We now live in a mobile-dominated economy.
50% of the world’s population owns a smartphone, and this is forecast to grow to 80% over the next four years.
Strong mobile growth is reflected in changing customerbehaviour and expectations. 78% of US consumers say text communications is thefastest way to reach themfor service updates or purchases, and in 2020, purchases with mobile walletswill surpass credit and debit cards.
And nearly a quarter of the world’s population now interact with businesses using chatbots, as automation becomes necessary to handle increasing volumes of message based interactions.
This relentless growth has made the smartphone our life’s remote control. The challenge now for businesses is how to stay competitive, as better ways to connect displace the old customer channels of email and phone, and new, more nimble competitors exploit this disruption.
Email and phone are still popular, but mobile messaging, as indicated above, is where the action is; now 90% of consumers want to connect with businesses via messaging because it’s just more convenient for our mobile-first lifestyles.
And it’s easy to see why. Email was first gaining traction way back in the 1990s when the smartphone was just a gleam in an Apple designer’s eye. Since then, email has made the awkward migration to mobile, albeit compromised by the weight of its formal and un-conversational layout.
Over the same period, use of message chatbots has increased dramatically, as AI driven applications make conversational interfaces a reality. Email however struggled to benefit from this new tech, being designed less with conversation in mind and more around rules-based automation, producing responses that are often more artificial than intelligent!
Chatbots are also great at creating conversation, and they can do this for dramatically less money than a human: the cost of a contact centre interaction plummets from $15-$200 for a phone call, to $1 for a virtual chat session.
This results in chatbots saving businesses upto 30% in customer support costs.
The phone call has sadly suffered a similar fate. A ringing phone is now often just ignored, seen merely as an alarm for an annoying interruption, with a rising number of calls unceremoniously dumped to an unloved voicemail box. Customers like to connect on their own terms and in their own time.
For those high value sales calls that do connect, 9 out of 10 consumers want the convenience of an omnichannel experience, blending voice calls with messages into the same conversation.
The new upstart channels are dominated by over-the-top (OTT) services, where the service is not specific to a carrier network and is deployed over any wireless or data connection - these have resulted in rapid product innovation and fresh ways of doing business for small and large companies alike.
The humble mobile message, then, is in the right place at the right time, slap bang in the middle of the home screen of 3.3 billion avid smartphone users worldwide.
However only 48% of businesses have the capability to send a text, and its even lower for other OTT services. The prize therefore for savvy businesses that adopt these new channels is a headstart in defining the future standards for engagement, ecommerce and support, thus overtaking the old benchmarks defined by email and phone.
So what exactly are these new messaging services, and howcan they help you get ahead?
Let’s dive in…
Text and RCS
Texting has of course been around since the dawn of time.It’s ability to send a personal, direct, asynchronous communication at low costhas made it a winner for private communications.
It’s also made it a natural choice for businesses too, as it’s direct and convenient. The stats bear this out.
SMS open rates for outbound texting are in another league compared to email: 95-98% open rate, with 90% opened within 3 minutes with a 45% response rate. Consumers are 35 times more likely to read a business mobile message than an email.
For customer service, 54% of customers already prefertexting to voice calls or email, mainly driven by wanting to avoid on-holdqueues at call centres.
Growth in business texting has been mostly outbound, or A2P(application-to-person) where an enterprise’s software application creates andsends high volumes of messages to customers (who have agreed to receive those messages).
Common examples are marketing messages and appointmentreminders. This type of traffic has increased significantly over the last 5 years.
Although useful for their direct reach, A2P messages however do not usually feature a response capability, anddon’t contain much personalised or tailored content.
Considering that 85% of consumers want the ability to respond to texts and have a conversation, outbound-only messages risk alienating prospects with spammy, one-way texts that have limited interactivity for the consumer.
But thankfully that’s all changing. Texting is growing up from its old 160-character format, to a much improved inbound, or P2A (person-to-application) messaging service. This means that business messaging can now start making polite and useful conversation.
This capability is being unlocked by the roll-out of RCS (Rich Communications Services) which is a Google initiative that turbocharges the humble text to compete and overtake non-carrier OTT services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Thetech detail is outside the scope of this article, however in brief it provides enhanced messaging features forthe carrier, as well as an upgraded SMS message client for the user’ssmartphone.
So what are the key details of RCS? Well, many of thefeatures we have got used to with OTT services like Whatsapp are present:
Branding Show your companylogo and graphics in the message header to provide identity and verification,enabling the recipient to trust the contents
Quick response buttons Suggest actions viabuttons in the body of the message eg make a payment, share a location, make acall, review an order
QR codes Include QR codesfor tickets and coupons, for events and special offers
Rich media experience Attach videos andanimated gifs to provide a more powerful message to consumers
Customers are able tocreate inbound initiated 2 wayconversations that are dynamic and interactive, enhancing the sales and supportexperience, and extending the reach of your products to any consumer with asmartphone.
