Martin Hill Wilson discusses the future of messaging as a contact centre channel.
For some, messaging is front and centre.
It inspired Josh March, CEO of social customer service platform Conversocial, to write his first book and explain how we are about to pivot traditional social engagement into messaging, which for Josh becomes the new de facto form of brand engagement. Certainly it’s widely accepted that the top four messaging platforms now attract more users than the top social platforms.
Not so long ago, I had the pleasure of judging Sky at the 2018 CCMA awards. Their enthusiasm for messaging as an outbound sales channel was positively infectious. As you can see, they also won.
I’m also a growing fan of brands such as IMImobile, who are providing some excellent thought leadership on messaging centric contact strategy and are clearly well positioned while the rest of us catch up on how next generation customer service might operate.
So I thought it was time to revisit the topic now the reasons to deploy are becoming more compelling and share with you some of the data I use in my mobile & messaging master classes.
Why Bother? Customers Want It
You know the mantra: today’s consumers want to interact with organisations using their preferred communications channel. The ‘so what’ is that messaging has become a huge global habit.
51% of all digital media time on mobile is spent in just 5 apps. In the UK, messaging comes in equal second according to Deloittes’ 2017 UK mobile consumer survey.
When this behaviour is looked at generationally, preferences are reversed and we can anticipate how messaging will eventually dominate email as a preferred channel. However, for now, email remains an important channel for many customer generations and as such warrants a total makeover in terms of responsiveness.
Why the popularity? Messaging is a visual ‘grande bouffe’ relative to plain old SMS. Globally we adore this new world of emojis and stickers.
Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of industry surveys that pick up on this trend and encourage us to invest in messaging as the next big thing. Here’s one commissioned by MuleSoft, which includes a few thousand UK consumers:
- 65% of consumers would like to use popular messaging services such as WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook Messenger or iMessage to securely interact with organisations
- This rises 78% amongst 18-34 year olds
- Consumers were most keen to interact with retailers (51%) while government services (42%) were in the bottom of the list
Incidentally, while I remember, I’ve seen quite a few of these global surveys recently and I’ve noticed, more often than not, that UK consumers lag on the adoption curve. So, be aware when quoting from these sources about current local demand.
Also, think about this question: does this feedback suggest pent-up demand we should be responding to now in our contact strategies?
The very small number of UK organisations that currently offer messaging as a service or sales channel means we just don’t know if the apparent enthusiasm expressed in this graph would cause immediate migration away from other channels such as email or phone.
Before we all scream of course, I know from my own evangelising on new channels that UK service organisations take their time before committing. What about chat with its fifteen-year incubation? Maybe messaging will burst through much earlier. Sky, as I mentioned earlier, are delighted with customer reaction to having messaging as an active channel.
Time to Try
So what’s the right response?
My recommendation is that millennial and gen Z brands need to be planning a major push into messaging, given the enthusiasm shown by these age groups. To a lesser degree, all B2C brands that include the full UK demographic (i.e. these two cohorts) need to be testing how they engage with their younger customers.
That said, it is also worth testing against a broader age range. Although messaging is a generational thing, regular weekly use (as shown in the OFCOM chart immediately above) does happen in all but the oldest cohort. That said, my dad is 93 and is an active member of our family WhatsApp group.
So I’d say it’s a green light for rolling out messaging to test demand and explore use cases. However, its impact on reducing demand in other channels remains largely unknown and so I’d still advise an agile test-and-learn approach rather than ditch and replace. Although I know some brands are itching to pull email in favour of messaging.
But that’s a decision for each organisation to make. For a start, channels tend to multiply rather than die. Secondly, email remains popular, as shown above, even though it desperately needs a makeover. Lastly, the volume of demand for messaging as a service channel needs to be put into context – something which many surveys ignore in their findings.
To that end, here is the latest data from ContactBabel, a research firm that knows the UK customer service market like no other. According to Steve Morrel’s most recent report (The UK Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide 2018), voice dominates, email is still growing and the so-called digital channels remain minnows in spite of everything. Change is a-coming, but it’s a stroll not a sprint.
Of course, this ‘slow graceful decline of voice’ is an industry-wide perspective. Some sectors are quite different. For instance, Scott Baker (customer service director at Misguided), who I’ve been co-presenting with this year, always starts by explaining that Misguided is a 100% non-voice brand.
By the way, 66% of Scott’s customers engage by smartphone. This is a big behavioural clue in my book. The key driver for messaging is mobile. So if you want to understand how messaging sneaks up as an implicit expectation, simply track the rise of smartphone use across your customer generations. Many organisations still fail to do this.
Here is a fun set of stats from a 2017 Deloitte report that shows the behaviour.
Messaging certainly benefits from our collective addiction to smartphones. In recognition of this negative PR, Apple has now revealed Screen Time, a new feature that allows users to monitor and limit their app usage on the iPhone and iPad.
But all this is to simply confirm the convenience and instant connectivity that a mobile lifestyle offers us all.
The West Is Behind the Curve
If you want an extreme view of how this plays out, look to China and their messaging platform WeChat, also known as Weixin – which means “micro-letter” in Mandarin. It’s become a one-stop shop for networking, mobile payments and shopping.
In fact, China is now so mobile/messaging orientated that even the homeless need their own WeChat accounts since physical cash and plastic cards are fast disappearing.
