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Meet Customer with Messaging: CUSTOMERS ARE USING MESSAGING APPS, SO COMPANIES NEED TO ADOPT THEM TOO.

Messaging apps have grown astronomically over the past few years. Facebook-owned WhatsApp (which was founded in 2009) and Facebook Messenger (which the social media giant first launched in 2011) both hit the 1 billion mark in monthly active users in 2016. The Chinese app WeChat (which also launched in 2011) did the same in 2018. With the continued proliferation of mobile devices, messaging apps like these are not likely to go away--or even show any signs of decline--anytime soon.

There are literally hundreds of these types of services in existence around the world, and if companies want to be able to meet consumers in their preferred channels--and very few companies today can afford not to--they would do well to incorporate messaging apps into their strategies. This is particularly true in the customer service arena, where ease of communication is essential so as to not further inflame already frustrated customers.

Messaging apps are a must-have channel for customer support in the digital era, experts say. "Customers want convenience, and they'll give their loyalty to brands that provide it. There aren't a lot of people who want to pause their day to wait on hold with customer support. Customers want those interactions to happen anytime, anywhere, and usually they want to be able to handle them discreetly, at their fingertips," says Robert Vis, CEO and cofounder of MessageBird, a cloud communications platform provider.

"Using messaging apps for customer support makes sense because they fit into our busy digital lives. That's because messaging apps offer more than just messaging: You can send videos, links, photos, and even money. In a customer support setting, all of that translates to context. Instead of trying to decipher what a customer wants, the customer can show you exactly what he needs all in one thread, and if you ever need to pick up the conversation again, it's there waiting for you all in one spot," he adds.

As the world continues to become more mobile, companies "don't want to interrupt customers' lives. They want to fit in seamlessly as their customers live their lives. That's why offering customer support through messaging is a smart move," Vis concludes.

The big tech giants have already taken steps to make messaging more accessible for companies. Facebook, for example, opened up its Messenger app for developers and businesses in 2015, and Apple followed suit in 2017 when it introduced Business Chat, a platform that allows companies to communicate with customers via its iMessage service. Moves such as these set the precedent for communication between companies and consumers via messaging apps.

And it shouldn't come as a surprise that consumers expect to be able to communicate with businesses in the same way that they do with friends and family members. "The way that people communicate with one another, as peers and friends, leads you to wonder why you can't initiate a conversation that easily with businesses," says Cliff Bell, senior director of the Innovations Foundry at contact center solutions provider Genesys. "The way that we communicate with friends is not radically different than when we're trying to communicate with companies: We're working through logistics, providing information, and getting answers back to make a plan together."

Modern messaging apps provide customers with a single channel for all of their interactions with a company and give them a great degree of control over those interactions, Bell adds. "Customers are able to quickly start conversations...to buy products, schedule appointments, or troubleshoot problems, all in a single thread. Consumers can respond to a company on their own time, whether that's two minutes or two days later, with the expectation that the company will pick up the inquiry where it left off in the thread. This effectively puts the consumer in the driver's seat," he says.

EASTERN INFLUENCE

Because of the immense popularity of WeChat--the multipurpose messaging, social media, and mobile payment app developed by Tencent--the notion of using messaging apps to communicate with companies has been led by China.

"In places like China, where mobile commerce is more popular, messaging as a form of customer support is more widely available--if not the expectation," says Fabrice Martin, chief product officer at Clarabridge, a customer experience management software provider.

"Using messaging apps for customer support is gaining traction rapidly in the West, yet it's a model that has its roots in the East. WeChat launched in 2011 and quickly became known as a super app, where users could connect not just with friends and family but with businesses of any size--from street vendors to large retail chains. To put it in perspective, WeChat lets you message your friends, order food from restaurants, book a rideshare, buy groceries, and purchase movie tickets, all without leaving the app," Vis adds.

Because of that, WeChat today is one of the world's largest stand-alone mobile apps by monthly active users, with more than 1 billion of them. And despite the ongoing trade war between China and the United States, Tencent has made no secret about its plans to aggressively expand into the U.S. market.

Even without WeChat, though, messaging with businesses has been quickly catching on in the United States. "Messaging apps for customer support are still relatively new in the United States, but growing rapidly," Martin says. "With significant investments in business-to-consumer chat being made by Apple and Facebook, customer support messaging will grow significantly in popularity moving forward. In the coming years, messaging is likely to emerge as the most popular method of communication between brands and customers, especially younger customers."

Meredith Flynn-Ripley, vice president of mobile messaging at Salesforce.com, agrees. "WeChat showed the world that messaging can be used by businesses," she says. "Messaging is the dominant form of personal communications today, so it's only natural that it extends into the business communications space."

Going forward, experts predict a shift to an asynchronous communication style in customer service interactions that use messaging apps. Martin notes that although conversations that take place on messaging apps can occur in real time, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. A customer can ask a company a question before leaving for work, for example, read the answer during his commute, and reply during his lunch break, he says.

Bell envisions a similar scenario. "Going forward, customers can expect to have many more asynchronous conversations--contacting and responding to companies on customers' timetables and when it suits their needs. The convenience of that type of conversation is wonderful and one reason why messaging is taking off," he says.

