News & Views

Opinion / Super Human Service

by Georgia Malden

Mobile messaging lets the genie out of the bottle

I can get pretty obsessive about the importance of personal, one-to-one service. Maybe it’s my age, but being able to connect to an actual person to get help and advice feels really important, and is something that can sometimes get lost in the rush to digital platforms (you know, those hours spent digging around websites for a number to call, rather than a form to fill out or a dreaded FAQ page). What I really want, I suppose, is a cross between Aladdin’s genie and Google – which is why I’m fascinated by the potential of digital to actually supercharge those personal connections.

I touched on this in a piece I wrote last year heroing the kind of digital systems that harness human insight and connections rather than bypass them. In particular I called out services like Ask Zappos and PS Dept, the personal shopper app that connects shoppers to sales associates in high-end department stores in the US. Both are life-enhancing examples of retailers piggybacking technology to help their customers get to answers quicker. But both have suffered issues around scalability (see this on PS Dept, for example).

Since then things have really gathered momentum, fuelled by the phenomenal growth of mobile messaging (six out of the ten most used apps globally are messaging apps, according to Mary Meeker’s latest internet report), and it feels like this happy marriage of human and digital may be about to take off. 

My favourite launch comes from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp and Twitter investor Robin Chan’s new messaging-meets-commerce app, Operator. Announcing the service in April, Chan explained that while messaging apps are great for communicating with friends, ‘we still don’t have a smartphone based system for connecting people with businesses in a personalized way’. Operator wants to be that system.

Operator takes the thinking behind PS Dept but adds the power of data to scale it to reach a much wider audience (theoretically; for now, there’s still a waiting list). While PS Dept is predominantly manual (users select the store they want to connect to), Operator’s algorithms will process your query in order to route it to the most appropriate reps in its network of retailers.

Then, if a user wants to buy, it’s a simple tap to purchase, assuming they’ve already registered their card with Operator. Just as Uber provides the glue between people needing a ride and the closest Uber driver, Operator is seeking to become the link between shoppers and the most relevant outlet – with ordering fulfilled within the app. It’s not trying to compete with Amazon, but is aiming to be the go-to place for connecting shoppers to the right people at the right shops who can best meet those needs. Imagine – just one app where you can fire off a message for anything you might want to an actual person who can help you get it. No more individual store apps, no more wading through customer reviews, no more online baskets.

Anything else?

On a smaller scale, we’ve recently seen the rollout of hotel chain Marriott’s Mobile Request messaging service. Guests can select from a list of pre-populated requirements, such as requesting extra towels and pillows, or opt for the ‘Anything Else?’ feature to chat directly with a member of the hotel’s staff.

In pilots, Marriott found that of the 10,000 requests made by guests, 80% opted for the ‘Anything Else?’ two-way chat option, showing how much people value this kind of one-to-one human connection over database-driven functionality. Fascinatingly, people also seem to prefer it when customer service agents use emoticons in their communications, according to separate research from Penn State University. The use of instant messaging and emoticons signal more ‘emotional and social presence’, helping to demonstrate empathy.

However, with the trend towards people downloading fewer apps (the average number of apps users in the UK download per month fell from 2.32 to 1.8 between 2013 and 2014, according to Deloitte) and starting to consolidate behaviour on some key apps (70% of all app usage is concentrated in three apps, according to Business Insider), wouldn’t it be better to be able to do this within the messaging services we’re already using?

Enter Facebook’s Businesses on Messenger. Launched in March, this allows businesses to hook up direct with their customers within the Facebook instant messaging app. A partnership with customer service software company Zendesk and its Zopim chat service helps to route the flow and track conversations. The first brand partners on board were the retailers Everlane and Zulily, existing users of Zopim chat, who are using Messenger to field customer queries and provide order updates. And it’s only a matter of time before Payments (currently peer-to-peer only in Messenger) come to the service too.

Customer journey as conversation flow

What this changes is the whole nature of the customer journey, which can now be reflected in the flow of instant messages that run between a company and the customer. As Zendesk’s Adrian McDermott told Small Business Trends in May: ‘it’s really interesting to think about the customer journey map being represented in this stream of chats and comments that appears in Messenger.’

And that’s a journey that’s visible to the shopper too – so rather than going to your account page on a website to check your past orders, or maybe going into your email to check on your order confirmations, you can see all the ongoing interactions you have with that retailer in one conversation flow. It reframes the way we think about ordering too. Rather than the clunky add to basket/checkout process that we’ve had to get used to online, it’s as simple as a text. Arguably more intuitive than rubbing a lamp.

We’re already at a stage where we don’t have to download different apps or interrupt what we’re doing to get something else done, with things like Uber’s cards (we can now order an Uber directly from within Foursquare, should we wish…), Google Now on Tap and LINE’s increasingly integrated service ecosystem. But being able to do that in a way that genuinely fits with reflexive behaviour – like basic messaging – is particularly exciting.

With the large messaging networks like Facebook, WeChat and LINE vying for domination and looking to consolidate services, there’s going to be a shakedown to something that connects all of this together for people in the most seamless way. Facebook Messenger may already have the reach with its 600 million users. But Operator will be pinning its hopes on becoming the default option that connects all your online shopping queries in one place. And I for one hope they succeed. For now, though, I’m still on hold.