Texting with Customers

Texting with Customers

/ Technology, Self-Service, Strategic management
Texting with Customers

You don’t need an app for that! Savvy centers are adding text interactions to their channel mix.

Who doesn’t enjoy the convenience of texting these days? In today’s mobile-centric culture, SMS has become the most popular way to communicate with friends, family and colleagues—and it is also quickly becoming an essential channel for interacting with businesses.

In the past few years, more contact centers have been including SMS in their multichannel mix by employing proactive notifications to push basic information to customers’ mobile phones, such as order status updates, appointment reminders and account alerts. More recently, savvy service providers have been evolving beyond automated outbound messaging to provide two-way text conversations between customers and agents. It makes sense: Among U.S. consumers, text messaging is the most widely used smartphone feature, and it is also the one that is used most frequently, according to Pew Research Center’s U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015” study.

“Conversational texting is changing the landscape for all businesses,” says Meredith Flynn-Ripley, CEO of HeyWire, an enterprise text messaging solutions provider. “Mobile customers demand higher levels of service, higher levels of personalization and faster response times. They’re used to picking up their phones to get information immediately, and they want to be able to do that with businesses through their toll-free numbers.”

Simplicity is important when offering customer service via a mobile device. Requiring customers to install a mobile app before they can communicate using text adds unnecessary time and effort to the interaction, resulting in lower satisfaction for some, while others may not even bother. Consumers are suffering from mobile app fatigue. As a recent Forrester report pointed out, most apps aren’t compelling or convenient enough to outweigh the inhibitors of discovering, downloading, installing and customizing them. And according to Gartner, 95% of apps are abandoned after just one month.

Giving customers the opportunity to chat via the native texting app on their phones, on the other hand, makes the transaction quick and effortless. “Text is the app that never leaves your phone. It’s the only app everybody has that is consistent no matter which mobile platform or wireless carrier the consumer uses,” says Rich Weborg, CEO of OneReach, a cloud communication platform that allows businesses to create custom voice and text solutions.

Evolving Beyond Automated Alerts

Mention the word texting in a B-to-C context, and most people think of automated alerts. Some text alerts allow for a basic level of two-way interaction (e.g., an appointment reminder alert that asks the receiver to reply Y to confirm or N to cancel). But if the customer needs to do something more complex, like reschedule the appointment, he typically would be instructed to call to speak to an agent. Besides the inconvenience, forcing customers to abandon their channel of choice diminishes their overall satisfaction with the experience, while switching from a text-based interaction to live-agent increases costs for the business.

Imagine instead that the customer receives an automated text message with a reminder for an appointment. The customer replies to the text with: “Something has come up and I can’t make my appointment on Thursday. Can I move it to next week?” The agent responds: “Absolutely! Would next Tuesday suit you? We have openings in the morning and afternoon.”

The customer is now engaged in text-based interaction that allows him to quickly and effortlessly ask questions, get answers and complete his transaction in a manner that is similar to a live-agent conversation, but at a much lower cost for the company. (The cost of a text conversation with a customer is about 25% the cost of a phone conversation, says Flynn-Ripley.)

Once a company’s toll-free or main service phone number has been text-enabled, getting customers to use text is as simple as promoting the text option wherever the company’s phone number is displayed. Both Flynn-Ripley and Weborg say that, once a business launches SMS, they quickly see 10% to 40% of their inbound call volume deflected to text messaging.

When considering how text messaging fits into your service strategy, be sure to think about how it will integrate with your other channels—especially voice, advises Weborg. “You need the ability to roll over to a live agent, because the customer is going to expect that at some point—for instance, if they’re having a bad experience or having difficulty with the ITR (interactive text response) system,” he says.

*Practical Pointer*

Because consumers view texting as similar to a phone call, they expect a quick response. Flynn-Ripley advises using an automated message to immediately acknowledge that the customer has texted your number and that an agent will be with them shortly. “We also recommend that, when you end a session, include a link to a survey or a coupon to turn it into conversational feedback or a sale right on the mobile device,” she adds.

Capturing Customer Feedback and Data Via SMS

In addition to sales and service text interactions, SMS surveys are becoming increasingly popular for collecting brief post-transaction customer feedback.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of interest in SMS from businesses, much of which is driven by their customers’ demands to be easy to interact with,” says Brian Koma, VP and Practice Leader of Customer Experience for Verint Systems. Verint’s Enterprise Feedback Management (EFM) solution includes enhanced support for SMS surveys, which makes it easy for contact centers to create, manage and monitor SMS survey campaigns in the same EFM interface used for web surveys.

