A favorite axiom of the customer service industry is “to meet customers where they are.” If that’s the case, every contact center should be text messaging with customers.
SMS and newer texting channels like WhatsApp and Apple Business Chat are on the rise and creating opportunities to improve customer satisfaction. Compared to phone lines, email and live-chat boxes, texting offers significant advantages. I’ll discuss why texting is taking over and how you can use it to provide superior customer service.
The Lingua Franca
Of all the digital communication channels out there, nothing is as widespread as text messaging. Pew Research Center reports that 96% of Americans own a cellphone, and 81% own a smartphone. Worldwide, more than 5 billion people are estimated to own a cellphone. While every cellphone can handle SMS, only smart(er) ones can handle webpages, emails and apps. Thus, SMS is the lingua franca of mobile communications and, arguably, the most important service channel.
The value of SMS goes beyond its accessibility. Gartner reports that open rates for SMS marketing are as high as 98% versus 20% for email, while response rates reach up to 45% versus 6% for email. Response rates for customer service texts are likely much higher since they’re initiated by customers.
More importantly, customers want this new channel. In 2016, an international survey sponsored by Twilio found that nine out of 10 people wanted the ability to text message with businesses. Respondents aged 18 to 44 preferred text messaging over any other channel, including email, phone and live chat.
Why though? Text messaging blends synchronous and asynchronous communication. Sometimes, we text back-and-forth rapidly until the conversation is over (synchronous). Other times, we send a text, go cook dinner, and then check for a response afterward (asynchronous). Having that choice is nice. Phone calls, on the other hand, are always synchronous, and emails are almost always asynchronous because quick responses aren’t expected. They force us into a cadence that may or may not suit our situation and sense of urgency.
Live-chat boxes blend synchronous and asynchronous communication, but a customer must be on your website to use them, which is inconvenient. Even less convenient is sending photos and videos through chat boxes. Although people have learned to snap a smartphone photo, email it to themselves, save it to their desktop, and upload it to your chat box, no one actually wants to do that! Sending an image via text is a three-tap process that takes seconds.
The point is that text messaging (and SMS in particular) is ubiquitous and addresses shortcomings with phone calls, emails and chat boxes. It should be one of your channels if it isn’t already.
SMS Vs. WhatsApp Vs. Apple Business Chat
So far, I’ve spoken about various text messaging channels as if they’re equivalent. SMS, WhatsApp and Apple Business Chat do share norms and communication styles, but there are important differences.
WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) is only available on smartphones and has some 2 billion users, most of whom are located outside the United States. It’s most relevant for brands that serve customers across international borders. Similar to Facebook Messenger (1.3 billion users) and Tencent’s WeChat (1.2 billion users), WhatsApp ensures that customers won’t be charged international SMS rates.
Apple Business Chat quietly launched in 2018 with a branded iOS texting experience. When customers access Apple Business Chat from a brand’s website or Apple Maps listing, they see the brand’s logo and colors across the top banner of the iOS texting interface. Customers can schedule a texting appointment and pay for goods using Apple Pay (keep in mind that top customer service platforms take a wider variety of payments). Unfortunately, Apple Business Chat does not collect the customer’s name or phone number automatically; they must choose to share that information.
For some brands, WhatsApp and Apple Business Chat have appeal. For most brands, though, standard SMS (and MMS for images) is king.
The Relationship to Customer Satisfaction
What happens when you introduce an SMS option into the mix with email, phone calls and chat boxes? One consumer brand (a customer of my company, Gladly) saw SMS go from zero to 10% of all service interactions within two weeks of introducing SMS. That’s how much pent-up demand there was. Another brand posted similar gains simply by adding to their call tree an option to text a representative rather than wait on the line.
Generally, companies that introduce text messaging see it rise to 25% of total interactions, most of which are cannibalized from other channels. On average, customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores tend to be higher for texting than for emails and phone calls.
That’s not surprising. With phone calls, anyone forced to wait on hold for a while will be somewhat dissatisfied. Emails may depress CSAT scores because they’re hard to write! Imagine a customer who needs to describe a technical problem with software they just bought. They don’t know the lingo, which raises the odds of writing a long, complicated email that confuses service pros, who in turn have to ask for clarification. The risk of misunderstandings and extra exchanges is especially high for email.
Text messages, by comparison, tend to be short and direct. It’s not considered rude to skip pleasantries and write one-line requests. If your service pro needs to ask three or four questions, she can do so rapid-fire without making a customer feel burdened. That’s the nature of the medium.
It’s no wonder that some companies, like Nike, have stopped taking emails altogether and only offer phone calls, live chat and SMS. Other brands are likely to follow.
