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Zendesk on WhatsApp and the rise of the omni-channel conversation

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 11, 2020
Zendesk unveils a tighter partnership with Facebook for WhatsApp messaging - what's the wider context for omni-channel customer engagement?

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(via Zendesk)

Cloud CRM vendor Zendesk yesterday unveiled a deeper integration with WhatsApp and other new messaging capabilities designed to support the move to more digital engagement in customer relationships. I got on a Zoom call with Adrian McDermott, President of Products at Zendesk, to drill into the announcements and the wider context of the rise of omni-channel conversations, as brands seek more responsive, direct engagement with consumers.

1. What's new?

Before getting into that wider context, I started by asking McDermott to explain what's new in yesterday's announcements. First of all there's a deeper partnership in which Zendesk becomes a "core solution provider" for CRM and support across WhatsApp as well as Facebook's messaging services on Messenger and Instagram. That means Zendesk gets early access to APIs to be able to make new functionality available in its products and platform. It's also released new mobile SDKs for native messaging in its apps, with web versions to follow, and a new automated workflow tool for building bot automations to help answer customer questions. McDermott elaborates:

That allows companies to do some simple bot work, like create a flow for commonly asked and answered questions and use the content in their knowledge base to answer those questions for users ... and have a bot as the first line of contact for users.

The native messaging capabilities are built into the Zendesk Support application for professional and enterprise licenses. More complex workflows that connect to enterprise business systems, for example calling an API to check a balance or start a returns process, require a license for the Sunshine Conversations platform. There are small extra licenses for the WhatsApp and other integrations.

2. The pandemic has accelerated digital channels

Now back to the big picture. This all comes at a time when there's been a huge shift to people using digital channels to contact brands, as everyone retreated online at the same time as call centers were overwhelmed by staff shortages due to COVID-19 and the move to remote working.

Gaming messaging platform Discord saw a 300% increase in issues solved by the Zendesk answerbot at the start of the pandemic as their users sought answers on digital channels, says McDermott. Overall, Zendesk saw a 50% surge in the use of messaging during the pandemic and messaging channels also score highest on customer satisfaction. It's the way of the future, he sums up:

The backstop of customer support for the last 40 years has been the phone call to the call center, with the script, with the disjointed conversation, with the repetition, with the friction. I think ... conversation that happens using the sort of tools that we can through messaging is a next step for conversational business and for customer experiences as a whole.

3. Self-service puts customers in control

McDermott sees omni-channel as essentially a response to customers wanting more control over their experience in a digitally connected world. It forces businesses to break down the old silos between channels and functions because those artificial barriers get in the way of delivering a satisfactory outcome to the customer. McDermott explains:

To a certain extent in the messaging world, ultimately, all service is self-service. The user comes in on the messaging channel, they want to be in control. They may end up in a phone call, and that's totally okay ... that's part of the flow. But the flow is controlled not by your script in a call centre — 'Hi, this is Adrian, how can I help you today?' It's controlled by [the customer] on the other end of the line ... driving the process based on problem context ...

The omni-channel flexibility is important. It puts a ton of pressure on the customer experience and customer service departments to manage all of those things. You have to get out of the mindset of, I'm gonna have a different tool for every channel, I'm gonna have a different team for every channel. You need a bit more flexibility than that.

From a customer's perspective, making contact through a platform like WhatsApp sets up an ongoing conversation. The brand is now in their converations list and the customer can go back and pick up that conversation any time on a new topic.

4. Towards a ticketless service experience

Breaking down the silos also means moving away from a ticket-based model when resolving issues, he believes. Creating a ticket is effectively an acknowledgement that you have a disconnected system where issues have to go into a queue to wait for action rather than being resolved straight away. He explains:

I often think about it as a ticketless experience. In the phone era, we would open a ticket, open a case, and we would have that conversation. It would be the unit of work of what was going on ...

60-70% of the time, the moment where you create a ticket is the moment of failure of the self-service system. The more that you can connect your aim for restitution or change or something else to an actual API in a business system through the conversational platform, the better your user experience is going to be [and] the less friction there is for the users.

5. Customer-facing staff take on new roles

With many retail outlets closed during the height of the pandemic, businesses have had to redeploy staff into new roles. McDermott cited diginomica's recent story about healthfoods retailer Holland & Barrett, where store assistants whose normal place of work was shuttered began working from home as customer service agents, helping to deal with a surge in e-commerce enquiries. In doing so, they brought their sales expertise into the customer support environment. McDermott recounts:

They took their CX platform and turned it into a business platform. Because your in-store personnel, yes, they're used to supporting customers, answering questions. They have great knowledge that you need to put to work versus hiring and training customer service agents. But they're also used to being slightly mercantile and transacting for product. And they understand how to do that. And I think often in customer service departments, there is a fear of [saying], 'You should buy this because it will be better for you.'

The experience also highlighted the importance of ease-of-use and flexible configuration in CX systems, he adds:

You don't need to give someone a ring binder of 6,000 pages of instructions to be able to use it. You're taking people who have different day jobs, and you want them to be able to use the tools. So usability, speed of getting up and running are important, and flexibility of routing.

6. Bots are getting smarter

An important factor in making self-service more efficient and responsive has been the rise of AI. "The beauty of AI is making the bot process smarter," says McDermott. That has helped organizations manage the rise in the use of messaging channels because they can automate self-service on messaging channels without alienating customers in the way that old-school IVR systems have done. He elaborates:

Early phone trees were, 'Press one for sales, press two for service, press three to have us hang up on you arbitrarily.'

I think the bot equivalent of that is a little bit more sophisticated and can offer you options ... When you ask a question, you don't have to go exactly down the tree to all of the branches to get to the point.

7. Brands want to build their own solutions, but within reason

The CRM landscape has been shifting with the rise of less packaged, more customizable, API-based solutions — what I've called the rise of tierless architectures — as an alternative to the monolithic CRM stacks of old. Often this reflects the reality of having invested in many different digital experience offerings and ending up with a complex landscape where there's no single view of the customer. The urgency of integrating these new messaging channels to offer a seamless experience for the customer means that brands need the kind of off-the-shelf route to a bespoke solution that Zendesk offers, says McDermott. He says:

Ten, five years ago — maybe even two years ago — people would buy solutions per channel. 'I'm going to buy Sprout Social for Twitter, and I'm going to buy a contact centre for voice, and I'm going to have messaging, everything else will drop into Zendesk or whatever.' I think we've moved past that, where the customer drives the conversation, and you need to be a flexible, rich, extensible omnichannel customer experience solution to really be relevant to your customers ...

Our goal is to bring all of the core capabilities to our customers, so that they only have to focus on their own value-add for their own business model, and the uniqueness of the customer experience solutions that they want to build. Ultimately, your experience should be bespoke, it should match you like a well-fitting suit bought on Savile Row. But you don't want to have to pay for the construction of every piece of whole cloth. You just want to alter off the rack, because we all have businesses to run, in the pandemic where we're running on fumes anyway, and running incredibly quickly.

8. You have to invest in tech to stay ahead

Wrapping up, McDermott believes this year's challenges have also shown the way ahead for customer experience teams, provided they're able to make the right technology choices. He concludes:

Through movement of people, through the addition of omni-channel and through the diligent, careful application of AI bots and automation, I think we can deal with the surge in traffic, deal with the flexibility, and also build better customer experiences.

But it is not going to come for free. It isn't ... add 200 people and you're done — you can always throw humans at problems, but that isn't going to build you a better customer experience ...

You're going to need to embrace automation, embrace omni-channel and embrace self service.

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