Conversational messaging

What conversational customer engagement means for business

  • Brent Leary
    Brent Leary
  • Feb 13, 2020

Effective customer engagement is comprised of a growing number of interactions in a growing number of channels connecting a growing number and variety of experiences to exceed growing expectations.

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I attend about 25 industry events a year, including chairing CRM Magazine’s annual conference, CRM Evolution

As you’d expect, I hear a lot of soundbites, catchphrases, and jargon coming from the main stage of these conferences. Some of it I agree with, some of it I don’t, and some of it –– quite honestly –– causes my eyes to roll and stomach to churn. 

But sometimes, what I hear stops me cold and causes me to think… and then tweet. A few of those few times happened during Twilio CEO/founder Jeff Lawson’s keynote at SIGNAL last summer:

Brent Leary text 1

Brent Leary tweet 2

Brent Leary tweet 3

Now, this 1-2 combination was followed up a bit later with this haymaker to finish off the keynote:

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Your brand being the journey you provide? I’m all-in on this one. In fact, I included this in my latest column for CRM Magazine on important lessons from this year’s conference. 

Customer relationships are already less about individual transactions and increasingly more about “subscribe-able” experiences that put the emphasis on the vendor to provide enough value each month to compel consumers to stay on board. As value and experience become more important to the customer’s decision to pull the trigger, the journey is becoming the most important factor ahead of pricing or individual features/functions. 

Number two: Effective customer engagement is comprised of a growing number of interactions in the right but growing number of channels connecting a growing number and variety of experiences to provide an overall positive journey that consistently meets and exceeds growing expectations.

I’m down with this one too. The transition from transaction-based to subscription-based relationships increases the number of interaction opportunities between vendors and customers. For example, back when we used to buy software and install it on desktops, you probably wouldn’t hear from a vendor until they had an upgrade to sell you, or if you called them with a problem.  Once the transaction was done, it would usually take another transaction opportunity for them to reach out.  

But now with a subscription-based relationship, vendors are observing how you use their service to help you make the most of it –– the more you use it and find value in it, the longer you’ll keep paying them each month.  So more interactions, more potential channels to interact, more experienced, and more opportunities to create a positive customer journey that extends and deepens value-driven relationships.

Last one: conversations are eating apps. We all remember Marc Andreessen’s quote about software eating the world. It’s not even worth trying to argue that this didn’t happen. So if software has eaten the world ––which we know it has –– and software is being consumed in the form of mobile apps, more and more, it seems like these apps are facilitating the exchange of interactions in the form of conversations.

More channels, and more usage of established ones

The stats don’t lie.  According to a variety of sources, in 2019:

  • 188 million emails sent each minute – up from 156 million sent in 2017
  • 18 million SMS messages are sent each minute – up from 16 million in 2017
  • 45 million WhatsApp messages are sent each minute – up from 29.2 million in 2017
  • 4.5 million Google searches are done each minute – up from 3.5 million in 2017
  • 511,200 tweets sent each minute – 452,000 sent each minute in 2017
  • 1.4 million swipes on Tinder each minute – up from 972,000 in 2016

These numbers show that even as newer channels come on board and are being used to send tens of millions of messages each minute, they aren’t necessarily replacing more established channels. In fact, those established channels are increasing their usage over time. It’s easy to see that messaging apps are adding additional conversation-based interaction points that are making up an increasing piece of the customer journey equation.   

Maybe the idea of conversations taking apps’ lunch money comes from an interesting stat that also got my attention during Jeff Lawson’s keynote session: 53% of WhatsApp messages sent by Twilio customers get replies. 

Not opens – replies.

Those are two-way interactions. Those are conversations. And on top of that, a conversion rate to die for, that could put you on a path to a greater customer journey.

So, the customer journey is your brand. The journey is shaped by your ability to consistently provide and string together positive experiences that meet the constantly growing expectations of your customers as that journey progresses. And more of those experiences are being experienced in conversations: be it human-to-human, human-to-bot, human-to-device, device-to-device, and so on. 

Also, those conversations can be text-based or voice-based, but we know that as channels get added, not only does the overall number of interactions grow exponentially, but those conversations are also spread over more digital territory. And, we’re about to see an explosion of all kinds of data traveling through even more kinds of devices as we enter the 5G era.

The 5G era impact on customer conversations

According to Gartner, 5G-capable smartphone ownership will grow more than five times in the next few years, making up 10 percent of the market in 2020, to 56 percent in 2023. The installed base for 5G devices, most of which will be smartphones but will also include wearables, is expected to increase by 14 times between 2020 and 2023.  And, according to industry estimates, Apple plans to ship 80-100 million 5G iPhones next year.

Why is this important to journeys, experiences, conversations, and brands?  

5G speeds will be up to 100x faster than 4G, with almost no connection lag. 5G represents an exponential progression in what becomes possible on our phones and other devices, from streaming ultra-high video to real-time 3D gaming, to augmented/virtual/mixed reality presentation allowing you to see what your kitchen would look like if you knocked a wall down and painted the room blue… plus, capturing sentiment in real-time makes it possible to offer up the next best action based on every bit of all that data created in a split second.

