How Conversational Commerce Will Change Customer Service Forever

‘Conversational Commerce’ might well become one of 2016's key business trend. Chris Messina, the guy who brought us the hashtag, wrote an influential post about it a few months ago.

Since then, its Google Search has gone up tremendously – as well as the number of startups that fit this category.

screenshot of google keyword search for conversational commerce

One startup sailing under the flag of conversational commerce is a tool that automatically schedules your meeting agenda based on your conversations. Another allows you to create an imaginary girlfriend/boyfriend that responds to all your text messages.

The pace at which the trend is catching on has made the likes of business owners, marketers, and service managers wonder: ‘What is conversational commerce and how can I make use of it?’

Conversational Commerce Defined

Chris Messina describing Conversational Commerce:

“… conversational commerce (as I see it) largely pertains to utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context.”

So, the crucial elements of conversational commerce are that its communication…

  1. Is based on asynchronous messaging
  2. Happens between humans as well as between humans and bots
  3. Explores communication areas that weren’t used before

We just gave some examples of human – bot applications. But especially interesting is how asynchronous messaging will be used for business-consumer communication.

So far, asynchronous messaging has taken place almost exclusively in the private spheres – to chat with friends and family via WhatsApp and Facebook.

At the end of 2015, though, Facebook announced its Messenger for Business. This will allow companies to offer service via its messenger, opening the way for B2C messaging. And a bit later, when WhatsApp announced it would stop charging its annual $1 fee, it said it would soon explore applications for B2C communication.

In the meantime, Facebook is rumored to be working on a “Messenger Bot Store”, and Microsoft is working on the "Microsoft Bot Framework" — a toolset with which anyone can create bots that customers can chat with.

These developments are the real driving force behind conversational commerce. As Chris Messina stated: “…you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal.”

Where Conversational Commerce Fits In

Conversational Commerce is the maturing of a trend. A trend that has been gaining momentum ever since the surfacing of the web 2.0, but which is now moving into a mature stage because of a coinciding of the right technologies, mindsets, and platforms.

The trend I’m talking about is the move from marketing to customer service.

Let’s shortly rewind the clock to 1999. I’m on my bike to school, rolling on my Walkman’s tunes of Limp Bizkit’s Nookie. Fate strikes me with a rain burst – and my Walkman with a water malfunction. Obviously, I need a new one.

In those days I would have probably gone to the store to be sold the Walkman providing the sales clerk with the highest margin. Now contrast that to a similar contemporary scenario.

Imagine you dropped your smartphone into the toilet. Not an implausible scenario. Obviously, you need a new one. But instead of going to the shop, you visit a website that compares the top brands on the market.

You read up on their specifics, as well as user experiences and reviews. And if you’re the conscious type, you’ll read up on the production process. Any scandals with labor conditions, environmental damages, etc.? After careful consideration, you go for the option that provides you with the best value.

That’s basically what the internet’s given us: unprecedented transparency. It fundamentally changed the rules of the game.

Where before marketing consisted out of shouting – through billboards, television, and radio advertisements – now the most effective marketing consists out talking and helping.

To rank high in Google, you basically have to answer the questions of your target group better than your competitors do. Thus marketing has moved to customer – or more specifically – pre-customer service. 'Always Be Closing’ turned into ‘Always Be Helping'.

Social media added yet another dimension to customer service. Not only did Facebook show your personal relationship status, it was equally blunt about the relationships between companies and their customers. Service quality suddenly brought companies either good or bad publicity.

And as customer service changed from a cost center into a profit center, it could finally sit at the table with the cool kids. It was this renewed image – from boring call centers to hip social media – that spurred huge investments in service technologies. A wave which tools like Userlike have been riding graciously.

screenshot of google trends search for customer service
The customer service wave

As the nature of the internet changed, companies were forced to shift their focus from selling to helping; from transaction to relation; from monologue to dialogue.

And it’s this last part – going from monologue to dialogue – in which we’re now entering a new era with conversational commerce.

Social media platforms are no longer at the top of the digital food chain. Instead, messenger apps have overtaken them in monthly users.

graph from Business Insider displaying the number of users of messaging apps overtaking the number of users of social media platforms

At this point you might ask: ‘so with conversational commerce we’ll be able to talk with our customers via their messenger accounts. What’s the big deal?’

Well, it is kind of a big deal – due to the nature of asynchronous messaging.

The Nature of Messaging

In his Medium post, Ben Eidelson made a good description of the unique nature of messaging and what has made it so popular.

Asynchronous by default, synchronous when appropriate. Messaging is like a mix between email and chat. Email is always asynchronous, with the recipient reading the emails minutes/hours/days after it was sent. Chat is synchronous, with the recipient reading the message immediately after it was sent.

Messaging, on the other hand, is asynchronous by default, synchronous when appropriate. Conversations don’t have to be instant, but they can culminate into an instant, chat-like conversation when both sides are online at the same time.

Conversation list. The messaging conversation list naturally prioritizes the most recent interaction activity, whether it was inbound or outbound. That’s different from for example an email inbox, which only prioritizes new incoming messages.

Long lived conversations. Emails and chats generally start off with a clean slate (If you’re always building upon existing email threads, you’re breaking etiquette).

Messaging conversations, however, always continue where they left off.The channel stays open for new messages to be exchanged. In that way messaging resembles real relationships. In my email inbox I have over twenty on-topic email threads with my colleague Timoor. In my Facebook and Slack Messaging apps, however, I have just one open, ongoing channel. Which is, of course, where most exchanges take place.

Together, these make messaging a much closer representation of your relations with people than any other channel.

How Conversational Commerce Will Change Your Service

1. From transaction to relation

Relationship marketing has been around for a while, but with conversational commerce things become a lot more tangible.

Imagine this scenario: a potential customer enters your website. She looks around, has a question about a product, and starts a chat. But instead of just receiving an answer and making a transaction or not, this chat marks the start of a long-lasting relationship.

By connecting the chat to her Facebook/WhatsApp/WeChat account, the customer can receive the answer and follow up via these channels. Whenever something comes to mind, she can message the company about it.

2. Reduced service pressure

One of things that make messaging especially interesting for customer support is its ‘asynchronous by default, synchronous when appropriate’.

Until Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp actually open up, Userlike is a live chat software for websites. The main problem with live chat, however, is a logistical one: because it’s synchronous, someone needs to be online to answer the chats.

When we move to messaging, your customers can still leave messages – with the knowledge that they’ll receive an answer conveniently on their messenger accounts as soon as a service operator sees it.

This should make it easier for smaller service teams to offer outstanding customer service.

3. Transactions on and off the website

Tools like Commersational will allow you to sell products through your messaging conversations. So while your website will remain important to showcase your products, it won’t necessarily be the place of transactions.

4. Social media service in the decline

Social media service has been hot for a while, doubling in number between 2011 and 2013. Between 2013 and 2016, however, it actually decreased from 36% to 29%.

On the one hand this will have to do with the rise of messaging platforms, but on the other it also turns out that social media isn’t such a great place to receive service.

Social media will stay a useful platform for customers to rage against companies in public, making it important to keep an eye on. But the actual service, in which customers are relieved of their problems, will move to messaging.