And most importantly, youdon’t have to encourage your customers to download an app – all they have to dois open their native SMS client.
Making it more attractive for customers to initiate aninbound conversation can increase the customer’s intent to connect with abusiness, which in turn can boost engagement, ecommerce and support.
In effect, RCS can replace the need for a mobile app, as it creates a new channel for mobile commerce with most of the features but none of the app development and support costs.
This is an important consideration as getting customers touse a new mobile app is a challenge - 20% of downloaded apps are never openedand a further 21% are only used once.
RCS is presently being rolled out internationally across mobilecarrier networks – it’s now universally available across UK and France and theUS. For consumers, 100% of Android users in the US are updated as part of the latestMessages app update, and most Android users in UK will be updated by Q1 2020.
However service providers should enable SMS fallback for anymessages that are not handled by RCS compatible smartphones.
RCS is yet to be adopted by Apple. It’s suggested that whenRCS gains critical mass in 2020, Apple will add RCS to the iPhone, as they won’twant to offer an inferior texting experience compared to Android devices –which are 75% of total smartphones in use.
We will likely see an Apple decision in 2020. Apple also hastheir own business message service called Apple Business Chat.
Apple Business Chat
Apple Business Chat (ABC) is Apple’s business version of their iMessage service, enabling businesses to chat with their customers via their Messages app, with enhanced features for business communications.
As with iMessage, ABC only works across Apple devices – iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch. However this can also be seen as an advantage as it allows a consumer to start a message on their iPhone, and then finish the conversation later at home on their Mac. Super convenient for busy Apple users!
ABC is controlled entirely by Apple, so there’s no involvement of the mobile carriers, unlike RCS. As you would expect with Apple – renowned for its focus on privacy – there’s high standards of encryption applied as a default for all messages.
With many recent revelations about customer data not being safein the hands of tech companies, this is obviously an important feature for manycustomers and brands.
In addition, Applehas gone to some lengths to design a high quality chat experience for customersupport functions, primarily focused at mid to large b2c customer brands.It’s very definitely not an outbound marketing tool, like some A2P textservices, as Apple has been careful to eliminate any kind of association withspam messaging.
In line with that objective, consumers have to initiate theconversation with the business. This however is not an issue, as Apple has madeit easy for consumers to discover your business via multiple points withinother Apple products.
For instance, you can start an ABC conversation directlyfrom Maps and Safari. This helps customers easily find your business and send amessage from a website search on Safari, or from a company listing in Maps.
There’s also an ABC messages API that allows you to add a“Chat with Messages” button on your website to help initiate an inboundcustomer conversation and replace traditional webchat services that providesonly a temporary message conversation.
Other iOS features and Apple Pay can also be easilyintegrated within a message conversation. For instance you could accessfeatures such as Camera within the message so you can get a great view of how acustomer is using your product.
You can even use Apple’s ARKit to provide a view to yourcustomer about what your product could potentially look like in a customer’senvironment, say how a prospective new table looks in their living room.
In order to provide consistent branding across all Apple products, businesses are required to upload their company info and logos so the message branding is always consistent, thereby making it look like a private business channel within the Apple ecosystem.
If you have an existing iOS app, you can also build a hybrid messaging service with ABC. An ABC text conversation can access specific features or access certain data native to your app, with just one tap of a link.
Like Whatsapp Business API, ABC works only via an API interface for the business customer. This means that, as a business, you need to integrate ABC with your CRM or ticketing application. Various CSPs (customer service platforms as Apple calls them) like Salesforce and other CRMs have implemented this integration.
Getting set up with ABC is a commitment in time and resource, and there are a number of requirements Apple likes to see, such as your CSP’s capabilities, QoS reporting, and agent training etc, before progressing.
But the upside is that enrolling with ABC is a statement of commitment to customer service and care that can really differentiate you from your competition.
ABC has been on limited roll out to large global brands overthe last 18 months. However the scope of applicable businesses is likely to broaden,with the service likely to become available to smaller businesses in 2020 andbeyond.
Webchat is instant messaging between people or chatbotsdelivered via a business’s website. The browsing consumer doesn’t have todownload a browser extension or any software - they can just start chatting.And businesses can instantly offer“live” sales support to a browsing customer to exploit that buying intention.
Whilst immediate response is useful, another benefit formany businesses is lack of a third party controlling the message session. Thisimproves security by reducing the risk of a message’s contents falling into thewrong hands.
For customer security, webchat can also be useful to makeenquiries without the customer revealing their ID, eg for one-off salesquestions or quick support enquiries.
Alternatively, when the customer is logged in to a web basedservice, webchat provides an easy to use and cost effective way to provide realtime, instant support services, as the customer and their account details arealready known.
