Messaging has come on leaps and bounds since the original text messaging technology in the 1990s. Back then, it was really more of a tool than a platform. It was very rudimentary – no images, no video, no web links, no rich text, no group messaging, none of what we think of today when we talk about messaging. And it was only used person-to-person, or peer-to-peer (P2P) as it came to be known. SMS has come a long way since then, but it’s still very basic compared to the dedicated messaging apps and platforms that are available.
As a marketing tool, SMS/MMS never really took off. The cost was prohibitive, for both users and enterprises, and its skillset has always remained pretty basic. This is why increasingly, consumers and businesses alike are turning to messaging apps like Viber.
You can’t blame them. With more features upping the convenience factor, they make users’ lives simpler by replacing email, online logins, customer call centres, and eventually even the web browser itself. Truly, messaging is the platform of the future.
Two way or the highway
Messaging apps have completely changed the way people consume mobile messaging, and with it, the kind of relationship they have with personal technology like their smartphones. But it’s also changed companies’ marketing habits.
Different mediums require different types of messages – email marketing calls for one style, in-app notifications another, and so on. Now that enterprises are catching on to the growth of messaging apps, they are using them as a marketing tool, and in doing so they’re replicating the P2P model of communication. Nowadays it’s not unusual to have messages from brands among messages from your friends and family.
This is a major shift not only in how brands communicate with consumers, but – crucially – how consumers communicate with brands. The beauty of messaging is that it’s two-way – while brands may still send some ‘Do not reply’ messages, usually customers can reply to ask questions, clarify details, change booking arrangements, and so on. Consumers now expect this – they want to engage with brands in a very different way. They’ve been kept on hold one too many times and prefer the ease and convenience of messaging instead. As a way of communicating, it’s native to how people use messaging for their own ends – they can talk to a brand just how they talk to their friends, family or colleagues. It’s a shift to what in America they call the direct to consumer (D2C) model. Effectively everything from prospection to sales to confirmation to delivery to post-sales is all done through messaging.
In this new way of communicating, robots have a much bigger role to play.
Rise of the machines: seamlessly dealing with humans and machines
Chatbots were a victim of their own hype. When they emerged a few years ago they promised to revolutionise the customer care experience. That didn’t quite happen, and everything since has gone a bit quiet. But the technology is advancing all the time – chatbots are now a lot more sophisticated, able to replicate a human conversation (Google’s Duplex technology can call and book appointments for you, even adding human conversational tics like “uh-huh”). They’re no longer simple pieces of code, but advanced artificial intelligence systems that can adapt to whatever the conversation throws at them.
The benefits are obvious. Bots can work 24/7 with no breaks – providing that kind of around-the-clock support, on their device of choice and on a platform the consumer already uses for messaging is the natural extension of the brand/customer relationship. These bots can use machine learning to become better the more they are used, and they will immediately have access to a customer’s interaction history with the company, so there’s no need to explain your problem again and again (we’ve all dialled a call centre, and been passed from agent to agent).
This kind of customised experience is possible with human agents, but it takes time for them to read through the notes and get up to speed with where you’re at.
Ultimately customers don’t care whether they’re dealing with a real person or a bot, as long as their problem gets solved. In fact, in many cases using a bot is preferable – would you really rather be kept on hold for five, 10, 20 minutes until the next agent becomes available? Consumers just want to know that if they contact the brand with an issue at two o’clock in the morning, their problem will get solved. Whether they deal with a live agent or AI-powered chatbot neither here nor there. As long as they solve their issue, who cares?
Bots have enormous benefits for enterprises, too. As well as being scalable so you don’t keep customers on hold (increasing customer satisfaction), it’s much easier to monitor a bot’s performance. Because everything is written down rather than spoken over the phone, there’s a paper trail of every interaction. There’s no need to note down who you spoke to, the time of the conversation, what was said, etc. You just look at the transcript. It also eliminates any problems with accents, with people not speaking the same language or struggling to understand each other.
If a bot can’t help, they can just hand over to a human agent. In fact, pretty soon bots will be so advanced they will be able to detect the customer’s tone from the words they type – if the customer is angry, the bot can pass it on to a human agent straight away so the customer’s mood doesn’t worsen. (Hold music will do that to anybody.)
Ultimately, chatbots are a much more efficient and economical way of providing customer support. Especially at two o’clock in the morning.
Although they’re not the only reason messaging is the platform of the future, as I'll explore in the second half of this two part blog.
Cristina Constandache is chief revenue officer at Rakuten Viber