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Why SMS is the new channel for customer support

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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.

The cleaning service Homejoy has 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:

  1. Get an API-ready phone number: you can easily buy one from services like Twilio or Plivo.
  2. Plug it into software.
  3. 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 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.

Mathilde Collin is the co-founder and CEO of Front, an app that improves shared inboxes (e.g. [email protected], [email protected]) by introducing a new workflow for email. Follow her on Twitter @collinmathilde.

23 Responses to “Why SMS is the new channel for customer support”

  1. Matthew Donovan

    To properly leverage SMS as a customer support channel also takes an awareness of the regulatory guidelines that exist (the article largely overlooks this).

    I started one of the first SMS based group messaging services in 2004 (now called txtsignal.com) and it serves as a 100% CTIA compliant service.

    Using API like Twilio and a long code is in a grey area of compliance. Most implementations will be leveraged as a feature of a system and will skip the opt-in measures designed to protect customers from unsolicited messages. (And checking a box on a webpage does *not* constitute opting in).

    I founded another service in 2011 that puts customers as the initiator. That service (called Quibble) is anonymous and helps customers ask the questions they want or provide the feedback thy would like *all the while* remaining anonymous. This preserves the customer’s ability to not become a marketing asset. With this approach, the only messages possible are direct replies based on customer request.

  2. SocialSoundSystem

    We’ve been using Burner in this exact capacity for a couple years now. We use it as a customer service/community management tool with our bands and fans. We give out our Burner number to fans who win tickets and IF that phone number rings, we know it’s a fan who is having trouble with their name/tickets at the box office. We also sell tour VIP packages for every show. After a year of headaches and angry fans who say they never received our emails with all their VIP details, we started to text them as well. We have a lot fewer angry people/ broken hearts and the bands don’t lose face with their fans. If anything, we’ve heard that we’re so awesome for being so open and easy to communicate with.

  3. Tema Frank

    From a customer perspective, this could fast become a nightmare. The reason texts are answered promptly is because our messages are not yet as over-run with advertising as email!

  4. Tony Jamous

    You can’t argue the benefits companies can reap when using mobile messaging (just ask our customer, ZipCar!) but it doesn’t start and stop with SMS. Companies need to be flexible and use any communication customers want – whether it be voice, SMS, or in app communications like brand apps or even chat apps like Viber. As mobile space continues to grow more complex with a wider variety of ways people communicate around the world, this form of customer service will be a huge differentiator for all businesses, I predict. This is a function of cloud communication, and it’s turning into an exciting future. I’d be happy to grab a coffee with you, Mathilde, to get your thoughts, as another expert in this space.”

  5. W John Fabrega

    The author makes some good points that perhaps some of the commenters are not considering. In my reading of it, she is talking primarily about applications outside of the automated and/or spammy one-way communications that we all are growing to hate and talking about true two-way engagement between businesses and their customers who would rather text than talk.

    For example, take my millennial college children whose first assumption is that they should be able to text any phone number. Why? For most of their lives every number they’ve ever called they’ve been able to text. Why can’t they text a restaurant to get on the wait-list? Why can’t they text to schedule or change an appointment? Why can’t they text to see if a store has a product in stock? It’s because most businesses have not yet become part of the SMS channel. In fact, many people try to text businesses already. The messages just don’t go anywhere.

    Think about it….
    -If you are in a restaurant and the bathroom needs attention, would you rather find a manger, call, or send a quick text?
    -If you took your car into the repair shop, would you rather receive a call or a text with the repair estimate or notification that your car is ready?
    -Would you be more likely to call or text a customer comment number?

    The author mentions Twilio.com and Plivo.com as SMS on-ramps for businesses. Both of them and others like Nexmo.com offer SMS enabled numbers and API tools to build your own interfaces. More recently, services like http://www.BusinessTextBox.com have introduced the ability to text-enable existing business landline and toll-free telephone numbers and provide business grade web, desktop and mobile interfaces for continuing the conversations. It is up to the customers to call or text based on their preference.

    I couldn’t agree more that the SMS channel must be vigorously protected from the spam fate that has befallen email and fax before that. Certainly, unscrupulous marketers will try to take advantage of the system but barriers put in place by the carriers and the ability to easily block specific numbers should keep them at bay. It is significantly more difficult to get a text-enabled number than it is to get an email address.

  6. I reckon Mrs. Collin has just bought herself a cellular phone some days ago. The rest of the world has been using SMS as a marketing and CRM tool or for business critical communications for decades. To put it even stronger: technology has added more tools for these kind of processes.

    Not only do we send SMS for communications, push notifications are even more advantageous these days.

  7. Ketharaman Swaminathan

    Has the USA just discovered the virtues of SMS or what?:) The technology has been used for over a decade in India for alerts, customer support and marketing. Use cases include (1) Realtime alert for use of debit / credit card so that cardholders are immediately alerted to any potential fraudulent activity on their account (this is mandatory by law) (2) 2-way SMS alerts for “written” confirmation of orders placed via telephone e.g. mobile phone callertunes (3) C-SAT survey post call center interactions (4) Alerts for shipment and delivery of ecommerce consignments (5) Last, but not the least, spam marketing messages! The first four use cases are welcomed by customers. While many customers have tuned out of the last one, the situation is changing rapidly on that front: By using latest Customer Engagement Management technologies, a few brands have begun to craft highly timely and relevant targeted offers and send them to select customers via SMS. You’re right, early movers are already witnessing a sharp uplift in sales via higher customer loyalty, customer retention and brand advocacy.

  8. Pushing for outdated technology doesn’t help anyone and you seem undecided between support and marketing.
    Important alerts through SMS sure, customer support through IM good , marketing through any of those nooooo.
    SMS might work on 2G but it also costs too much ,it’s limited and harder to have a conversation in. Plus giving personal data like your phone number to some random company is not a good idea while IM can be anonymous.

  9. “Paired with an average open rate of 98 percent (versus 22 percent for email)”

    Once companies begin to feel entitled to spam their customers via SMS like they do with e-mail, I expect the open rate for SMS to plummet to similar levels. Imagine if you received SMS spam at the same rate as you do through e-mail!

    I don’t think it’s a matter of personalization, but rather that few companies provide any clear benefit to the customer for the messages they send. An airline texting me to inform me of a delayed flight is helpful (and presumably, is explicitly the reason I gave them permission to text me). Some e-commerce site that I ordered from two years ago, that I gave my cell phone number to so they could notify me that the package wouldn’t arrive in time for Christmas, and now sends me “exciting offers from their valued partners” because I forgot to check some opt-out box definitely does not benefit me.

    At least with e-mail, I can easily ditch the address once a company starts abusing it. That’s more difficult with SMS, which is one reason that some might not be receptive to companies who wish to “get closer” to them.

    • Mathilde Collin

      “Once companies begin to feel entitled to spam their customers via SMS like they do with e-mail, I expect the open rate for SMS to plummet to similar levels.”: I agree, that’s why there will definitely be a first mover advantage

      • Clutch Rockwell

        You may find that – at least in the US but also in other markets – there is some built-in protection against this phenomenon with SMS. For one, having the ‘bottom’ layer of the network (mobile carriers) oligopolized means that the cost of sending an application-to-peer SMS is likely to remain > 0 for the foreseeable, which enforces an ROI calculation on senders that is more restrictive than email. Which arguably means that users need to find the messages useful in order to sustain them. Second – and this applies much more in the US – the CTIA enforces spam regulations pretty seriously. That means compulsory help/stop keywording on short codes, and volume limitations on local phone numbers.