However webchat’s attributes as a “synchronous” communicationstool can also be a hindrance. Customersthat have limited time to browse expect an immediate response to their sales orsupport request.
This can pile on the pressure for your support team to instantlyreply whilst the customer is still active on your site, requiring more agentsto keep your impatient browsers happy!
On the plus side, deploying webchat (or any message basedcustomer interaction) is always going to be less resource intense than handling a phone call: it’s estimatedthat customer service agents can engage in as many as six simultaneous chatsdepending on complexity!
Also, as webchat architecture is unrestricted by any thirdparties, chatbot implementation andcustomization is much easier, enabling developers to use a wider range ofgraphical widgets for a richer customer interface and experience.
But in cases where the product is more complex, and where youneed to nurture the prospect over alonger period of time, webchat with a human or a chatbot may not be sufficient.For instance, if the customer wants to purchase an insurance policy or a newholiday, a brief webchat is probably not going to cut it!
Another problem is that when the customer lands on your website as a new visitor, there’s no way to identify the customer or capture contact details to respond at a later time or send future notifications.
However a web message fixes that. A web message is a text originatingfrom a mobile website that forms a synchronous or asynchronous ongoing conversationwith a customer, even when they have ended their browsing session on yourmobile website.
A simple “text to chat” button is installed on your mobilewebsite, which when clicked opens the mobile’s text client with your business’stext number auto pre-filled making it a simple “one tap” for the customer toconnect.
Or if browsing on a desktop or laptop, this can be detectedand a Facebook Messenger session can be initiated.
As it’s a persistent conversation, you can keep in contact at your customer’s convenience in order to close the sale or resolve the issue. The conversation could be over any duration: a minute, a week, a month, or whatever is required.
This can help build trust with prospects, increase the ROI of your mobile website, and boost your mobile sales conversion ratio – as well as provide a more convenient support service for your customers!
When Apple introduced notifications on the iPhone, it made it possible for apps like Whatsapp to exist. And as we all know, WhatsApp’s existence has now turned into market dominance, with 60 billion messages sent everyday!
Texting’s great asset has been its ubiquity, but it’s also been its downfall. It has struggled to keep pace on features compared to other OTT messaging services due to the difficulties of innovating on a shared network that must support multiple mobile carriers – an industry group that has not exactly been at the cutting edge of telecoms innovation.
Whatsapp, as an OTT service, has none of these restrictions - it quickly launched features such as read receipts, groups, photo attachments etc, thereby strongly differentiating itself from the ageing text.
WhatsApp has also worked hard to promote itself as safe, trusted, private, and free from advertisements and spam.
This has led to huge popularity for personal messaging, and now that's being leveraged with its two business versions - WhatsApp Business and WhatsApp Business API.
WhatsApp Business is designed for small SMEs to provide a more business grade messaging service to end customers. Businesses can now benefit by being able to easily reach out to Whatsapp's 1.6 billion users across the globe.
Features include Business Profiles where company info such as name, email, phone, web address, etc are verified to give assurance to consumers, plus also providing branding to your messages. Message reporting and product list also enable business owners to measure their messaging effectiveness and promote their products.
The disadvantage for business users is that it’s a mobile-to-mobile product, with no ability to connect with a business’s communications system to distribute messages. This makes it difficult to handle anything more than low message volumes, as office based agents can’t use a contact centre or similar to allocate messages amongst a team.
It also means that business processes can become disjointed, as there’s no integration with back office systems such as CRM and ticketing. Managing contacts, deals and support requests can therefore become time intensive.
There are some support desk organizations that do provide unofficial integration with WhatsApp Business, however this is not a Whatsapp supported integration, so potentially features could be lost without notice in the future.
Whatsapp however has addressed this problem with WhatsApp Business API which is a more sophisticated product, where features are exposed via an API (application programming interface) that allows integration with business systems. WhatsApp messages can now be managed in the same way as a business’s emails and phone calls, and distributed amongst a team of support agents.
This of course allows more flexibility to handle messages,as well as providing more relevant and information rich services. Account updates, delivery information,payment requests can now all be delivered by a customer service team using acontact centre or CRM. Automated alerts, notifications and reminders canalso be set up to save agent time.
This results in both an increase in message handlingcapacity, and an improved customer experience.
However, like Apple Business Chat, WhatsApp Business API is not a quick or easy set up. As it features end-to-end message encryption, maintaining this security feature requires a complex implementation. This results in higher costs, making WhatsApp Business API more suitable for enterprise customers with large message volumes.
This may well change with Facebook’s (which owns WhatsApp) announcementthat they are merging WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram into one platform. Thiscould potentially lower costs for WhatsApp Business API implementation – itwill be interesting to see how this development unfolds in 2020.
