message in a bottle
When people contact customer support, they want to be heard not worry about their message being lost PHOTO: Susanne Nilsson

It's been over 35 years since Sting sent out an SOS to the world

Communications have changed dramatically since then. 

Today Sting could send an SMS, Facebook update or tweet, with much better odds of getting his message across.

Short message service (SMS) — aka texting — has become one of the most popular ways for people to stay in touch, but it hasn't yet translated to interactions with modern contact centers. 

Voice calls remain very much in demand. People still want direct human interaction from call centers, particularly when dealing with important and complex matters.

So does SMS have a place in the contact center?

SMS Success in Customer Relations

Reports show that 90 percent of texts are read within three minutes of receiving them, with an average open rate of 98 percent (email’s rate of 28 percent pales in comparison). 

Because of these quick connections, SMS offers some definite advantages for businesses wanting to reach out with time-sensitive and important information. 

Banks use SMS to contact customers for authentication, overdraft warnings and other high-priority items. More than a billion consumers worldwide have access to banking notification services via text, and banks rely on SMS as an important way to verify their customers’ identities. 

This type of SMS, often referred to as A2P or Application-to-Person SMS, has held its own in customer relations, especially within the UK where 33 percent of consumers receive text-based alerts for things like appointment reminders, delivery tracking and sales updates. With handhelds being ubiquitous and phone numbers staying the same from device to device, texting is a good way to ensure the message is delivered to the right person — and on time.  

But while outbound SMS adoption has seen a boon, the medium has yet to help contact centers meet their goal of managing inbound queries and automating responses. 

In a world where customers’ questions are pre-empted and answered without a support person ever picking up the phone, SMS would be king. But it’s not.

Why SMS Is Problematic for Inbound Customer Service

SMS adoption is gaining momentum for outbound enterprise communications, but it isn’t well suited for making inbound connections. A couple of reasons explain why things are one-sided.

autocorrect fail
How many texts does it take to get to the center of a problem? An example of autotext fail from damnyouautocorrect.com.

One factor is that text messages don't offer enough “room” for customers to relay everything they need to say at once. Customers want a fast resolution. Firing off an SMS into the ether, hoping a real person will pick up and respond correctly, leaves too much time for nail biting and hand wringing. 

A phone call might not always lead to a fast resolution, but at least it ensures an immediate connection with feedback and some level of assurance, which is what anxious customers want. 

Interpretation of texts can also pose problems. Have you ever told a joke over text message, only to have it lost in translation? When you consider the lack of context, text-speak and autocorrect errors, the potential hiccups with SMS can be a real issue. 

There’s a wealth of examples online that capture some pretty wacky auto-correct struggles, as seen in the one to the right.

The Future of SMS: A Two-Sided Coin

When faced with a customer dilemma in 2017, would Sting send his SOS via text? 

Probably not. The phone call is still the go-to method for consumers to find resolutions to complicated problems. 

Texts just don’t offer a good way to receive queries and deliver timely customer support — yet. 

So while we should never say never, it doesn’t look like inbound SMS is poised to dethrone the tried-and-true phone call right now. Factors may also negatively affect the growth of A2P SMS, including the poor reliability of services due to the use of low-cost “grey routes,” as well as regulatory concerns.

That being said, text messaging excels in areas of business process automation and user experience for authentication, notifications and reminders. Within these domains in particular, enterprise SMS has a bright future ahead.