Article

Home-bound customers turn to messaging channels

What does the growing popularity of channels like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger say about changing customer expectations?

By Maggie Mazzetti, Content Marketing Manager

Published July 21, 2020
Last updated October 14, 2020

Like the perfect storm, 2020 blew in and turned business on its head. And today, business operations, offices, and even customers look quite different.

According to a recent McKinsey survey, over 75 percent of customers in the U.S. have tried something new when it comes to how they shop, the services they use, or how they communicate with companies. Many of these changes are likely to stick around long after the pandemic is over.

On the customer service side of things, customers are flocking to messaging channels faster than any other at a time when support staff are inundated with requests. Are customers being driven to new channels because of sky high wait times? Maybe, but messaging channels like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger aren’t always the fastest ways to get a problem solved. And even as ticket volumes have dipped in recent weeks, usage of these channels remains high.

So, what does this tell us about what customers want in 2020?

To better understand this surge in messaging use and what it means for companies and customers, we turned to the Benchmark Snapshot, which tracks the support operations of nearly 23,000 companies worldwide following the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

Behold the power of messaging apps

Messaging apps are hugely popular, and for good reason. It’s an easy way to check in or casually chat without having to speak on the phone. Even before the pandemic, an estimated 2.7 billion people were expected to use messaging apps by the end of the year.

And now, with many people stuck at home, the amount of time spent on phones (and on messaging apps, in particular), is quickly rising:

Though it’s a powerful form of communication between friends and family members, messaging still represents a relatively small percentage of how businesses and customers interact. But that’s quickly changing.

Since February, tickets coming in over channels like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, direct messages over Twitter, and SMS rose nearly 50 percent, compared to more modest gains for live chat (up 16 percent), email (8 percent), and phone support (no gain). WhatsApp alone saw usage jump more than 150 percent during the same time period.

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Popularity varies from region to region or even person to person, but some platforms are dominating the conversation. WhatsApp is the leading chat app in at least 112 countries, according to our State of Messaging 2020 report, with a few notable outliers. In the U.S., for example, SMS or the Apple-based iMessage reign supreme, but social messaging apps are finding their foothold.

Note: this map does not include SMS or iMessage, Apple’s default texting solution, which is used by 45 percent of active smartphone users in the U.S. Source: SimilarWeb.

Across all channels, it’s customers in the U.S. and Canada that are accelerating their use of messaging at the fastest rate (likely because they have some catching up to do!), but each region has seen its own trends:

  • North America

    Customer tickets over Facebook Messenger and Twitter jumped 124 percent, while those over text rose 32 percent.

  • Latin America

    Customer usage of WhatsApp surged by 164 percent, while tickets coming in over text and Facebook Messenger/Twitter fell 38 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

  • Europe

    Customers filed 138 percent more tickets over text, while Facebook and Twitter usage jumped 25 percent.

  • Asia-Pacific

    Facebook, Twitter, and other regional favorites like Line and WeChat are the most popular messaging channels for customers, while WhatsApp usage jumped 14 percent.

Just keep it simple

With customers increasingly willing to communicate with support agents in the same way they do with friends and family, it seems like an interest in convenience and ease of use may have a slight edge over speed.

The data shows that agents take longer to resolve customer issues over messaging channels, often because many teams still haven’t quite figured out how best to staff and operate them like they have for other channels. This is especially noticeable when compared to live support over phone and chat:

  • It takes more than 11 hours, on average, to close messaging tickets, compared to about 30 minutes for phone or live chat.
  • Email or webform tickets take slightly longer at 11.5 hours.

Since messaging is so new, many companies are still trying to understand how these channels fit within their larger support strategies. The new messaging add-on in Zendesk Support makes this easier, but even despite these hiccups, channels like WhatsApp and SMS are gaining traction with customers.

Why? Perhaps because customers can work with agents at their own pace without having to drop everything for a real time conversation over the phone. Customers can get their problems solved while they’re walking the dog, making breakfast for their kids, or taking out the trash. And the record of the conversation is always there, unlike live chat, where it disappears each time they disconnect.

Agents take longer to resolve customer issues over messaging channels, often because many teams still haven’t quite figured out how best to staff and operate them like they have for other channels.

While messaging channels lag behind when it comes to speed, companies have actually gotten faster at responding to and resolving tickets, even as ticket volumes remain high. Teams, on average, are replying to tickets about an hour faster than they were before the pandemic, and are about 30 minutes faster to find solutions.

Welcome to the big leagues

Messaging’s growing popularity has certainly captured the attention of larger firms. Ticket traffic for these bigger companies jumped 80 percent over messaging channels, compared to a 10 percent growth rate for smaller businesses. And in recent months, companies like Samsung and Cathay Pacific announced the rollout of WhatsApp support in India, with others likely to follow.

Ecommerce teams have also seen widespread adoption of messaging support over just about every channel. Rates jumped a collective 486 percent — the highest of any sector — with a nearly 550 percent surge for direct messages over Facebook and Twitter alone. Though spiking tickets caused resolution times to more than double between March and April, customer satisfaction scores actually went up. This implies that customers are looking for more than speed when they turn to messaging apps.

Here are a few other channel-specific highlights:

  • WhatsApp

    Customers are ditching text messaging in favor of WhatsApp when they connect with food delivery companies. The sector saw 110 percent growth, on average, in WhatsApp traffic compared to a 63 percent drop in SMS use. Other sectors seeing WhatsApp growth include online health (up 583 percent), gaming (299 percent), and retail (182 percent).

  • Facebook Messenger and Twitter Direct Message

    When communicating with grocery companies, customers are increasingly using direct messaging over Facebook and Twitter, which saw usage jump 126 percent. The travel and hospitality industry also saw a 34 percent boost, while their WhatsApp usage fell 26 percent. Other sectors seeing growth over these channels include airlines (up 65 percent) and entertainment (57 percent).

  • SMS

    Fitness companies saw a 300 percent jump in tickets over text message, while entertainment (194 percent), remote work and learning platforms (170 percent), and the airline industry (33 percent) also saw gains.

What's next?

Messaging may be growing faster than any other channel, but it’s still only a small part of how customers communicate with businesses. As personal connections become more important, (particularly as face-to-face customer service becomes increasingly scarce!), messaging will likely play a vital role for many support teams going forward.

Larger firms have already begun to push the boundaries of what’s possible with messaging support. Dutch airline KLM actually offers 24/7 service and flight information on Facebook Messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp, and We Chat, while Indian satellite provider Tata Sky allows customers to use WhatsApp to add new channel packages and check their account balances.

Both Google and Apple have launched chat features that allow users to message directly with verified businesses through Android and iOS phones. And though it’s faced some regulatory hurdles, WhatsApp Pay gives us a glimpse of the future — business transactions conducted entirely through the platform.

 

As personal connections become more important, messaging will play a vital role for many support teams going forward.

 

Customers have shown that they’re willing to try new things, especially as the nature of their relationship with businesses undergoes rapid change. As customer experiences shift almost entirely online, messaging helps businesses up their support game by automating responses and boosting data security. But most importantly, it helps to create more personalized experiences by connecting with customers where they’re most comfortable.