And Flynn-Ripley agrees. "Asynchronous messaging will become equal to, if not greater than, the voice channel for customer service within the next two years," she asserts. "We're in a period of profound innovation and change, and companies that start adopting these channels today will leapfrog the competition when it comes to building amazing customer relationships. It's an exciting time for messaging and customer service."

Experts predict that messaging apps will continue to be preferred by customers, prompting the communications between them and companies to evolve. "We're all consumers who have had a frustrating experience of subpar customer care. Messaging provides a more seamless way for brands and customers to interact and can ultimately help mitigate some of these frustrations, leading to an overall more positive brand experience," says Mike Betzer, chief product officer at Lithium, a provider of software that enables businesses to connect with their customers on social media and digital channels.

"The reality is that messaging has already begun to change everything. Customers want it because it's so much easier to connect when the brand is needed, and the big brands love it because it reduces cost and improves Net Promoter Scores. Expect the traditional call center technology to fade away as customers supplant this experience with personalized and prompt messaging," he continues.

BIG BENEFITS FOR CUSTOMER SUPPORT

Experts agree that messaging apps are beneficial for customers and agents alike. For customers, they assert that the main benefits are convenience and ease of use. "Messaging apps are a natural extension of how customers are already communicating every day, so it's an effortless and seamless experience from their perspective," Flynn-Ripley says.

Ajit Ghuman, director of product marketing at customer support software company Helpshift, says that for the consumer, "the benefits boil down to the user-friendliness of the channel. Consumers can easily converse back and forth with an agent without having to either go through lengthy email exchanges or complex web portals, resulting in quicker response times."

Martin agrees and adds that the way messaging platforms preserve conversations is also valuable. "The advantage for customers is largely the freedom it gives them to carry on a conversation on their own time and terms. Few things are more frustrating than using up time on a precious lunch hour to wait on hold because the contact center is experiencing a high volume of calls. It's just not efficient," he says. "Messaging allows customers to carry on a conversation at their own pace throughout the day without having to wait on hold or find a block of time to make a phone call, and creates a record of their inquiries so they don't have to repeat themselves when their need requires a different agent."

For agents, experts say that the main benefit is the ability to manage multiple inquiries simultaneously and receive assistance from chatbots.

"Agents can better handle and resolve customer support issues quickly. Asynchronous messaging allows agents to handle seven to 10 conversations at the same time from one console that houses key customer information and background so agents can provide a direct, personalized, and responsive interaction," Flynn-Ripley says.

"If you bring chatbots into the fold, 30 [percent] to 60 percent of top use cases can be automated and handled entirely by a chatbot, freeing up the agent's time to handle other high-value work," she adds.

Martin points out that chatbots can act as personal assistants to agents, surfacing suggested answers, taking on basic tasks like updating payment information, or pulling up the relevant information to answer a customer's question.

"There is no putting customers on hold to look up information only to have to then navigate back to that irate customer frustrated about being on hold," Martin says.

He adds that the preservation of conversations provided by messaging platforms is also beneficial to agents. "The permanent messaging structure creates a historical transcript of the conversation that never disappears and can be referenced by both the customer and agent so questions and informative details don't have to be repeated," he explains.

"Agents love the messaging channels... and companies love the increased agent productivity," Flynn-Ripley asserts.

Vis reiterates the sheer reach of messaging apps. "The success of any business hinges on the quality and speed of communication, especially when it comes to customer support. WeChat, [Facebook] Messenger, and WhatsApp have more than a billion users apiece. That's an incredible opportunity for businesses of any size to expand their customer base and their reach. Offering support through messaging apps.is a no-brainer," he says.

ADVICE FOR ADOPTION

With so many mobile devices, messaging apps, and services providers available, though, it is crucial to choose the right ones. Flynn-Ripley advises companies to conduct a "channel check" where they evaluate the combinations of devices and channels that their customers are using and then adopt the most common ones. "This could also include a comparison of the number of customers using mobile browsers compared to desktop browsers. Key insights like these help businesses focus and prioritize," she says.

"If only 2 percent of [customers] are using a specific messaging app, but 40 percent are using another, it will dictate your priorities," she adds.

Experts also advise that messaging apps need to be part of a broader omnichannel customer service strategy. "Messaging apps are fantastic as a customer support channel," Bell says. "However, just as message threads with friends still require a voice call for a dedicated, tone-rich conversation to occur, other integrated contact channels, like voice, email, and video, are critical tools to ensure total customer care."

Martin agrees. "[Messaging apps are] where customers are communicating already, so it is an imperative for companies to meet customers where they are or they risk being edged out," he says. "Most companies struggle to integrate disparate communication channels, and it is imperative that they think through their overall objective or they will not be effectively leveraging the incredible power of this emerging medium."

Messaging also needs to be integrated into companies' overall customer service strategies, according to Flynn-Ripley and others.

"Messaging apps themselves don't track or record conversations, which is a huge gap in effectively connecting with customers and providing a delightful experience," Flynn-Ripley says. "Messaging needs consolidation with larger real-time channel platform infrastructure, integrated with CRM and [artificial intelligence] to deliver a complete, consolidated customer view, enabling agents or bots to act quickly and appropriately, in real time, on support channels."

BY SAM DEL ROWE

Associate Editor Sam Del Rowe can be reached at sdelrowe@infotoday.com.
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Author:Del Rowe, Sam
Publication:CRM Magazine
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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