Constant access to the internet has transformed society. It allows us to find out any nugget of trivial information on-demand. It helps us discover the best places to eat, drink, and be merry when we find ourselves in a new city. More crucially for businesses, it enables consumers to shop any time of day or night. The knock on effect is that an ‘always on’ culture has also shaped our relationship with time.
Because we can essentially do what we want, when we want, online as consumers; the expectation is that the companies we interact with will be instantly available when we contact them. Messaging services – such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat – empower immediacy. The level of detail these messaging platforms offer us as users is staggering too. We can see who’s online, if they’ve seen our message, what time it was sent, and when they responded.
For businesses, while instant customer accessibility is fantastic, the essential challenge of owning a messaging service is being able to deliver a consistent quality of service. The same level of service that’s been established across other customer channels – on- and offline. It also means committing to being always available and offering a value-adding customer experience.
If the question being raised reading this is ‘can my business afford to commit to something like this?’, perhaps it’s better phrased as ‘can my business afford NOT to commit?’ Stats show that brand-consumer focused messaging services are no short-term trend. The opportunity is real.
But where can companies start? Which messaging service is best for their needs? Before we take a closer look at exactly ‘what’ businesses need to do, we must first consider the ‘why’ – in order to get some insights into the reasons for using messaging apps as interaction tools – in a meaningful way that’ll resonate with their customers.
There can be no doubt that one of the biggest reasons for adopting a messaging service is simply because they’re interfaces that customers are already using, and feel very comfortable using. They’re low effort, user-friendly, and require little in the way of onboarding customers.
Secondly, messaging services offer continuity – a single conversation illustrating everything that’s been discussed. Also, from a customer experience perspective, being able to offer conversational commerce in this way, to engage customers one-on-one is critical.
Thirdly, speed is another crucial concern. People hate being kept waiting. From a business perspective, being able to give customers the information they need in a timely manner is an opportunity to convert sales faster – and a simple brand-consumer exchange conducted via a messaging service could be the determining factor between a win and an abandoned cart.
Authenticity is another important factor. People like dealing with people. They like to be understood. Often being listened to by a service agent is what resolves an issue. Messaging services can build loyalty in this way. They can help to establish trust.
But… what about chatbots?
We’ll look at these in more detail later, but essentially, where automation and customer service are concerned, the technology used to build chatbots is now at a point where the gap between what’s actually human, and what appears to be, is closing. The fact AI can provide meaningful customer contact and more ‘realistic’ conversations means businesses can offer more genuine on-demand interactions – through technology alone.
The messaging channels your business should consider adopting largely depend on what your customers already use, where they’re based, and what languages they speak. The key objective should be to offer omnichannel experiences – but connected in a single channel.
In the Western world – particularly in the EU and The Americas – Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are by far the dominant messaging channels. However, in the larger Asian markets WeChat, Line, and KakaoTalk dominate – in China, Japan, and South Korea respectively. India, by contrast, champions WhatsApp.
If the Chinese market is particularly important to your business, WeChat is your go-to channel. Things are a little more complicated if you’re based outside of the PRC (here’s a great starting guide though), but access to 846 million consumers will no doubt make it worth the effort.
Hot on their heels are Telegram and Viber – which seem to have a smattering of popularity everywhere from Eastern Europe to East Africa – but there are many other services too. Research shows Blackberry’s BBM platform still retains high market share in Indonesia, while Skype as a messaging service is popular among those stationed on the remote British-owned Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic(!).
However, we shouldn’t discount hardware-specific messaging apps; such as Google’s ever-evolving messenger and Apple’s iMessage – which recently launched a customer-brand interaction service known as Apple Business Chat. And considering the sheer number of devices these services will soon be available on – desktop and tablets, as well as mobile devices – and the evolution of Rich Communication Services as an alternative to SMS, these channels should not be overlooked.
While it’s crucial to ensure that customers know exactly where they can interact with your business, the decision to use a messaging service should always be grounded in solid strategy. It should be part of a wider omnichannel initiative to improve your company’s overall customer experience, streamline the customer journey, and reduce the barriers to communication (e.g. entry points, personalization).
