Things move fast. Today’s Snapchat might be tomorrow’s MySpace. But is it wise for companies to go all-in on every single platform out there to boost their customer service capabilities? Absolutely not. In an age of ‘always on’ communication, what’s most important is that brands prioritize relevance and accessibility – in line with the demands of their target market.
But what does this actually mean? It means operating in an omnichannel environment and giving customers a consistent quality of service on- and offline. It means knowing enough about your customers to keep them engaged and loyal – and being confident enough to engage with them on their terms.
A lot of companies are doing this by investing in more robust IT solutions. Reports show that 77% of enterprises have at least one application, or a significant portion of their enterprise computing infrastructure, based in the cloud. However, from a customer experience perspective, a lot of the hard work’s already been done. Messaging platforms offer brands an additional opportunity to interact with customers in a way they’re familiar with.
Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, and Google’s new business RCS service continue to garner huge global audiences and keep evolving their feature sets in a way that enables brands to use them to best effect too. And while other more advanced interaction interfaces (chatbots etc) are gaining traction, they’re doing so in ways that match underlying shifts in customer needs.
Things can only improve, so let’s take a look at how things are shaping up.
For sheer consumer reach in Europe and North America, Facebook Messenger remains the go-to messaging platform. Despite a complete update last year to Messenger 4, the service has a few plans for 2019. They’re currently in the process of rolling out its new user interface, features slated for the next few months include an ‘Unsend’ feature and a dark (visibility-optimized) mode too.
How do these benefit brands? Well, ‘Unsend’ will allow brands to quickly retract inaccurate information and edit any odd-looking responses for posterity – within a ten minute time period. And dark mode will essentially reduce user eye-strain. While not a brand-centered update, the more responsive Messenger is to user needs, the more loyal they’ll be to the platform – meaning the more traffic brands can expect to see from Messenger.
WhatsApp’s dominance in the rest of the world (and number 2 slot where Messenger leads) makes the platform more than worthy of consideration as a customer service tool – especially now it’s a lot more focused on working with businesses.
From a user perspective, WhatsApp added a host of new features towards the tail end of 2018, including a ‘Private Reply in Group Chat’ function, which, from the outside looking in, could help facilitate a seamless transition from ‘one-to-many’ to ‘one-to-one’ chat; which would give brands an opportunity to respond directly to customer queries. WhatsApp is also working on a ‘Vacation’ feature, which will give users greater control over when they’re available. Again, not a brand-focused feature, but part of a continuous program of adaptation in line with user needs.
Apple Business Chat (ABC), while a relatively new player on the block, has the added bonus of being part of a 2 billion-strong iOS device network. Now that Apple Pay is a core feature in its service offering; companies can move from giving in-app advice to facilitating entire product transactions in the same chat.
Not only that, but the additional integration of ABC into Maps, Safari, and Search will make finding and conversing with a business a seamless transition. The addition of Calendar booking functionality enables customers to make appointments and sync them with their personal schedules. Overall, these new features will enable companies to optimize customer-initiated interactions and monetize them without navigating away from the chat itself.
Google’s RCS messenger combines the functionality of a messaging platform with the added bonus that it can operate via telecoms networks too – sent in the same way as SMS messages. Similar to ABC, Google RCS will enable companies to create branded channels within the service itself, but it also boosts a host of other features.
These include ‘suggested actions’ which prompt users to take additional steps – which might as well be to complete a transaction or leave a tip. Richer media formats enable brands to offer more visually appealing depictions of their products; and, as payment functionality is available too, entire sales processes can take place in the platform itself. Better metrics, read receipts, and verified sender information make the entire prospect an attractive one for brands as well as consumers. Not to mention RCS will be available on pretty much every new Android device too.
While all of this messaging functionality is great from a brand accessibility standpoint, one of the biggest challenges companies face when using these platforms is fulfillment – having staff in place to offer around-the-clock response service.
While a good deal of companies offer live agent support via messaging platforms, reports show that chatbots will continue to grow in popularity across 2019. After all, chatbots present an opportunity to provide a 24/7 service. However, the decline of Google’s ill-fated Allo chatbot assistant last year has others unconvinced.
From an enterprise perspective, we’ll almost certainly see their use expand in frontline customer service; given that (according to IBM’s Watson blog) chatbots can help businesses save on costs by speeding up response times, freeing up agents for more challenging work, and answering up to 80% of routine questions.
However, it’s also predicted that they’ll become more aligned with voice assistants – and could even replace apps at some point. In addition, greater integration with Internet Of Things technology could even allow people to ‘communicate’ with devices – allowing even greater personalization.
At the crux of automated technology like chatbots is the fact that they’re designed to replicate the way actual people communicate. But they don’t always do this successfully. Not yet, at least. Ongoing criticisms include the impersonal interactions and an overall inability to understand anything other than what’s scripted. In short, they’re only as good as programmers can make them; and the IF/THEN formula with which they’re scripted is better suited to automation rather than interaction.
But things are improving. Advances in Natural Language Processing are enhancing the technology’s ability to more precisely mimic human speech patterns and communication styles.
In fact, according to recent reports, in November 2018 MIT announced that scientists had created a technology that learns a language more like a baby would than a machine could. This is because it takes in visual and situational stimuli – as well as linguistic information.
As customer interaction technology continues to move beyond screens and text-based messaging, brands are already starting to taking notice of voice interfaces like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana.
As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, an increasing number of brands are already creating their own voice apps – including the NFL and hospitality brand, Marriott, which both now have Alexa Skills; as well as Dunkin Donuts’ voice app on Google Assistant; while PayPal is using Apple’s Siri platform to make sending money easier.
It’s a win for companies too: voice AI is ultimately more cost effective from a customer service perspective. And, as more and more services are integrated into voice tech – such as payment options – and personalization gets even smarter, the overall experience of using a voice assistant can only become more mainstream from a user perspective.
If we were to distill all of this information into a single customer insight, it’d be the need for greater personalization across the board.
As the drive towards delivering omnichannel experiences becomes better aligned with overall marketing efforts, brands will no doubt continue to scale their use of messaging platforms, chatbots, voice assistants and AI – if only to keep pace with the needs of their customers.
But, we should also remember that personalization isn’t solely technology-led. The closer we as consumers feel brands are to us – whether they share our world view or communicate with us on our preferred platform on demand – the fiercer our sense of loyalty becomes. That’s why so many FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) brands adopt a stance on culture.
Whether we’ll see more brands taking a bolder stance on real-world issues remains to be seen. However, the fact is that in order to continue to be relevant, brands cannot be perceived as one-dimensional. Championing innovation and driving forward digital initiatives that promote closer customer contact is a great way of demonstrating both depth and devotion.
Regardless of the messaging platform, they’re using, brands will undoubtedly continue to benefit from the next wave of features. A user-centered update can only give each service additional credibility and ease of use; making them more attractive to brands by virtue of an increase in customer usage; while the integration of partner services and branded utility features – such as calendar, payments, chatbots, etc – will make their own customer experience a lot more connected.