The Internet has not only increased the importance of customer service as a differentiator; it’s changed altogether the way shoppers and brands interact. Whereas in the past sellers relied on mass communication to communicate offers and announce new products, with a single “800” number — or even simply a mailing address — available to field customer service inquiries, now customers expect to have an active voice in conversations with brands.
The trend started with the advent of online reviews, and blossomed as social networks gave consumers new platforms to share their opinions about brands and products with peers. As more and more consumers accessed the tools to share word-of-mouth advice, recommendations from friends and family have become the type of endorsement shoppers trust most, with two-thirds saying they also trust reviews from other consumers they don’t know personally.
As brands have joined the fray, expectations are growing for them to respond on social platforms and via live chat and mobile messaging — and to respond quickly. Of the 39% of U.S. shoppers who use social media to interact with brands, 44% expect a response within an hour, according to Microsoft. On Facebook, brands must respond to 90% of queries within 15 minutes to earn a badge for responsiveness.
More and more platforms now exist for brands to communicate directly and instantaneously with shoppers. Facebook Messenger led the way in 2015 by offering businesses the chance to connect directly with users, and has since then allowed companies to use artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots to provide information on the platform. Apple followed suit in 2018 with the launch of Business Chat, while Google has experimented with various messaging formats integrated into search ads and business listings. The search giant is backing an industry-wide push for adoption of Rich Communications Services (RCS), which would bring features popular in messaging apps — such as read receipts, stickers, and group chats — to the default texting tools provided by mobile carriers.
Even more revolutionary still is the rise of voice search and voice shopping. More than two-thirds of U.S. consumers have already used a digital voice assistant, according to Microsoft, which predicts that 75% of the nation’s households will own a “smart speaker” by the end of 2020. Brands that are well-positioned for this shift will emerge as leaders in the year to come.
As shoppers take the reins of communication with brands and expect relevant information on demand, merchants should prepare by retooling their customer service content for conversational use, as well as their mindset as they establish meaningful two-way dialogue with consumers. They should:
- Focus on the right conversational platforms for the target audience. With so many ways to start a conversation with consumers, brands are in danger of stretching themselves too thin by trying to cover too many platforms — a potential liability, given that swift response times are a must. Instead, sellers should identify which mix of conversational services best match their customers, from social messaging apps to SMS text services to live chat on the eCommerce site. Starting small will help brands build and maintain a reputation for standout, responsive service; over time, the lineup of conversational platforms can grow and change as audiences shift usage.
- Automate for speed and satisfaction. Linc estimates that fully 70% of customer service interactions can be fully automated, from requests for store directions and hours to questions about products. By relying on AI-powered automated intelligence to handle these routine questions via a chatbot, merchants can deliver instantaneous responses and save their human customer service corps for complex situations. Consistency is another benefit: 1-800-Flowers, which pioneered conversational commerce with its GWYN (Gifts When You Need them) bot, discovered that customers actually preferred the automated service for placing orders, because the service was reliably uniform every time they used it. By contrast, “if you were to call a customer service department or sales line of any company, you’re not necessarily getting one company experience,” said CEO Chris McCann. “You’re getting whatever the experience is delivered by any of those 400, 500 or 1000 people.” The company has now expanded its AI-powered services to Facebook Messenger.
- Start the ultimate conversation by inviting product input. Software companies have long relied on customers to help shape future product development through through beta testing programs and user communities. Now other industries are applying the concept, using conversational commerce as an opportunity to learn what customers need and what products they want to see next. Cosmetics upstart Glossier is renowned for building a community around its products; the founders’ blog, In the Gloss, was the source of inspiration for the Milky Jelly cleanser, which was developed after readers complained about needing a two-step process — makeup removal followed by soap — to wash their faces; Glossier combined both products into one, simplifying routines.
You can learn more about the customer experience and how automating the shopper experience can engage your customers at every touchpoint by exploring Linc’s platform and solutions pages. Or take a look at how leading brands like Lamps Plus, Levi’s, Carter’s and others are using an automated customer assistance platform as part of their customer experience strategies in their businesses today, in our resources page.