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Zendesk pivots customer service to put messaging at the core

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 4, 2021
Messaging becomes a core part of Zendesk's customer service offering this week as consumers switch to WhatsApp and other messaging apps to engage with brands

Social messaging apps on a smartphone - Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash
(Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash)

Zendesk this week upgraded messaging from an optional add-on to a core part of its customer service offering. The move comes after a surge in demand for messaging as a customer contact channel over the past year, as consumer habits changed in response to the pandemic while businesses struggled with overloaded call centers. I spoke to Zendesk's SVP, Product, Jon Aniano, about the product change and how businesses are coping with the switch from phone and email to incorporate new digital contact channels.

Including messaging as a core component is a response to increasing adoption, with social messaging more than doubling in use over the past year according to research just published by Zendesk in its CX Trends Report 2021. The move signals that offering customer service over social messaging channels such as WhatsApp or native messaging services is now becoming mainstream. Aniano comments:

Messaging is a preferred channel for consumers now, and the best types of experiences can be built over messaging. The companies who deliver the best messaging experience are going to be the people who win customer experience from now on.

Messaging wins out because it's able to combine the characteristics of sychronous channels such as voice and chat along with asynchronous channels such as email. You can chat or even switch to a voice call within the message stream, but unlike purely synchronous channels, the message thread is persistent. If you get to a point in the conversation where you need to wait for a response, you can always come back to the message stream later on and pick back up, with all the context there in the thread.

Messaging as a platform for forms, bots and video

Modern messaging channels are also becoming very versatile, with the ability to embed extra functionality directly in the message stream, such as images and carousels, links, forms and of course chatbots. Aniano cites an example:

In an e-commerce scenario, if all I'm asking for is a return or exchange, there's no reason necessarily for me to do that over voice or even text with an agent. Why can't the agent just send me a view into my three most recent orders, and let me pick which one I want to return or exchange, right within the messaging experience?

I think the key is, with the persistence, with the asynchronous nature, and with the rich capabilities, companies are thinking to fit the rest of the channels into the messaging paradigm. I think this is going to be a trend we continue to see year after year from now on.

Just as consumers have become more used to messaging, they've also adopted video calling in their personal lives, and this is coming to the business-to-consumer realm too. Switching out of the message stream into a video call when needed is something that customers can already engineer on Zendesk's customizable Sunshine platform, and may not be far off as product feature. Aniano says:

If something calls for direct video connection — maybe it's a break-fix scenario, maybe it's a just some sort of difficult scenario where you want a human connection over video — the ability to go from a messaging interaction, and to escalate to video or to connect over video is something that we're planning to enable at Zendesk.

Video connection for particular types of customer service issues is definitely something that we expect to see getting some traction in the coming years.

In another change to Zendesk's customer service product line, the standard offering to customers is now the packaged suite rather than individual products — "a big move for us," says Aniano. Messaging has been part of Zendesk's suite offering for the past year but new price points for the suite now start at $49 per agent for the entry-level Team edition, the same as the previous unbundled product that didn't include messaging.

Making the move to messaging for customer service

As messaging moves into the mainstream, existing businesses have to adapt their longstanding call center processes to accommodate these new channels. Aniano recommends that if agents and existing customers are used to contacting customer service via phone or email, the best way to start introducing messaging is to start learning the ropes with a specific segment of the customer base. He advises:

Customers who've been doing business with you for a few years, if you take away their email, or you take away their voice, they may not quite appreciate the new messaging channel that you put in place. But if you can leave your existing channels up and running, and shift over time to the new channels, that often gives you time to learn about the specifics of particular new channels. But it also gives your customers time to learn how they can best interact with you.

It's worth the effort though, because messaging can embed automation in a way that's much more user-friendly than traditional IVR-based systems. He explains:

Transitioning from an email and/or voice experience to a messaging experience can actually bring additional value for your customers ... it's more efficient than actually contacting an agent.

So I think, as companies make the shift to messaging, the real thing to think about is how do I provide incremental value to my customers, so that adopting the messaging channel is good for both the company and the customer.

My take

Messaging is already becoming a preferred channel for internal communications and collaboration within a business — instead of having to switch between different applications to get things done, people can access a lot of the information and functionality they need directly within a messaging platform such as Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Now the same approach is coming to external communications between businesses and their customers. Instead of having to choose, 'Do I email, call or chat?' the messaging layer becomes a universal channel that spans these separate silos of communication and adds intelligent automation to help customers get the results they want faster. The technology exists today, but behind the scenes, the people and processes have to adapt to new ways of working that will enable this more modern and improved customer experience.

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