How to Integrate Texting into Your Contact Center
As a result of COVID-19, most contact centers are overwhelmed. They’re dealing with more shipping issues than usual because carriers have seen such a spike in e-commerce volume. Plus, customers who used to shop exclusively in person are learning the norms of e-commerce for the first time. Across the brands my company works with, the volume of service interactions is up.
Understandably, contact center leaders hesitate to add new channels under those circumstances, fearing that their team won’t keep up or adapt quickly enough. In my experience though, brands can switch to text messaging without the downsides they fear. Let’s discuss how:
1. Train and equip service pros to be brief but professional
Whereas service professionals handle one phone call at a time, they may handle three or more text conversations at once. That can reduce the cost of service, but agents sometimes struggle to balance brevity and quality.
In our daily lives, we keep texts short and direct. If you have to write a five-paragraph essay by text, that’s a sign you should call the person. Brevity is not rude over text. However, many people butcher spelling and grammar for the sake of speed. There are entire websites and social feeds dedicated to hilarious autocorrects, texting typos and new acronyms. Maybe an agent can pull off, “OMG, I’m so sorry!” but probably not “Yo, AUT? Need ur conf #.”
I recommend writing agent scripts that are tailored to SMS rather than phone lines and email. If you have live-chat scripts, you could probably repurpose those with some modifications. To keep messages short yet professional, provide hotkeys that enter pre-written responses (e.g., “Thanks for getting in touch. Let us know if you have other questions”).
A pro tip: Teach your agent to cross-channel, which is when they use two communication channels at once. The most common use case is on the phone with a customer who needs information they can’t possibly remember, like a 20-digit tracking number or directions to an address. Rather than ask a customer to grab a pen and notepad, service pros can text the information over. Ditto for store appointments, which have grown popular during COVID. Have agents send a confirmation text with a calendar invite and directions linked. Customers will love it.
2. Prioritize CSAT over metrics that can be misleading
As I mentioned, service pros who specialize in text messaging are going to “swivel” among at least three customers at a time. This is valuable because it means one agent can resolve three issues in 10 minutes instead of spending 10 minutes with each customer in succession.
However, because texting straddles the synchronous versus asynchronous line, the length of a text exchange doesn’t correlate neatly with customer satisfaction. Three customers with the same exact shipping issue could respond to texts at different cadences. One customer is satisfied after four exchanges in less than two minutes; the next, distracted by work, draws out the exchange to 15 minutes; and the third, who hopped in the car after responding to the last text, doesn’t check the phone for an hour. That doesn’t mean the second and third customers are less satisfied than the first.
So, the most important metric to measure is customer satisfaction. You can even text the survey to the customer. It’s as easy as, “On a scale from 1 (terrible) to 10 (great), how would you rate your customer service experience?” If in the data you find a pattern of low CSAT scores, then dig deeper. The issue is likely in the content of the conversation rather than in the duration of the exchange.
3. Actively manage loads and queues
For contact centers new to texting, two challenges might blindside your team. First, some service pros are comfortable with multitasking, and others aren’t. Identify which agents thrive when handling multiple text threads, and which are in their element taking one call at a time. While it’s possible that your digital natives from Generation Y and Z are more adept with texting, don’t assume that.
Another challenge is handling unresolved texts. A customer might send two fast texts and then go silent without having resolved their issue. You don’t want a service pro to wait an hour, hoping the customer will pick up the conversation again.
Put in place software rules that effectively say, if the customer doesn’t respond in five minutes (give or take), the thread goes on ice. An agent will be assigned to follow up automatically in three hours. If the customer responds before three hours elapse, take the thread off ice and reassign it.
The Texting Takeover
Over the next five years, customer service interactions will continue to shift from phone calls, emails and chat boxes to SMS, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat and other messaging channels. Email has a role to play in complex service questions, personal computer issues and low-priority situations, but otherwise, texting is superior in most ways. Phone calls will remain important for emergencies, older customers and those on the move, but in most cases, texting does the trick.
Brands need to be careful, however, with customers’ cellphone numbers. If you do pass those along to your marketing department, don’t let them abuse the access.
Texting is personal. We’re used to receiving texts from friends and loved ones, not brands. Powered by customer-focused software, texting can make people feel like they are the center of a brand’s attention rather than a “case” to be resolved. But if their phone starts blowing up with marketing offers the day after a service interaction, your brand may seem more opportunist than helpful.
Bottom line: Don’t wait for a convenient moment to introduce text messaging in your contact center. COVID-19 and its disruptions have no certain expiration date, so get ahead of the curve. Texting is taking over.