At its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June, Apple revealed significant changes and updates to its iMessage platform, including the launch of a new service named "Business Chat." Business Chat is designed to improve existing omnichannel customer experiences and, importantly, increase the reach of Apple’s ecosystem. It's interesting to follow Apple's reasoning, and speculate on whether Business Chat will become integral to B2B and B2C interactions, or another ineffective attempt to replace email and customer service call centers.
Though smartphone has become ubiquitous, only a small amount of smartphone time is actually spent talking on those phones, however. Direct real-time communication on mobile devices is five times likelier to be conducted by text rather than by voice calls, according to a study published in the Chicago Tribune. Recognizing this trend away from voice calls, corporations such as JP Morgan Chase and Coca Cola are saving money by eliminating voicemail for many of their employees. At Coca Cola, only 6 percent of workers choose the option of keeping their voicemail.
The need for new channels of communication seems insatiable. In this context ‘communication’ does not simply mean one person talk to another, but an individual or a business communicating with another entity. Google Home is an example of a new channel of communication: an individual interacting with businesses and information without ever needing to physically touch a device. Apple has recognized that although social communication is constantly evolving, business communication has been lagging. By exploring the primary ways that businesses and consumers interact, we can follow Apple's thought-process behind Business Chat and their belief that it meets a need in real-time omnichannel customer experience.
While email makes up the majority of internal company communications, the need for real-time team collaboration has given rise to a wide array of additional channels. Business strategies now typically rely on suites of apps, allowing for dynamic commenting, video conferencing, and remote telework. Telephone calls, while decreasing in frequency, are also still essential for most companies in conducting their daily business.
Email has been king in business interactions for decades and there is a rush to be the first company and product that supplants it. Slack is one such product, designed to remove email completely from B2B and internal business interactions. In place of email, Slack fully integrates all digital channels on a single communications platform, providing the ability to engage in real-time file sharing, voice chat, text chat, private messaging and searchable archiving -- all without any need to switch between apps.Despite the popularity of such versatile platforms, email shows no sign of disappearing from the workplace. Over 100 million business emails were sent each day in 2015, according to a Fortune report entitled "Email: Unloved, Unbreakable" and that number is predicted to reach 139 million by 2018. The business world still revolves firmly around a central axis of email, and no platform has yet appeared that can really take its place.
Customer interactions with businesses are still limited almost exclusively to phone and email. When consumers want to contact a bank or an insurance company or a retailer, they generally need to find the phone number and initiate a call. After that, they may get caught in the frustrating customer experience of a decision tree, "Press 1 for XX" until they either hang up in frustration or manage to reach a human being. Email communication is limited for customer service because of the uncertain time delay between the question and the answer.
As phone conversations diminish in personal and commercial realms, the business marketplace has turned to chatbots as a partial substitute for meeting customer needs. The surge in artificial intelligence has made these chatbots more flexible, but they don't yet have the intelligence and natural language processing chops to cover the full range of real-life customer interactions. They can provide some cost savings by facilitating routine transactions and directing inquiries to the right person, but it's rare that a chatbot can fulfill a non-standard customer service request without the intervention of a human being.
Customers do interact with businesses through a few digital apps and social media platforms. While these channels continue to build their constituencies, they also have intrinsic flaws. Twitter allows consumers to directly message businesses, but such communications are unreliable for both parties and can inadvertently become public. Facebook now has about 1.2 billion monthly users, and it is promoting its Messenger App as a means of conducting business. However, Facebook's Messenger strategy is banking on a heavy use of chatbots and automated greetings, and customers aren't necessarily on board with these innovations.
In the face of increasing consumer expectations for an instant real-time response, email is a less than an optimum channel for conversation between businesses and customers. Its built-in delay is in direct opposition to the growing trend towards immediacy in customer experience, although it remains firmly fixed at the center of internal and B2B communications. Email still maintains its supremacy as a publishing function, maintaining a connection with customers by way of newsletters and other premium content offers.
Initially designed to compete with Facebook Messenger, Business Chat will be part of iOS 11, which Apple expects to roll out in Fall of 2017. The service will use the phone's messaging function, allowing users to open an iMessage window from inside Safari, Maps, Spotlight, Siri or other apps. Customers will now be able to initiate a text chat with a business. This sounds very straightforward, but in fact, all chatting up until now has had to be initiated by the company (via a chat window) rather than by a customer. When a customer looks up information on a business, they will be given an option to start a chat with the business immediately, instead of only being shown the phone number.
In addition to integration with Apple's own native apps, Business Chat will be integrated with a growing array of non-Apple customer service products. As of summer 2017, these partners include LivePerson, Genesys, Nuance, and Salesforce. The new service also contains many features that are of interest to developers. These include a list or poll picker, dynamic maps integration, scheduling features, and a sandbox that will allow developers to build their own integrations into this chat ecosystem.
According to LivePerson CEO Robert LoCascio, "LivePerson's ultimate goal is to eliminate voice interactions when it comes to customer service and sales. Business Chat moves the industry closer to that goal -- the key is that the conversations are fully encrypted, allowing companies to include real business processes." Success at providing a high-quality customer experience without the need for phone conversations will save the company money on staffing while streamlining interactions for the consumer.
From a business perspective, a text chat model sounds ideal: A customer service representative can only speak to one customer at a time but can text with many people at once. Customers who use text chat appreciate having a written record of what a company has said, and the chat transcript makes an easy reference point if the same problem continues to arise in the future. However, iMessage still requires a customer to physically type out their problem, an action that is innately slower than voice and often more frustrating for the customer. No customer wants to type out several paragraphs of a complex problem on a mobile phone. In many cases, talking to a customer service representative is simply faster and more convenient.
With the developer sandbox, however, we can see how Apple is hoping to shape the future as it adds Business Chat to its already massive digital ecosystem. The software giant hopes that the benefits of its omnichannel approach, including the customer touchpoint tracing and data collection, will outweigh the transitory negatives of a text-based customer service platform.Business Chat will integrate Apple Pay, which can potentially link company expense accounts into Apple's ecosystem. Enabling people to buy a business lunch via chat, without filling out tedious forms, will not only be a pleasantly streamlined customer experience -- it may just "spell the end of the POS system and payment systems as we know it in retail sales." Business Chat also plans to allow tracking of Peer-to-Peer payments like Venmo and Zelle, for added financial mobility. Furthermore, it will connect with CRM tools like Salesforce, integrating the instant convenience of text messaging with the extensive data and analytics contained in more established business solutions. Finally, aware of the explosive growth of the Internet of Things, Business Chat will integrate with Apple's Homepod for voice command interactions via IoT connectivity.Business Chat will not revolutionize communication overnight. Although the bells and whistles of app integration will undoubtedly open new doors, Business Chat is currently just another component of Apple's classic approach: build for the future and control as much of the customer touch points as possible.This philosophy of building for the future and broadening your customer interactions is a valuable, but challenging, long-term strategy that will benefit almost every company.