hard, warns Jennifer Sewell, director of product marketing at Ada, an automated customer interaction company.
“Brands cannot apply a cookie-cutter approach to third-party messaging apps,” she says. “Each app differentiates itself based on its use cases and inherent strengths. Customer service is not always one of them. Facebook, for example, allows customers to move between Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, a great tool for marketing but not purpose-built for customer service. Brands need to be able to easily configure the application to meet their specific use case. This is not always easy for brands that are not digital natives.”
Furthermore, deploying chat as an integrated, seamless experience can be a logistically tricky hurdle when many CX solutions are a cobbled stack of different vendors.
“Deploying chat works best when it is integrated with all the other omnichannel, CRM, and AI capabilities,” Arnold suggests. “However, it takes overcoming a technical complexity, an organizational complexity in how each of the existing customer service mediums is staffed, and a political complexity in bringing these departments together. Sometimes, each segment has different key performance indicators, but these KPIs may change when integrated.”
Zhou further cautions that reliance on third-party messaging can also lead to loss of full control over the interaction environment with consumers (compared to, for example, interaction on your company’s own website), a potential loss of rich behavioral data depending on the agreement with the platform, and increased consumer expectation regarding the speed of response.
PONDERING THE PRICE TAG
Ramping up a third-party messaging solution in your customer service operations won’t be cheap, but it also won’t be as costly as other channels.
“Chat costs about half of voice, which is more expensive to implement and maintain,” Arnold says. “For voice, as volume increases, a linear number of technology and staff investments need to be made to handle the growing demand. Conversely, once chat is deployed, costs per interaction decrease with growing customer volume. On the whole, chat and digital scales a lot better than voice.”
Sewell identifies several expenses to consider when integrating a third-party messaging application: the actual application and the platform on which it runs; the time it takes to train the bot to understand your questions and answers; the time required to develop the workflows around the messaging channel; production and rollout (determining whether you need multilingual support or high stability, for instance); and maintenance.
Depending on the size of your company, “developing an integration may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require highly skilled personnel, and take months of hard work, so the most effective way to implement third-party massaging into your customer service channel mix is to look for solutions already readily available on the market,” Wanzo recommends. “But once implemented, the costs of operating over instant messaging are usually lower than those of operating over the telephone, as one person can handle multiple clients at the same time, and the required hardware is simpler when compared to a call center, usually just a personal computer connected to the internet.”
Eager to explore chat solutions and third-party apps that can enhance your customer service? For best results, the experts advise due diligence and careful planning.
“First, consider all the options available within the marketplace,” Sanchez advises. “Will you go with a multichannel or an omnichannel option? Does a given third-party platform provide the usage and volume beneficial to your service base? Also, ensuring that integration, testing, and any potential issues along the way don’t drastically prolong the time it takes for the application to be live is key.”
Sewell’s advice? Start small.
“Don’t try to roll out a multitouch, multiprong strategy from the get-go. Work with an easy-to-use platform that has an ecosystem of easy-to-configure applications,” Sewell says. “Once you’ve built trust, you can implement a phased rollout with some of your visitors.”
Also, when determining which channels to introduce first, answer the following questions, Sewell suggests:
- Where do your customers communicate daily and weekly?
- Does your current customer service experience meet the expectations of this channel application? For example, clients interacting through WhatsApp expect a different experience than those through Instagram. Can you support that?
- Which use case are you trying to solve? Start with specific use cases, like reducing containment, accelerating response time, etc. Do not focus on volume.
- Can your agents support a digital channel? Make sure your agents are digital natives and your support experience reflects that.
“Be sure to prepare your team, too,” recommends Johnnie Munger, cofounder and chief technology officer of Wonderful, a designer of web and mobile apps. “Ensure they can support the demands of integrated messaging and understand how you will need to grow your support if and when your site begins to scale. When installing your selected messaging service, make sure your team is well acquainted with it and immediately available to provide timely support.”
Cheng insists that the secret to making this integration successful is taking a digital-driven, holistic approach to customer experience.
“Make sure the chat solution you choose aligns with your business objectives and is already loved and used by your customers. Then consider the toll adding additional communication channels will take on your customer support organization,” Cheng continues. “Adding messaging capabilities without putting CX automation in place first, for instance, often creates more problems because CS isn’t empowered to handle the resulting increase in inquiries. CS becomes frustrated, along with customers who aren’t receiving immediate resolution as expected. That’s why I would consider having conversational AI in place to handle customers’ most common questions.”
Bassett is a big fan of employing a unified, cloud-based CX platform.
“A cloud platform provides the power and flexibility organizations need to quickly and easily integrate new communication channels and messaging platforms to address current and future customer demands,” she says.
Lastly, give careful thought to scalability.
“As your member base grows, will something like a chatbot be able to grow in tandem?” Sanchez asks. “If a third-party option cannot evolve alongside your customers and furnish the understanding necessary to answer questions outside of simple requests, what value does it really provide?”
Erik J. Martin is a Chicago area-based freelance writer and public relations expert whose articles have been featured in AARP The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, The Costco Connection, and other publications. He often writes on topics related to real estate, business, technology, healthcare, insurance, and entertainment. He also publishes several blogs, including martinspiration.com and cineversegroup.com.