For example, while traditionally companies have offered one process for payment, another for placing orders, and another for customer services, with a messaging service all of this can be streamlined into a single line of communication. In this way, every customer has the opportunity to carry out a number of tasks in a simple, straightforward way – which will ultimately reflect on your brand positively.
As outlined above, the channel you choose should be one that aligns with your customers’ needs. However, if you already have pre-existing social channels which offer a messaging service – as Facebook does – it makes sense to incorporate its native channel.
However, to use most other messaging platforms, including WhatsApp, you’ll need a dedicated mobile phone number that customers can essentially add to their mobile directories and then access through the app itself.
If this all seems a little too ‘mobile-first’ it’s worth remembering that almost 50% of web searches are conducted on mobile devices. But that shouldn’t limit your choice of messaging service – considering the other 50% of searches are desktop-based. What’s important is being able to bridge the two.
While Facebook Messenger is available in app and browser form, you can also pull your Messenger feed directly into your website, giving your customers the same chat experience as they’d get on Messenger’s elsewhere – but without them navigating away from your website.
WhatsApp For Web is increasingly popular too – a service that allows users to access their messages online – although it’s not yet possible to integrate to other areas. That said there are also Mac and Windows versions of WhatsApp which sync to users’ main accounts; giving users cross-platform functionality.
If you’re considering using Apple Business Chat or Google RBM, you’ll quickly see that it’s possible to create a branded platform – one that uses the brand header, logos, colors – within the app’s framework itself. The fact that these are (or soon will be) embedded in device hardware is a good thing too – and will prove particularly useful for, say, devoted Apple customers who’ll be able to conduct service interactions across same-brand devices.
Knowing when your messaging service will be active (and letting customers know) is the next most important aspect. Many companies simply keep their channels open during office hours, and either rotate the responsibility for customer queries between different teams or individuals.
Often customer service professionals will be tasked with monitoring messages in a call center environment. Those with social media support experience will find this a relatively easy transition to make. However, the nature of your business; its opening hours; the number of staff you have; and of course, when your customers are most active, will all impact the level of support you’re able to provide.
While a 24/7 need for customer service is possible using people, the cost of doing so can be significant. That’s why a lot of bigger brands are deploying chatbots instead of, or in addition to, service-focused staff.
One of the best things about chatbots (other than the fact they never sleep), as mentioned previously, is that these automated customer interfaces are increasingly human-like – thanks to machine learning and advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP). This means that, although customers may be fully aware that they’re interacting with a piece of software, the experience feels a lot more natural.
Ultimately, customers want a quick, easy, and effective way of getting their questions, concerns, and inquiries resolved and chatbots are an ideal way of doing exactly that. However, while they’re indeed effective, chatbots are only as good as programmers make them. But as Artificial Intelligence and machine learning become integral business tools, things can only improve moving forward.
As the first line of customer service, one in which data can be easily pulled through from secondary information sources, chatbots are an ideal front-end. However, more complex queries are (for now) better handled by human staff.
Looking ahead at future messaging trends – whilst remaining firmly aligned with what’s happening right now – we can confidently assume that voice assistants will become increasingly important as customer interactions tool. There already are to a big extent.
Platforms like Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google (!) are moving beyond single devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and mobile phones, and are being implemented in other areas of our lives. Vehicle integration is already gaining traction. As these technologies become further embedded in customers’ lives, they’ll expect brands to be able to deliver in this way too.
All things considered, as with any customer-focused initiative, an effective messaging service needs to built around a genuine need or pain point; whether that’s a need for faster communication, increased engagement, or simply just being accessible to customers in a user-friendly way.
However, while customer service obviously comes first, the number of additional features being integrated into messengers benefit businesses too. For example, payment services are now a messaging app staple, which, when applied to ecommerce, means faster, more immediate conversions.
Ultimately, any feature or tool that gives your customers a better, more personalized experience of doing business with your brand is worth exploring. And as long it has the potential to provide both short-term utility and long-term loyalty, what’s stopping you?