Is Messaging the Messiah for Customer Service?

Call Center | 6 minute read

Is Messaging the Messiah for Customer Service?The eternal conflict in customer service is between delivering a good experience and keeping costs low. For example, pushing callers to self-serve IVR lowers cost, but customers hate dealing with phone menus and “talking to the machine”. The industry has always sought a way for customers and companies to interact that is enjoyable for the former and cost effective for the latter. Hopes are high that “messaging” is that messiah.

“Messaging” differs from “chat”, which companies have offered via their website for over a decade. We’ll discuss the distinction shortly, but let’s start by looking at where chat has fallen short so that the upside potential of messaging is clear.

Web-based chat has been around for over a decade. Its effectiveness is well-established: Cost-per-contact is substantially lower than phone calls, and customer satisfaction is generally high. Its shortcoming is uptake: Chat deployments rarely resulted in a significant reduction in phone calls. For many people, the default action of picking up and dialing the phone was too hard a habit to break.

Then came the smartphone era. This should have been a boon for chat-based customer service, but instead uptake has been hampered by an inadequate user experience. The hope is that messaging will solve chat’s “mobile UX” problem.

Chat vs. Messaging

Let’s begin with some terminology: For casual use, “chat” and “messaging” are interchangeable along with “texting” and “IMing”. It’s all quite jumbled… “Can you text me when you get here?”… “Sure, on SMS?” … “No, on Skype” … “OK, let me just message the Uber driver”… “Great, I’m chatting with Bob on WhatsApp about dinner”.

But for our purposes, we need to be more rigorous. The definitions below are not official but, after speaking with a number of analysts and industry folks, this seems to be the consensus:


A company adds “chat” to their website or mobile app by purchasing and deploying a service from a 3rd party. The defining factor is that the company controls the channel. A chat vendor, like LivePerson or BoldChat, operates behind the scenes. For example, on BestBuy’s website you’ll get the option to chat with an agent, and you won’t know that the company [24]7 is powering that chat.


By contrast, a company offers “messaging” by partnering with a platform like Facebook Messenger or WeChat. These platforms give consumers a single interface (on the web or phone) that consumers can use to contact both friends and multiple businesses. The company does not pay for the platform and does not have control over it.

This table lists some other differences:


Chat vs. Messaging


The Messaging Boom

Text-based messaging is HUGELY popular, especially with younger consumers. In a recent study, 56% of 18-34 year olds said they always prefer chat to a live phone call. Of the top 10 most used mobiles apps, six of them are messaging apps.

The Messaging Boom


Migrating from Chat to Messaging

This growth is why companies are intrigued with messaging. They look at it and think, “if only we could get the efficiency of chat with the popularity of messaging”.

Further fueling that interest is the remarkable success of WeChat, a messaging platform in China that 600 million people use as the primary gateway to interact with businesses.

Facebook is following WeChat’s model, having announced Facebook Messenger for Business this past summer. A handful of companies, including Uber and clothing retailer Everlane are already using it for customer service messaging. WhatsApp announced similar intentions last week. Also following this path is Kik (which recently received a big investment from WeChat’s owner TenCent).

Messaging Solves Chat’s Mobile Client Problem

Web-based chat has a very straight-forward and effective user interface. We’re all familiar with the “chat now!” buttons or the little tabs that cling to the bottom of the frame. But the world (especially e-commerce) now revolves around the smartphone, and that’s where chat runs into trouble.

If your company wants to extend your web-based chat to your mobile users, you can use the same back-end, but for the front-end – the customer-facing piece – your options aren’t great.

  • You could release a mobile app with an embedded chat component (aka “in-app messaging”), but consumers have limited appetite to download apps. (Unless there is a lot of appeal beyond just the customer service function, and there’s a long term relationship with the company.)
  • You can repurpose the web-based chat interface through a mobile browser, but that’s awkward for the user and won’t always work.
  • You could chat over SMS, which is available almost universally, but not free for all users, and excludes tablets.

All of these options are in use successfully today, but at a scale that is far below the potential of mobile chat.

Messaging solves this client-side problem.

If your company partners with Facebook Messenger the odds are good your customer already has the client on their mobile device (It has 800 million daily users, after all). And if they don’t have it, there’s a better chance they will download it, since it offers utility beyond just talking to your company. In other words, it lowers the “onboarding” effort.


Messenger Growth


If this transition takes hold, it could unleash the full potential of chat as the primary channel for customer service across almost any industry. It might be the biggest impact on customer service since the invention of the call center.

But some big questions remain:

  1. What are the downsides for companies? (Hint: Check the first row in the table above. This will be the topic for next week’s post.)
  1. How does the voice channel adapt to fit into this picture? Phone calls aren’t going away, so it’s important to have a way to escalate from text to voice. Many chat solutions handle this by being part of a contact center suite, or by having integration abilities. But the same is not true in the messaging world (Fonolo is working on fixing that. Drop me a line if you want to learn more.)
  1. Further to point 2, will companies running these messaging platforms put in the effort to have all the APIs needed for proper integration with the call center and CRM systems? Without it, consumers will end up repeating information to agents, and that kills the experience.
  1. What happens with security and privacy for chats when they go through a 3rd party messaging platform? And how much of the transaction is the messaging platform (i.e. WeChat or Facebook) allowed to see? (Is this like the Gmail situation, where they use the contents of your email to target ads?)
  1. How does this play into the emerging trend of intelligent agents, aka “bots”?
  1. Where do social media channels fit in? Does this help or hurt customer service over Twitter? See my post Twitter’s Impact on Call Center Culture.

There’s been some great writing on this topic that I’d like to recommend:

Finally, thanks to Dan Miller, Dave Michels, Esteban Kolsky, Aphrodite Brinsmead, Omer Minkara, Daniel Hong, Ian Jacobs, and Tobias Goebel for their input while writing this.


Here’s the follow-up post: Will the WeChat Model Work in the West?

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