WhatsAppocalypse Now? Your customer service is probably due for an overhaul

New instant messenger tools signal an incoming sea-change for how consumers expect to communicate with businesses. So if your customer service is broken, now is the time to rebuild it, writes APD’s Tim Sharp

You may have heard a number of announcements from WhatsApp over the last few weeks describing long-awaited plans allowing brands to communicate and engage with consumers.

While hardly ground-breaking, the move is long overdue given that WhatsApp hasn’t exactly taken a WeChat-style ‘total domination’ approach to customer engagement in the past. To date, brands have been noticeably absent from the platform, and as that now starts to change, the game is well and truly on. For many businesses, what matters is this: the ways in which we traditionally communicate with brands are hopelessly outdated. As such new messaging tools and products finally become mainstream, your next competitive advantage may well depend on them.

Why is WhatsApp doing this?

The magic – but also the big missing piece – in the WhatsApp puzzle has always been the lack of brand intervention. The last free ad space, perhaps.

And while such large platforms will inevitably monetise, messaging channels like WhatsApp also have a golden opportunity to steer away from simply creating more ad space. No one wants to see a toothpaste promotion wedged between their group chats, but we may well wish to contact our telco, airline or bank in the same way we talk to everyone else.

Despite their omnipotence, messaging remains a crowded space. With swathes of the peer-to-peer landscape now sown up, business-to-consumer capabilities have become a crucial frontier for chat providers to solidify and maintain ground against competitors that simply allow customers to do more.

As Mark Zuckerberg said in Facebook’s Q2 earnings call: “We can look at messaging platforms in other parts of the world and use that as a floor.” Anyone who has spent an iota of time in China over the last decade will know exactly to what and whom this refers. Closer to home; Thailand is LINE territory, with its 41 million users able to do everything from shop to invest in gold. Meanwhile, The Philippines is an entrenched Viber market (25m users and counting) and Indonesia has all sorts of interesting players running around (the many Blackberry Messenger billboards in Jakarta don’t put themselves up).

WhatsApp know the game is afoot, and that B2C communications play a large role in the future of messaging. “I think we can do better” concluded Zuckerberg’s call, just last month.

What is the opportunity? Start with customer service

The opportunity for many B2C firms lies squarely in the domain of customer experience. At the vanguard of this, and certainly to put it more specifically and less trendily is a better way to support your existing customers. To put it bluntly: customer service as we know it is broken.

The revolution here really is that instant messaging can remove friction from the way things have always been done which, in turn, becomes a competitive advantage for those willing to roll up their sleeves. To my mind: the second a user no longer has to press 1*4# on a phone just to wait for an hour on hold to change their mailing address is a blow to anyone competing the old-fashioned way. If messaging really is the new normal between people, then why should we regress when it comes to communicating with a brand?

Longer-term: Do you really need an app for that?

Crucially, this is not just about speed or ease of communication; this is also about integration and self-service. Telcos – for example – provide plenty of interesting use cases. For instance: why should I deal with cumbersome USSD menus or receipts to top up my prepaid sim when I can do it in a fraction of the time, directly from WeChat? Travel is another vertical ripe for instant messaging integrations, and even as I write this KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has announced a partnership that “will see the airline offer its customers booking confirmation, check-in notification, boarding pass and flight status updates via an official WhatsApp business account.” The same is already true of KLM’s WeChat and – to a lesser extent – Facebook Messenger presences. Meanwhile in Thailand, LINE is said to be close to inking a deal with Bangkok Taxi Cooperative Network, providing access to 60 per cent of the city’s cabs: a larger network of drivers than Uber or Grab.

Stay in travel mode for a second. Imagine that you’re running late for a flight and have a choice between digging up itinerary details from the depths of Gmail, or accessing them quickly via a channel that’s already open. As a customer, it’s very hard to go back to frustrating, pinch-to-zoom airline experiences from here. Or to an app that takes up space but which I might use 2-3 times a year. No thanks – I’ll take the WhatsApp boarding pass, please. Or the Bangkok taxi. Or maybe even summon both via WeChat.

LINE themselves state that mobile users in Asia download an average 32 apps per smartphone, yet only use three-to-five regularly. Which side of the divide would you rather be present in?

Where are we today?

The concept of web chat is hardly new, and if an agent can solve tickets via Facebook or Twitter DMs, then channels like WhatsApp or WeChat present little change to workflow.

Bigger challenges are around logistics: increased volume of queries, sufficient manpower to address them and procuring the technology to integrate messaging channels into existing agent workspaces or contact centres. These are hurdles, yes, but are also very surmountable for an organisation already managing customers via social media. Spare a thought then for the brands – of which there is a significant majority – that already lag behind in customer service.

Among brands that deliver old-fashioned customer service at scale and remain reticent about social media, one of the oft-cited reasons for holding back is privacy – which is no doubt an all-important concern but also the sort of legal maelstrom through which pragmatic brands simply find a way past. Again, think of the competition. Someone will figure it out and launch a far superior service experience; and when that happens your customers sure as heck won’t hold the line on your 1800 number forever. Privacy will be a focus, and indeed WhatsApp’s own language singles this out: the word ‘secure’ is repeatedly mentioned in the communication we have seen so far.

You Snooze, you lose?

Managing and surpassing customer expectations is one of the next great competitive advantages. And while the types of high-stakes scenarios described here are relatively geared towards large-scale organisations, the benefits of better customer service will without a doubt be a reason for customers to love you or leave you. In this respect, platforms or tools such as WhatsApp for Business are simply means to an end. I’m sure there’s a statistic about millennial brand loyalty to be referenced here, but I needn’t go down that rabbit hole. The future is instant, and it’s already here.

Tim Sharp is the Asia-Pacific head of social media at APD


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