Text Takes Precedence as a Customer Service Preference

By Leonard Klie, DestinationCRM

A new generation of consumers prefers short message service to other ways to reach agents.

More than 2 billion people worldwide are expected to be using the latest smartphones this year, capable of handling all of the traditional and emerging communication channels. But the most popular customer service channel is a more primitive technology that has been around since the early 1990s. Text messaging, which got its start in 1993, when the first mobile phone capable of sending and receiving texts was introduced, is now the preferred means of contact for the large majority of consumers.

According to recent Harris Poll data, 64 percent of all consumers now prefer texting to phone calls for customer service.

Dean Jones, CEO of PowerObjects, is one of many CRM insiders to notice the change. In the past, he says, phone and email were the primary channels used for communications between businesses and their customers. Now those contacts have increasingly moved to text messaging, which is what prompted his company this fall to release a text-messaging add-on for Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

“Texting hasn’t replaced calls in practice yet,” says Donna Fluss, founder and president of DMG Consulting. “But it is an important channel, and it can be an effective channel.”

“Customers have shown a preference for mobility,” adds Tim Fujita-Yuhas, director of product management at OpenMarket, a provider of mobile customer engagement platforms. “Customers are always on their mobile devices, and texting is now their preferred channel.”

Not surprisingly, the preference for texting when dealing with businesses is especially strong among those between the ages of 18 and 34 (85 percent). The majority of parents with small children (71 percent) also prefer texting, the Harris Poll survey found. For parents, having more stressful, noisy, and chaotic lives has made the prospect of waiting on hold, sitting at a computer, or shouting into a phone far less appealing, the researchers concluded.

Additionally, the research found that 44 percent of consumers would prefer to press a button to initiate a text conversation immediately rather than wait on hold to speak to an agent. And what’s more, 64 percent of consumers indicated they would think positively of businesses that offer text as a customer support channel.

“One emerging customer service channel—texting via SMS [short message service]—is turning out to be more important than previously thought,” analysts at the Harris Poll said.

Rich Weborg, CEO of OneReach, a provider of customer interaction platforms, agrees. Text, he says, “is a channel that not a lot of people have been paying attention to—until now.”

A Popular Channel

To demonstrate just how prevalent texting has become, Americans sent nearly 1.9 trillion text messages in 2013, or 153.3 billion per month, according to CTIA’s most recent wireless industry survey.

On top of that, Forrester Research recently reported that 86 percent of business decision makers were planning to use text messaging in their business operations in 2014, the highest rate of any mobile technology across businesses worldwide. At the same time, 70 percent stated they consider text messaging to be the most important mobile technology they could use due to its broad reach and high return on investment.

So why has it taken more than 20 years for texting to catch on as a business channel? In the United States, a lot of it has to do with simple economics. Texting has only recently become much more affordable.

Early on, mobile carriers charged subscribers between 10 cents and 20 cents for every text message they sent or received. Those plans are now giving way to smartphone data plans that offer unlimited texting. “For businesses and consumers, a world of opportunity opens up as subscribers move to unlimited texting plans,” says Rebecca Wettemann, vice president at Nucleus Research.

Another hindrance was that consumers were reluctant to share their cell phone numbers with businesses for fear of being bombarded with unsolicited mobile advertising. It was a legitimate concern; in texting’s earliest days, mobile marketing was little more than a new form of spam. “Texting got a black eye,” Weborg says. “Businesses were sending [consumers] ads that [they] did not want.”

New consumer privacy, opt-in, and do-not-call regulations have eliminated much of that fear.

Smartphone technology has also made it easier to send and view text messages. Clunky nine-digit keypads have been replaced by virtual QWERTY keyboards that make it easy to tap out a quick complaint to a business. Predictive text completion and automatic spell check and correction have further simplified the process, and adaptive technology even adjusts the keyboard and screen to the phone’s width based on horizontal or vertical orientation.

Also limiting earlier adoption was the fact that, initially, mobile phone users could only send text messages to subscribers on the same carrier network. Verizon subscribers couldn’t communicate with AT&T subscribers, and vice versa. Businesses were completely left out in the cold, even after the cell phone industry tore down those barriers in 1999 and allowed subscribers to text across carrier lines.

In 2006, the advent of short message service short codes (five- or six-digit mobile phone numbers that businesses could use to send and receive concise text messages) finally brought businesses into the texting fray. The problem was that messages sent to SMS short codes were often limited to 160 characters and could be billed at a higher rate than standard text messages. With some codes, consumers could be subjected to recurring monthly service fees added to their mobile bills.

SMS short codes also cost businesses $500 or $1,000 a month to lease, depending on whether they use dedicated vanity numbers or random numbers.

“When texting started, it was expensive for businesses to get started, and it was heavily regulated,” Weborg says. “What we’ve been seeing over the last few years is that it’s becoming flexible and cheap for businesses to set up. The price is so low now that any business can have access to [text messaging],” he adds.

Push and Pull

Also helping to push texting forward as a customer interaction channel is the ability for messages to be bidirectional. While in the past businesses could only use texting to push information or marketing material out to customers, texting today can be used for both inbound and outbound communications. “There’s a much wider range of options to communicate with customers using text,” Fujita-Yuhas says.

Now, not only can doctors’ offices text patients with appointment reminders or let them know when to take their medicines or refill their prescriptions, but new integrated text platforms enable patients to text back from the original reminder message to reschedule appointments.

Deployment options have also changed the communications landscape. Service providers can deliver text messaging over companies’ standard local landlines, Voice over Internet Protocol, and toll-free phone lines. Companies can handle all of their communications through one infrastructure rather than juggling among multiple systems.

