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 customer behaviour and expectations. 78% of US consumers say text communications is the fastest way to reach them for service updates or purchases, and in 2020, purchases with mobile wallets will 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 how can 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 cost has 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 prefer texting to voice calls or email, mainly driven by wanting to avoid on-hold queues at call centres.
Growth in business texting has been mostly outbound, or A2P (application-to-person) where an enterprise’s software application creates and sends high volumes of messages to customers (who have agreed to receive those messages).
Common examples are marketing messages and appointment reminders. 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, and don’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.
The tech detail is outside the scope of this article, however in brief it provides enhanced messaging features for the carrier, as well as an upgraded SMS message client for the user’s smartphone.
So what are the key details of RCS? Well, many of the features we have got used to with OTT services like Whatsapp are present:
Branding Show your company logo and graphics in the message header to provide identity and verification, enabling the recipient to trust the contents
Quick response buttons Suggest actions via buttons in the body of the message eg make a payment, share a location, make a call, review an order
QR codes Include QR codes for tickets and coupons, for events and special offers
Rich media experience Attach videos and animated gifs to provide a more powerful message to consumers
Customers are able to create inbound initiated 2 way conversations that are dynamic and interactive, enhancing the sales and support experience, and extending the reach of your products to any consumer with a smartphone.
And most importantly, you don’t have to encourage your customers to download an app – all they have to do is open their native SMS client.
Early results from trials show 20x higher conversation rates, and customer sales up by 25%. And 82% of brands interviewed said they were interested in RCS as a future communications channel.
Making it more attractive for customers to initiate an inbound conversation can increase the customer’s intent to connect with a business, 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 to use a new mobile app is a challenge – 20% of downloaded apps are never opened and a further 21% are only used once.
RCS is presently being rolled out internationally across mobile carrier networks – it’s now universally available across UK and France and the US. For consumers, 100% of Android users in the US are updated as part of the latest Messages app update, and most Android users in UK will be updated by Q1 2020.
However service providers should enable SMS fallback for any messages that are not handled by RCS compatible smartphones.
RCS is yet to be adopted by Apple. It’s suggested that when RCS gains critical mass in 2020, Apple will add RCS to the iPhone, as they won’t want 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 has their 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 safe in the hands of tech companies, this is obviously an important feature for many customers and brands.
In addition, Apple has gone to some lengths to design a high quality chat experience for customer support functions, primarily focused at mid to large b2c customer brands. It’s very definitely not an outbound marketing tool, like some A2P text services, as Apple has been careful to eliminate any kind of association with spam messaging.
In line with that objective, consumers have to initiate the conversation with the business. This however is not an issue, as Apple has made it easy for consumers to discover your business via multiple points within other Apple products.
For instance, you can start an ABC conversation directly from Maps and Safari. This helps customers easily find your business and send a message 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 inbound customer conversation and replace traditional webchat services that provides only a temporary message conversation.
Other iOS features and Apple Pay can also be easily integrated within a message conversation. For instance you could access features such as Camera within the message so you can get a great view of how a customer is using your product.
You can even use Apple’s ARKit to provide a view to your customer about what your product could potentially look like in a customer’s environment, 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 over the 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 and beyond.
Webchat is instant messaging between people or chatbots delivered via a business’s website. The browsing consumer doesn’t have to download 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 for many businesses is lack of a third party controlling the message session. This improves security by reducing the risk of a message’s contents falling into the wrong hands.
For customer security, webchat can also be useful to make enquiries without the customer revealing their ID, eg for one-off sales questions or quick support enquiries.
Alternatively, when the customer is logged in to a web based service, webchat provides an easy to use and cost effective way to provide real time, instant support services, as the customer and their account details are already known.
However webchat’s attributes as a “synchronous” communications tool can also be a hindrance. Customers that have limited time to browse expect an immediate response to their sales or support request.
This can pile on the pressure for your support team to instantly reply whilst the customer is still active on your site, requiring more agents to keep your impatient browsers happy!
On the plus side, deploying webchat (or any message based customer interaction) is always going to be less resource intense than handling a phone call: it’s estimated that customer service agents can engage in as many as six simultaneous chats depending on complexity!
Also, as webchat architecture is unrestricted by any third parties, chatbot implementation and customization is much easier, enabling developers to use a wider range of graphical widgets for a richer customer interface and experience.
But in cases where the product is more complex, and where you need to nurture the prospect over a longer 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 new holiday, 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 originating from a mobile website that forms a synchronous or asynchronous ongoing conversation with a customer, even when they have ended their browsing session on your mobile website.
A simple “text to chat” button is installed on your mobile website, which when clicked opens the mobile’s text client with your business’s text number auto pre-filled making it a simple “one tap” for the customer to connect.
Or if browsing on a desktop or laptop, this can be detected and 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 a contact centre or CRM. Automated alerts, notifications and reminders can also be set up to save agent time.
This results in both an increase in message handling capacity, 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) announcement that they are merging WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram into one platform. This could potentially lower costs for WhatsApp Business API implementation – it will 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 size enterprise, and you have more than a couple of sales or support staff, it’s going to potentially struggle to handle your message volumes.
However Whatsapp Business API is a more expensive option that might be difficult to cost justify unless you are a large b2c brand with high message volumes.
A great option for businesses that fit between the two WhatsApp 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 the standout leader for customer engagement and brand presence with 20 billion messages 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 key feature of the Messenger platform and can be built quickly to automate sales responses, handle support tasks, take FAQs, all without taking up agent time. Businesses and their bots can also be easily discovered via search on the Facebook 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 Messenger does have an API which can be integrated at much lower cost (depending on your supplier) than the WhatsApp Business API, so you can connect Messages with your back office systems, such as your contact centre, CRM or ticketing app. This also overcomes the drawback of the non-API Whatsapp Business as being a mainly peer-to-peer communication service.
One useful feature of Messenger is the web version, which makes it also suitable as a webchat tool, as it has the advantage that a customer can start with web chat on their desktop and then continue on their mobile, without the conversation ending when the browser session ends.
It also helps businesses proactively connect with web visitors and create a persistent, asynchronous conversation 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, and communications 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 focus on developing messaging as a new customer channel will differentiate their products by offering superior customer experience through conversational sales and support.
Those that don’t, risk losing customers to organizations that are more nimble and easier to do business with – and just happy to chat!
So if you want to build a messaging service for your customers, what is the best option for you?
The humble text is a great place to start, especially for smaller businesses. Whilst it’s not as feature rich as newer OTT services, it’s very cost effective for national coverage, is easy to set up for a small support team, and provides a great platform for convenient, professional chat.
Apple Business Chat, WhatsApp Business API and RCS are new services with rich multimedia features compared to text. So far they’ve had limited roll out, with high set up and monthly costs, making them at the moment suitable only for businesses with high message volumes. This situation though is likely to change in 2020 and beyond.
Facebook Messenger is much more cost effective for those SMEs with lower message volumes, but also still has many of the business grade features of the other OTT services, making it an excellent platform to build on, especially for basic interactions that can be managed by a bot.
Webchat messaging has its place for web based interactions, although there are scenarios where a web message based service, such as text or Messenger, provides a more suitable service for longer sales cycles and more in-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 to traditional phone and email, it’s important to get started so you can keep your mobile customers happy, stay connected, and most importantly stay ahead of your competition.
In a future blog, we’ll look at the typical use cases for messaging, and how these can 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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