Nothing changes human behaviors and expectations quite like better tools to communicate with. 

We’re entering a time, as unbelievable as it feels due to the current speed of change, where behavioral changes are about to occur more rapidly and dynamically because huge amounts of data in a variety of forms will be moving back and forth in the blink of an eye, right at the moment when we need it in order to make decisions. This presents a great opportunity for companies of all sizes, but especially for nimble small- to medium-sized businesses willing to go with the flow.

We talk faster than we type—why does it matter?

CRM/Engagement/Experience platforms infused with communications capabilities are setting the stage for companies to build out agile customer journeys that will start, grow and travel in ways that are far different than in years past.

Many customer journeys over the years started with one of those 4.5 million Google searches taking place each minute. Over the years that meant a lot of typing, and that typing was in a language foreign to most of us; algorithmic-ese.  We had to learn a whole new language just to be able to ask for the things we were interested in. And so, a whole new way of communicating was born—one that had nothing to do with how humans actually talk to each other. 

But, according to the extraordinary progress that’s been made by natural language processing and understanding technologies, by next year 50 percent of all searches will be made using our voices, speaking as we do to each other. Where text-based searches were shorter and focused on putting together the right couple of keywords, voice-based searches are longer and sound a lot more like human-ese.

In short, technology is not only moving search from text to voice, but it’s also moving it from algorithmic-based interactions to natural language interactions. The implications of this one change in interaction type will have a ripple effect throughout the relationship building/customer journey pathway.  

Will voice search totally replace text-based search?  Absolutely not.

In fact, you’ll probably still see that type of search increase, but probably at a slower rate than it’s grown in the past. I’m guessing voice search will lead to an increase in the total number of searches taking place because we can speak when we can’t (or shouldn’t) type –– we can talk without having to think (which is not always a good thing). We can talk way faster than we can type, and we can talk to a rapidly growing number of device types.  

All this adds up to a big change coming in how we do a number of fundamental activities that will have a significant impact on how we go about finding and catching good customers and creating enough ongoing value to stay connected to them over time.

More interactions will lead to more data, which will be used to better understand what services and experiences should be offered to customers as they go through their own life cycles. More data, greater mobile bandwidth, and more devices with greater data visualization capabilities will have a huge and ongoing impact on customer expectations for constantly better value creation –– especially if you want them to stay subscribed month after month.

Looking beyond customers, to employees

But it’s not just customers looking for better interactions, experiences, and value. 

Employees want all of that too, which is why they’re looking for these same technologies to improve their work experience. Being able to use natural language to talk to the apps they need to use will make it easier and more efficient to get their jobs done and be more effective in helping customers.

I recently spoke with an HR tech executive at a hotel who was rolling out a voice assistant to sit on mobile phones because 95 percent of the employees serve customers on the go. This technology allowed them to ask the assistant to do things for them while they were out and about doing various activities.

So instead of having to wait to get back to an office to do certain activities, when most likely they are off the clock, they now can do it in real-time when they’re more likely to do it. Or, when what they need to do will have the most positive impact on a customer. By providing this mobilized digital assistant, employees are using their voice to input requests, get quick responses, and improve their interactions with customers. On top of that, more data is being captured and fed to machine learning to provide even better information and services going forward. 

The years ahead see no letup in the speed of change in both how we interact (with each other and with our devices), and expectations for using new tech to improve our quality of life –– both personally and professionally. 

This ongoing quest to improve quality of life will provide businesses who are willing and able to capitalize on this need and create new products, services and even business models with the ability to stay connected and aligned with customers over an extended period of time. 

Now all of this isn’t going to happen overnight, or without missteps, as new technologies come with a set of issues that will keep people from adopting it, especially when it comes to issues of privacy and security.  But, it’s not like we’re new to adopting new game-changing technology. We’re not still using rotary phones, VHS, or going to Blockbuster and Borders. Technologies that simplify our lives usually get adopted at scale at some points, even with important concerns withstanding.  

Companies who can leverage these technologies to improve interactions with customers have a chance to succeed and create great (if not legendary) customer engagement. If they can provide consistently good experiences, they have a chance to offer journeys that extend their value proposition for years instead of months. And, they will build a brand that customers and employees will both gravitate towards.  

All of that takes a commitment to building that brand on a foundation of communicating with customers,  one conversation at a time.

Read earlier installments of our series on how customer engagement is evolving, from Paul Greenberg, Esteban Kolsky, and more.

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Brent Leary

Brent Leary

Brent Leary is co-founder and partner of CRM Essentials LLC, a CRM consulting/advisory firm focused on small and mid-size enterprises. He has more than 15 years of IT and management consulting experience, working on projects for Microsoft, Research In Motion, BellSouth, Compaq and the state of Georgia’s Department of Economic Development.