So if you’re a small business with a couple of employees,Whatsapp Business could work well for you. But if you’re an SME or mid sizeenterprise, and you have more than a couple of sales or support staff, it’sgoing to potentially struggle to handle your message volumes.
However Whatsapp Business API is a more expensive optionthat might be difficult to cost justify unless you are a large b2c brand withhigh message volumes.
A great option for businesses that fit between the twoWhatsApp business products is Facebook Messenger.
With around 2 billion users every month, Messenger exceeds even the reach of WhatsApp (1.6 billion), although its dominance varies from territory to territory: India, Germany, UK and Russia are the biggest WhatsApp markets, with US and France the largest Messenger markets.
But when you look at total interactions, Messenger is thestandout leader for customer engagement and brand presence with 20 billionmessages sent between business and consumers every month.
There are a number of reasons for this popularity:
- Business Pages Messenger is integrated with every Facebook business page, benefitting from the traffic generated by 1.6 billion daily Facebook users spending an average of 1.5 hours everyday on the social network
- Verified accounts Messenger messages are tied to Facebook accounts so the account is verified as a genuine user
- Free It’s free to send messages anywhere in the world (try achieving that with a text!)
- Features With features such as image and video attachments, read receipts, group messaging, sender ID etc, it provides a more enjoyable b2c user experience than text
- Cross platform Like Whatsapp, it’s an OTT service, so it can be used on any device - an Android mobile user can connect with an iOS desktop user with the same features and user experience
- Web app Messenger has a web app so business users can respond from their desktop making it easier to use in an office environment
- Chatbot friendly Messenger is a chatbot friendly platform, with 300,000 bots already built for the platform. Messenger developer program makes it straighforward to develop a bot that’s specific to your business.
Chatbots are a keyfeature of the Messenger platform and can be built quickly to automatesales responses, handle support tasks, take FAQs, all without taking up agenttime. Businesses and their bots can also be easily discovered via search on theFacebook platform.
One of the main drawbacks of Messenger is that it’s not encrypted by default (although we won’t get into the merits or otherwise of data privacy in this article!) but, again, this is likely to change with the consolidation of Facebook platforms in 2020.
However Messengerdoes have an API which can beintegrated at much lower cost (depending on your supplier) than the WhatsAppBusiness API, so you can connect Messageswith your back office systems, such as your contact centre, CRM or ticketingapp. This also overcomes the drawback of the non-API Whatsapp Business asbeing a mainly peer-to-peer communication service.
One useful feature of Messenger is the web version, whichmakes it also suitable as a webchat tool, as it has the advantage that acustomer can start with web chat on their desktop and then continue on theirmobile, without the conversation ending when the browser session ends.
It also helpsbusinesses proactively connect with web visitors and create a persistent, asynchronousconversation that’s much more convenient for the customer.
All of the above make Messenger a great messaging option for small and large businesses alike,and make it a front runner for both 2-way direct interactions, andcommunications via your webpage.
Customers now want convenience when connecting with their favourite business or store, and aren't so keen on visiting the high street, endlessly searching the web, or listening to piped music whilst being held in a queue.
Messaging fulfils this requirement for convenience.
Businesses that focuson developing messaging as a new customer channel will differentiate theirproducts by offering superior customer experience through conversational salesand support.
Those that don’t, risk losing customers to organizationsthat are more nimble and easier to do business with - and just happy to chat!
So if you want to build a messaging service for yourcustomers, what is the best option for you?
The humble text is a great place to start, especially forsmaller businesses. Whilst it’s not as feature rich as newer OTT services, it’svery cost effective for national coverage, is easy to set up for a small support team, and provides a greatplatform for convenient, professional chat.
Apple Business Chat, WhatsApp Business API and RCS are newservices with rich multimedia features compared to text. So far they’ve had limitedroll out, with high set up and monthly costs, making them at the moment suitableonly for businesses with high message volumes. This situation though is likelyto change in 2020 and beyond.
Facebook Messenger is much more cost effective for those SMEswith lower message volumes, but also still has many of the business grade features of the other OTT services, makingit an excellent platform to build on, especially for basic interactionsthat can be managed by a bot.
Webchat messaging has its place for web based interactions,although there are scenarios where a webmessage based service, such as text orMessenger, provides a more suitable service for longer sales cycles and morein-depth support.
Messaging is a dynamic market that's developing rapidly. Costs will reduce and new features will be launched that we haven’t yet even thought about or imagined.
So, as messaging develops into a modern complement totraditional phone and email, it’s importantto get started so you can keep your mobile customers happy, stay connected, andmost importantly stay ahead of your competition.
Ina future blog, we’ll look at the typical use cases for messaging, and how thesecan benefit your customers.
In the meantime, to find out more about how messaging can help improve your customer experience, please visit www.converso.io.
We’re also launching our beta service, to sign up please click here – its free for early users!
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