Messaging has become a fixture of everyday life. It's how we keep in touch with friends and family, how we communicate at work, and, increasingly, how we engage with businesses. In the past few months, both Google and Apple have rolled out features that make messaging a business as easy as initiating a phone call. Meanwhile, Facebook's WhatsApp has become a de facto place of commerce in much of the world, with countries like Brazil and India leading the way.
This trend toward conversational business, while long on the ascent, has been rocket-fueled by the pandemic. Zendesk's recent Benchmark Snapshot revealed that customer support requests through messaging channels, including SMS, direct messaging over Twitter and Facebook (ie, Messenger), and regional favorites like Japan's Line and China's WeChat, have jumped 80% since mid-March. The emergence of these channels has given enterprise businesses new opportunities to engage with billions of users in a way that's natural and convenient. But it's also given brands powerful new roles and responsibilities they're only beginning to grapple with.
Owning the conversation
While much of the hype around business messaging has centered around the consumer chat apps, the vast majority of conversations are still happening on companies' homegrown properties via chat widgets embedded on their websites or inside their mobile apps.
These owned messaging channels don't benefit from a built-in user base or discovery mechanisms like search (Google's Business Messages) or Maps (Apple Business Chat) but they do allow brands more control over the customer experience. This is especially important in privacy and security-conscious industries like healthcare and finance. Banks, for example, can authenticate customers by having them sign in to their mobile app or web portal, then offer financial advice and even enable transactions via messaging.
This doesn't just ensure a private and secure messaging environment. It also gives brands visibility into customer conversations — within a connected conversation platform — in a way that having individual financial advisors, insurance brokers, or sales people swap personal phone or WhatsApp numbers with customers does not. While that is something many companies would discourage, if not prohibit, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting it happens all the time (WhatsApp's Business API allows customer support agents to message customers from — and store conversation history in — their CRM software, but currently doesn't allow individual employees to be reached directly). Earlier this year a JPMorgan trader was fired by his firm for discussing investments over his personal WhatsApp — and that conversation was just between colleagues.
While facilitating one-to-one messaging between businesses and customers is complicated enough, things get even trickier when multiple people are involved in the chat.
Two's company, three's a party
With the rise of messaging, group chats have become their own phenomenon — an extension of the family dinner table, a virtual water cooler, even, it turns out, how laws get made. Throw physical distancing into the mix and these have literally become the (chat) rooms where it happens.
Group messaging for businesses looks very different from your family group chat. Think about messaging with your AirBnB host, Uber driver, or DoorDash delivery person. In many of these cases the brand is a silent party to the conversation, providing a space for buyers, sellers, and various subcontractors to interact with each other. Or, to return to our previous example, the institution facilitating interactions between customers and their financial advisors or insurance brokers.
But just because brands are one step removed from the conversation doesn't mean they're not accountable for it. Whether they're a marketplace, a bank, a healthcare provider, or a car dealership, brands have a responsibility to ensure that the messaging experiences they enable are safe and secure - as well as on brand.
As group business messaging goes mainstream, brands will need to embrace their new role as gatekeepers, facilitators, and community builders. This means truly listening to the conversations happening on their platforms and making it easy for customers to invite them into the chat to resolve any issues that arise (notice I used the word invite, not escalate).
Businesses will need the right tools and technology to do this at scale. Sometimes business will be able to automate these experiences, gently guiding the tone and tenor of the conversation without actively participating. This includes templated messages, suggested replies, sentiment analysis, obscenity filters — beware the eggplant emoji — and AI-driven workflows.
Sometimes humans will need to join the party. And when they do, they'll need full context about the customer, their current issue, and any previous engagements they've had with the company (provided they've opted in to sharing this information).
The trust factor
Beyond ensuring compliance, this is an opportunity for businesses to add real value to the customer experience, build community, and even generate revenue through conversational commerce. Playing an active — and sometimes passive — role in the conversations customers are having on their watch also helps build consumer trust, which research shows is now more important than ever.
As the backlash against Big Tech has shown, businesses that fail to foster safe digital spaces will face the music. On the flipside, brands who truly embrace their responsibilities will be rewarded with customer loyalty, engagement, and even advocacy. What side of the conversation do you want to be on?