line of people texting
PHOTO: Jens Johnsson

Businesses have access to a number of different customer service channels, all of them serving one common purpose: meeting customer needs. In January, I provided a methodical analysis of these different channels, which showed how powerful a medium messaging is. 

But what exactly do we mean when we say messaging? And why is it so different from other channels, even the ones that appear to be the same, such as live chat?

Messaging Is Asynchronous in Nature

Messaging in customer service can come in many different forms. High-level, we can distinguish standalone messaging channels, which come with their own client and are typically backed by a commercial provider and their cloud infrastructure — from embedded messaging channels commonly found on websites (in-web messaging) and increasingly within mobile apps (in-app messaging). Examples of standalone messaging channels include WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, LINE, Viber, kik, WeChat, and also SMS. Even the direct message (DM) feature within Twitter could be considered a standalone messaging channel. 

As for in-app messaging (and in-web for that matter), it makes most sense if the environment in which it is embedded is fairly complex and offers a lot of information. Messaging in this case helps visitors find their way around.

The biggest differentiator of messaging channels versus other similar channels lies in its asynchronous nature. The fact that I do NOT have to be present at the same time as the customer service agent removes a lot of the stress and inconvenience older channels such as phone calls or live chat continue to have. In fact, we can identify a whole array of issues with traditional live chat in particular:

customer chat complaints

Messaging does away with all of this, which makes it so powerful. For your customers, messaging is familiar, convenient, effortless, time-saving. For your business, messaging is contextual, cost-effective, secure, integrated.

Related Article: Fix Live Chat Before It Loses Its Way

Customer Service Is Conversational

Messaging saves us time through its simplicity. People hate wasting time, and value anything that helps save time. Research shows again and again that having to repeat oneself is considered one of the worst offenses a brand can commit in the customer journey. Sending a message and going on with our lives while the other party works on their response is the “leanest” form of engaging with others. Do you remember how we did this in school, exchanging notes written on small pieces of paper?

The other key characteristic of messaging is that it’s conversational in nature. It is based on turn-taking — the act of exchanging turns in conveying and receiving bits of information to “negotiate meaning.” A conversation is productive if it leads to understanding. In customer service, this is mostly associated with solving a problem. If we can agree that customer service between people essentially happens via conversations, and ponder the traits of messaging discussed above, we begin to realize how powerful this channel can be.

Besides the turn-taking nature of a conversation, how else can a conversation be characterized? This topic was discussed at great length at Opus Research’ recent Conversational Commerce Conference in San Francisco. Chris Messina, a silicon valley technologist and thought leader, argues that “the word ‘conversational’ refers to building a relationship over time, especially at times when there isn’t an immediate goal,” as Fonolo CEO Shai Berger summarized it in his coverage of the event

This means conversations can take place between a brand and a customer that serve the purpose of strengthening the “bonding” or “relationship,” as opposed to serving some practical end. Berger called this the difference between a micro- and macro-perspective of what conversation means. Regarding the latter, he writes: “someone from the audience asked (paraphrased): ‘How do we reconcile that with the fact that, when we contact a company, it’s because we need to get something done? Agents aren’t paid to chit-chat and as a customer I don’t want it to take any longer than it needs to.’ Chris’s answer was that ‘we need to connect these micro-moments [and] … get to my intention … without dehumanizing.’ That’s a tall order for sure, but a worthwhile goal.”

Well – I only want to remind ourselves that Zappos, an Amazon brand, is known for (and proud of) holding the record of the longest live customer service conversation ever in 2017, with 10 hours and 51 minutes. And clearly we can learn a thing or two about customer service from both brands?

The topic of conversations with brands, and the broader question of whether people even WANT relationships with companies has been recently discussed in a very lively Twitter conversation that spanned multiple days, summarized in this Twitter Moment: Do we want relationships with brands? The individuals that participated in this exchange did not come to a conclusion … but the topic is hot for sure.

customer relationship with brands

Related Article: Why I Hate Customer Service Chatbots

Messaging Is the Final Frontier in Customer Service

Messaging as a channel brings with it all the characteristics that could very well make it what I call the “final frontier” in customer service, or the broader area of customer engagement and customer experience. Phone calls, emails, social media, live chat … they all are leading up to this notion of asynchronous, turn-based communication that starts once, but then never ends. Rather it leads to continuous engagement which ends when either party closes the exchange. Exchanging messages is simply the most effective, efficient and convenient way to engage between two (or more) human beings, and statistics like the 1.5 billion (with a “b”) users of WhatsApp in 180 (out of 195) countries worldwide today demonstrates its reach and appeal. 

Relatively few companies today have defined — let alone executed on — a comprehensive messaging customer service strategy today. It’s still early days. However, many are actively exploring it, and I want to say it makes all the sense in the world.