Why SMS is the new channel for customer support

By on October 07th, 2015

This piece was originally posted on Gigaom

This week, I received a text from my bank with my weekly balance. My driver texted me the location where he was parked. I booked plane tickets and got a text confirmation. And my doctor sent me a reminder so I wouldn’t forget my appointment the next day.

Why has everyone started sending me texts all of a sudden? Maybe it’s because, unlike my emails, I read all of them. And I’m not alone: Ninety percent of all SMS are read within three minutes of being received. And since roughly 91 percent of the world adult population owns a cellphone, undoubtedly mobile is eating the world.

SMS means simplicity. It was the first innovation of the mobile revolution. Smartphone wasn’t even a word when SMS arrived. There is close to no “interface,” just the bare minimum: a recipient and a message. I use it to communicate with almost anyone who trusted me with their phone number.

Can we extend this simplicity to conversations between customers and brands?

SMS: a missed opportunity for businesses

Today only seven percent of consumers resort to SMS to communicate with businesses, far behind email, voice calls and even direct mail. Make no mistake, though: consumers would love to text businesses, but few realize it’s a possibility.

One reason for this may be that text messages are hard to coordinate: Should employees send them from their own phone or iMessage? What happens if someone tries to call the number? And should it be one number (easy for consumers to use frequently) or one per representative (easier for businesses to track efficiency)?

Businesses may also feel that SMS is intrusive, but that argument could also be applied to email.

Another reason for the lack of adoption may be that customers don’t necessarily like texts from brands using them as a marketing tool. People expect every text they receive to be personal, whereas these marketing messages are sent in bulk, with little to no attempt at personalization. For customer support, however, relations are one-to-one by definition, and texting could be a great alternative to existing communication channels.

A win-win situation for businesses and customers

Customer service via text provides a better experience for the customer and is more efficient for brands.

It’s great for customers because it doesn’t need the latest smartphone; it works on old phones just as well. 2G networks are the most reliable. And texts are notifications: a lot of information in very little space; there’s usually no action to take; you still get a nice feeling of control.

It’s great for businesses, too. The first benefit, and maybe the most important, is that 90 percent of all text messages are read within three minutes of being received. Paired with an average open rate of 98 percent (versus 22 percent for email) and the fact that any mobile device out there is able to read a text message, SMS is a great way to reach out to pretty much anyone.

Texts are also a nice way to get closer to your customers: the format feels personal, because unlike email addresses, we aren’t giving away our phone number ten times a day. Phone numbers are still a unique, personal piece of trust that people share with great cautiousness.

Some great use cases

Some companies out there have already begun to use SMS, setting the trail for others to follow.

Zipcar uses texts to confirm booking and send out reminders. But it also alerts users when their reservation is about to end and if the car is available for extension. If it is, users can then extend their booking by sending a text back.

On-demand cleaning services usually have an app that customers can use to book its services. But the company uses texting to tell users and their cleaners about last-minute changes. This enables fast problem solving and efficient communication for everyone.

Airlines companies are well known for texting passengers to alert them about flight delays, cancellations and gate changes. But Southwest Airlines and British Airways also tap SMS to streamline customer service. They use text messaging to cut airport wait time and inbound passenger calls, by giving the option to consumers to interact by SMS instead of phone.

How to get started with SMS customer support

Maybe you’re thinking that this is all very interesting, but you don’t see how you could take advantage of it. In fact, the set-up is far from complex:

  • Get an API-ready phone number: you can easily buy one from services like Twilio or Plivo.
  • Plug it into software.
  • Profit.

If you’re really dedicated to making texting a new customer support channel, sending out messages from your cellphone or iMessage won’t cut it. Having the right tool, such as Front, to deal with your SMS lets you track interactions the way you would with emails. It provides a centralized management of interactions to share the workload with teammates, indexing and search to build up valuable knowledge, and analytics to track key data.

Finally, and most importantly, you must let your customers know that this channel is available. Displaying your number in your app or on your website where it’s relevant, or asking them for their phone number at sign up and letting them know how it will be used, are great ways to start.

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