WeChat has taken Chinese society online in wholesale fashion. A billion users can access services to hail a taxi, order food delivery, buy movie tickets, play casual games, check in for a flight, send money to friends, access fitness tracker data, book a doctor’s appointment, get banking statements, pay the water bill, find geo-targeted coupons, recognise music, search for a book at the local library, meet strangers around you, follow celebrity news, read magazine articles, and even donate to charity. All from the convenience of a single app.
Some say messaging as a platform could even potentially kill off browsers and apps over time. For instance, 71% of app users churn within 90 days and 23% abandon after just one use across all industries. That makes app development a risky investment.
Meanwhile, high-end brands across Europe are now being actively canvassed by Tencent (owner of Wechat) on the basis that Chinese tourists expect the familiarity of Wechat payments to be persuaded to shop in European retail outlets. This is an amazing transformation from being a text-based platform to a payments behemoth rapidly spreading westwards.
“Tencent and Alibaba are the real pioneers of customer-driven digital services and the scale of data they hold on individuals is awesome, fantastic and scary, depending on how you look at it,” observes Maz Amirahmadi, chief executive of market research firm ABN Impact.
WeChat service standards will also challenge many western organisations according to journalist Nick Easen.
“We’re in the era of great expectations. People now expect more and seamless interactions in real time. The connected customer’s expectations are very high these days. Everybody wants it now. You don’t want to wait one minute, you want to be able to connect,” says Antony Bourne, vice president of global industry solutions at IFS.
Customer service in China has now reached dizzying heights. On average workers from online stores are available to chat with customers for 12 hours a day or more, with some even offering 24/7 availability.
“They are very quick at handling requests here,” says Thomas Guillemaud, chief operating officer of Shanghai-based IT Consultis.
“Retailers in the West will need to be quick to listen to customers, improving the products they offer, how quickly they respond to chats, how they handle changes to orders, deliveries, returns and more will also be crucial.”
So, what are the lessons provided by WeChat?
When messaging becomes a platform rather than just an app, it becomes capable of redefining how whole markets function. Will that happen over here? Payments are now integrated. Sales and service functionality is being tested. New players such as Apple Chat are appearing. Older players such as WhatsApp still have to pull the trigger on official enterprise use.
In short, what we currently expect from our messaging apps here in the West remains modest compared with what has already become entrenched habit in the Far East. Its full impact is yet to be experienced. But we need to be ready as I recommended earlier.
Messaging Ticks All the Boxes
Even if we do not end up with a WeChat clone, my sense is that messaging is still due to play a central part in the next generation of customer engagement. The following image from a recent IMImobile white paper shows what a messaging-centric contact strategy looks like. It’s pretty much everything expected by customers. Proactive, personalised, blended modalities and low effort.
Of course the enabler of this vision is that messaging needs to be deeply embedded within an organisation’s digital ecosystem so as to enable all its real-time, personalised goodness. In that sense, its value is proportionate to its level of integration. A truth that has applied to every other contact channel since the omnichannel challenge first appeared.
We Can of Course Still Screw It Up
Apart from the obvious fail of delivering messaging as a stand-alone channel in terms of data and workflow, messaging needs to be plugged into an omnichannel routing engine. One that can make smart decisions based on context and intent across every voice, text and video channel you have deployed.
Implicit in that requirement is the fact that messaging comes in many flavours, from in-app versions to the globally known ones and the hybrids such as RSC and webRTC. Of course that’s before Amazon reputedly turns up with its own version. So all that choice needs to be plumbed in, preferably as an out-of-the-box hub which I know some vendors already have.
The other screw-up I anticipate is careless use of a highly personal channel.
I recently glanced the headline of an email that ironically promised me smarter ways to gain more email inbox attention as a marketer. It made me chuckle. In despair. This is a self-induced problem from target toting copywriters using bland personalisation options in their marketing automation suites.
The result is no desire to really dialogue with me, just an inside-out obsession with open rates and click-throughs. Moreover, I can tell from post-GDPR grumbling that the notion of an equal exchange of value based on real dialogue is still as alien as ever.
Overly harsh? Maybe. But until my inbox content transforms, I’m sticking with my POV.
I mention this in the context of asking you to think about the following idea. It’s from Alex Debecker, who I enjoy reading. The topic is Conversational Marketing: Future of Customer Success and is not untypical of an idea being currently explored about around how messaging as conversational marketing drives greater consumer engagement.
Bringing instant messaging and conversational marketing together, we can expect to at least quadruple that number. Recent research has found that SMS open rates are, on average, as high as 98%, according to this report by Dynmark. Not only that, our research has shown consumers actively want businesses to be conversational.
What I hear from this is that messaging in the wrong hands can become as much a turn-off as email has become as a prospecting tool. In fact potentially even more so, given the way many smartphone users allow messaging to grab their attention with real-time alerts on their home screens.
In addition to feeling gnarly about messaging marketers, I also anticipate fun and games with messaging being an asynchronous channel.
This is of course some of its appeal. Unlike chat, which ends when the session terminates, the conversation never dies in messaging, even when one side is absent. This works for busy multi-tasking customers who don’t want to hang around while problems are being investigated.
It also provides a solution to the growing expectation of 24×7 service, which matters proportionately more to younger customers, according to the same ContactBabel report I quoted earlier.
But if you think about it, an asynchronous channel also potentially plays havoc with how handle time and first time resolution is measured and managed. How will this be dealt with? For instance, Josh Marsh believes it only makes sense to measure handle time when the agent has that conversation open. That works on platforms that can cope. Otherwise, how easy is that going to be in terms of keeping track of cases?
Things to operationally chew on.