One company offering text over standard phone lines is OpenMarket, which in mid-January began offering two-way text-enabled landlines and toll-free numbers for businesses in the United States and Canada. Potential uses, the company claims, could include customer feedback surveys, appointment reminders, mobile coupons and promotional offers, and secure authentications, in which the customer could be sent a one-time password as a text message.

“Companies can now take voice calls and texts on the same phone line,” Weborg says. “Companies have spent a lot of money on their communications infrastructures, and now they can layer SMS on it fairly easily. They can add text without having to change much.”

Additionally, “there’s no limit to the number of texts that a business can get,” Weborg says. “The current infrastructures can support an unlimited number of texts.” And, in this environment, text capacity has also been expanded from the 160-character limit on most SMS short code lines to about 1,600 characters.

A Long Way to Go

Despite these latest developments, having text capabilities tied to a company’s phone system is not the same thing as bringing it into the contact center. That is still a few years down the road, according to Wettemann. “We’re very early on in this being an integrated part of the call center,” she says. “We’re still looking at a couple of years before it’s mainstream.”

“Not enough companies can support texting yet,” Fluss says. “Even companies that support chat are not yet on text, and texting uses the same skill set as chat.”

Nonetheless, customers aren’t giving businesses a choice. “Customers increasingly want to text, and companies need to support their customers on their channels of choice,” Fluss maintains.

Simplicity is the key, Fujita-Yuhas explains. Texting “is so easy to use. Everyone has texting available to them on their phones, and they all know how to use it. It doesn’t require the customer to download anything, buy any new technology, or change carriers or service providers.”

The convenience factor cannot be discounted either. “A big part of the appeal is the time element,” Wettemann says. “You can send a text whenever you want.”

Plus, the chances of a response with texting are much greater than with other channels. In fact, 95 percent of text messages are read within 15 minutes, and the typical response rate for text is 10 times higher than for other communication methods, according to the Mobile Marketing Association.

In a business context, surveys sent to customers via text messaging frequently see in excess of a 20 percent response rate, and the click-through rate for URLs sent via text message is higher than 19 percent, compared to just 4.2 percent for those sent by email, the association reported recently.

But with that comes certain business challenges, Wettemann warns. “Companies need to be aware of what…the appropriate response time [is],” she says. “When we text, we assume a rapid response will follow.”

To manage texts that come in when the company’s contact center is closed, companies can set up their text routing systems with an automated response delivery system that lets the customer know that his message was received and that the company will follow up in the morning, Wettemann suggests.

Companies also need to be careful not to overautomate the text process. “You want a level of automation, but you always want to make a live agent available for a voice conversation if needed,” Weborg advises.

The new breed of multichannel contact center solutions can help companies provide the right balance. Modern multichannel contact center suites enable organizations to communicate with their customers using a combination of automated and agent-assisted interactive text messaging dialogues. Text chats can transition seamlessly from agent to automation and vice versa, and texts that require special handling can be escalated to telephone agents when needed.

It’s practically seamless to add other capabilities as well, Weborg states.

“If you already have skills-based routing, you can just link into the existing system,” he says. “All of the analytics and other stuff that you’re already using can be tied in and connected through existing systems.

“It’s really simple to add text as another channel,” he says. “It can be turned on very easily.”

Text can also be integrated fairly easily into existing CRM systems.

With some systems, the integrations come built in, but more than likely, a simple third-party add-on will be required. PowerObjects’ PowerSMS add-on for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for example, can integrate a CRM system with third-party text messaging platforms from CallFire and Twilio, enabling users to send and receive text messages from within CRM systems to contacts, leads, or custom lists. They can even use their CRM workflows to automatically send text messages when cases are created or closed, for example. When recipients respond to the text messages they receive, the message can be recorded as a received activity in the CRM system.

Zoho CRM works directly with Clickatell.com to enable companies to send and receive SMS text messages directly from within their Zoho CRM systems. Businesses can see text histories and create text message templates, auto limits, custom internal notes, and more. All responses from customers can even be sent to designated email workflows and saved into the relevant contact histories.

The Cost Benefit

For businesses looking to implement a text channel, there are certain cost benefits. “The cost of texting is much lower than voice calls,” Fujita-Yuhas says. “There are real nuts-and-bolts cost savings for businesses with texting.”

For businesses that require a variety of voice features, such as voicemail detection, automated speech recognition, and text to speech, for their millions of voice calls per month, phone can cost four to eight times as much as texting.

Businesses can handle 10 times as many incoming texts as calls in the same amount of time. “And it’s more efficient for the contact center, because one agent can handle multiple texts at once,” Fujita-Yuhas points out.

An added benefit of texting over phone is that text is far easier to track and manage. Most mobile phones automatically store and archive text messages, while getting a transcript of a phone call would require more technology, including a call recording app.

The raw data that comes with text is easier to analyze, Weborg says, “because there aren’t the same issues with accents, recognition errors, background noise, etc.”

Running analytics on a text platform is much simpler and quicker, too, he adds, because the data is already in text format. For phone calls, an additional layer is needed to convert the voice to text before the data parsing and indexing can occur.

“There is just so much more that you can do with the text channel that you can’t do with voice,” Weborg says.

Among those abilities is sending photos and other multimedia content via multimedia messaging service (MMS). MMS extends the core SMS capability to enable businesses to deliver news and entertainment, scannable coupon codes, product images, videos, and other information. Unlike text-only SMS, commercial MMS can deliver a variety of media, including up to 40 seconds of video, multiple images via slideshow, or audio files.

The incorporation of MMS “will be a bit of a game-changer for the contact center,” Weborg says.

In general, the text channel “could add more contact with the customer in so many ways,” he concludes. “When people realize the channel exists, they will use it more often.”