The ability to deliver SMS surveys to customers within minutes of their interaction with an agent is a great advantage for contact centers. “SMS surveys are not as intrusive as a post-call IVR survey, which many customers may not participate in—particularly those who are highly mobile,” says Koma. Because SMS surveys are immediate, response rates can be quite high, he adds, pointing to a telecom firm in Germany whose SMS customer survey response rates are consistently in the 60% range.

*Practical Pointer*

While the SMS format allows you to capture quick feedback about an interaction, messages are limited to 160 characters so the amount of information that you can collect also will be limited. Koma advises keeping SMS surveys to two to four questions. “To be mobile-friendly, surveys can’t be too long,” he says. “While you’re more likely to get people to interact with you via a mobile survey, you can also lose people quicker. The abandonment rates are higher for surveys that are long or poorly designed.”

SMS Survey Approaches

How are contact centers using SMS customer surveys? There are a couple of effective approaches. Companies can conduct the entire survey via SMS. For instance, the customer is sent a text with an invitation to a survey (e.g., Would you care to participate…?) The customer responds with a yes or no. If he replies yes and the first question is sent. He then texts his response, and so on.

Some companies prefer to use a hybrid SMS/HTML approach by texting the customer a link to an HTML survey. “The link takes the customer to an HTML session where he can take a mobile-friendly survey, which can go into more depth than a pure SMS interaction,” Koma explains. “You get the immediacy of SMS and you also have the potential to collect a little more data.” He recommends testing both approaches to determine which format will provide a better response rate with your particular customer base.

Cost Considerations

SMS can be expensive depending on where you—and your customers—are located. Koma cautions organizations to consider how the SMS infrastructure will impact costs. For instance:

  • Do you have an existing SMS gateway within your organization? “An SMS gateway is technology that allows you to take short messages and then transmit them to multiple telecommunications carriers,” he explains. “If you have an SMS gateway, you’ll pay prenegotiated rates for those SMS messages. Depending upon the country that you’re in, that be quite inexpensive or it can be quite expensive. Large organizations typically will have negotiated advantageous SMS rates with their telecom carriers.”

  • Should you use an SMS aggregator? An SMS aggregator is a third-party provider that stands between the organization and carriers. The organization transmits its message to the third-party provider, which then transmits the message through its SMS gateway to the mobile phone carriers, who then transmit it to the end customer. Pricing is typically based on the amount of text messages sent within a specific period as well as the target destination.

Getting Permission Is Critical

As with calls to mobile phones, texting is governed by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA). So to initiate outbound text messages to customers, you’ll need to get their consent and provide an opt-out for those who don’t wish to receive texts from your company.

Before implementing SMS, organizations should consult with their in-house counsel on a country-by-country basis where they’re anticipating conducting SMS surveys or other outbound text communications, says Koma, adding that: “The laws differ by country; for instance, you may not be able to text customers between certain hours of the day or the night.

“Also, be cognizant of the potential cost to your customer,” he notes. Messaging plans differ depending on where the customer is located. While many mobile plans in the United States offer monthly subscriptions with unlimited texts, in many countries, pay-as-you-go plans are more common.

What’s Ahead?

What does the next 12 to 24 months hold for text messaging in contact centers? Expect to see huge growth, says Weborg. “It’s an important channel, but it’s still a fledgling. As text messaging integrates with the other channels, we’ll see a lot of improvement around the user experience when interacting with businesses as well as great cost reduction opportunities.”

In addition to growth, Weborg says that there will likely be more standardization in the industry within the next year. “There is currently a great deal of confusion about the use of short codes [five- or six-digit phone numbers used by businesses to opt-in consumers] versus long codes [10-digit phone number, toll-free numbers], and there are a lot of restrictions on which numbers you can use and for what,” he says. “The industry is still trying to figure out the use cases for SMS, and is driving standards for the use of this capability. Most of those issues will be figured out within the next year, which will allow for a lot more creativity in how SMS is used and more support through the carriers. Then you’ll see innovation.”

Susan Hash

Susan Hash

Susan Hash served as Editorial Director of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and the Pipeline blog from 2009-2021. She is a veteran business journalist with over 30 years of specialized experience writing about customer care and contact centers.
Twitter: @susanhash

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