You have the power! Consumers, not companies, are in charge of business communications now, say Zendesk and WhatsApp

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 8, 2021
WhatsApp and Zendesk share best practice examples of firms following their customers, not vice versa.


The pandemic elicited big changes in how customers expect to deal with companies, whether a food delivery outfit, bank or travel firm. These changes aren’t going away and organizations need to adapt now – or lose out.

One of the most significant shifts was the balance of power between customers and companies. People are no longer willing to pick up the phone and sit on hold for countless minutes to an airline to change their booking or travel plans – they want to do it instantly. Moreover, the consumer isn’t benchmarking United against Delta or British Airways or Air France; they're getting benchmarked against Peloton or Netflix or Apple. Speaking at the recent London Tech Week, Peter Lorant, EMEA COO at Zendesk, explained:

It's the best of everything and not just best of the industry you're in. Customer patience is running very thin: three-quarters of customers, based on research we conducted, are going to spend more with companies that give good customer experience. On the other hand, 50% will leave after just one bad experience. This is a real impact to the bottom line.

The pandemic inverted the power from companies to the customers. Companies pivoted from a ‘you come to us’ approach to we, the company will meet you, the customer where you are, how you want to be communicated to.

This meant that companies had to stay really close to customers and listen more intently to pick up on the signals in buying behaviors, impacted supply chains and impacted delivery mechanisms:

How you engage and build a rapport with customers, all of that shifted. Companies had to learn to communicate with customers in a way that the customer wanted versus the traditional way of being kettled into a call center, or just send an email.

Shift happens

According to Sanjay Jindal, Head of Global Partner Sales at WhatsApp, people were already pre-empting this shift ahead of the pandemic. The traditional communication method of calling a 1-800 number, waiting five minutes and then giving your mother's maiden name as security was already disappearing. Speaking on the same panel, he said:

COVID accelerated that fundamentally, things are changing now. More and more folks are getting on online, they want answers dynamically and they want to get those conversations done right away.

Businesses were beginning to understand they needed to move on from a traditional type of communication where customers have to wait three or four days for an email response, or for several minutes on the phone to try and get their problem solved during the conversation. The pandemic became a fertile period for the adoption of messaging as a customer service method, but Lorant said this was a trend that was happening before: 

We’d seen hotels using WhatsApp and all types of messaging apps out there to personalize the service. The minute you check in, they can communicate in a much more personalized way, they know who you are, they know what your loyalty preferences are, it's a personal conversation. The pandemic was an accelerant, but this was a trend that was happening before.

AI chatbots and machine learning were already popular for businesses as an automated response option for simple questions that come in, and can handle and resolve large volumes of queries without the need to speak to an agent. This means when more complex queries come in that require a conversation with an agent, they can spend more time working with the customer to build empathy and personalize the experience. Lorant said:

For more nuanced queries, like I've got a health condition with my son or my daughter, you want to speak to somebody very quickly who's been trained. We're a long way away from the bot fixing those. But [dealing with routine questions] is old business, and it's just a matter of companies getting to the point where they understand this is relatively quick and easy, and has quite a big impact on customer experience, internal efficiencies and a better utilization of resources.”

Lorant cited the example of Spanish shipping company Baleària, which had to respond to COVID dramatically changing everybody's travel plans overnight. In the early stages of the pandemic, the company received the same volume of queries in one month that it would normally get in a full year. The shipping firm dealt with this by implementing Zendesk last April, and drafting in other departments to resolve tickets rather than just the Customer Experience team.

Similarly, when Sears in Mexico had to abruptly shut down all its department stores during the COVID crisis, it turned to WhatsApp to continue having conversations with customers. Jindal added:

We not only protected the 400 salespeople who were going to lose their job, at the same time Sears were able to communicate with their customers in real time and solve their problems. So the customers really didn't lose anything.

Customer experience issues won’t be solved simply by doing everything over WhatsApp; it still requires an integration between email, call center, online chat and messaging. Offering a more personalized approach to customer experience isn’t just about layering on more technology, however. Lorant explained:

When that Spanish shipping company had that change from a year's worth of support into one month, they were able to allocate all of the non-customer support facing teams to answer those queries from customers. They were able to do that because the tools were agile, the tools were easy to use, so tech was key absolutely. But it was also the mindset of the company and the culture that everyone in the organization has a bone in this fight, and everybody is responsible for customer experience.

Customers don't care if you're speaking to somebody in sales or somebody in marketing or somebody in support. Whatever team, in whatever way that the customer has reached out to the company, you need to have that holistic view, because context is key in this and that internal collaboration will help to drive the customer experience.”

Do something

For those organizations sitting back and not following where the customer is leading them when it comes to communication and customer service, the outlook is fairly bleak: according to Accenture, just over half the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since 2000. This is largely down to digital disruption and companies not adjusting their strategy based on shifting demands. Instead, firms need to pivot to a customer-centric view of the business, collaborating within the organization, with customers and across the supply chain. Lorant added:

This isn’t open-heart surgery, this can be quick wins, but what it does require is a mindset shift at the board level, that customer support isn't just this team that's in a basement.

If you don't know what your customers are saying, if you don't know what they want, if you don't know where they want to go, then you don't have a strategy and you could be one of that 50% that disappeared.

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