8 New Tenets of Conversational Messaging

Businesses today are looking into messaging to communicate with their customers. They know it's the number one thing people do on their phones and more affordable and scalable than traditional call centers. Yet, conversational messaging is still nascent. Businesses are trying to figure out how to tackle it and train their service agents. For the past seven years, I've been working on conversational messaging and helped companies like Wendy's, Activision, and Republic Services roll out messaging to their customers.

Here are eight best practices I learned along the way:

1. Embrace the Asynchronous.

One of the best things about messaging is that it's asynchronous. The conversation is always ongoing. For a company, that's fantastic. You're having an ongoing,one-on-one conversation with your customers. And for customers, it's beyond convenient. But, it's a big shift for agents who have been trained to keep service calls brief. In conversational messaging, once an issue is resolved, agents should keep the language friendly, upbeat, and keep the conversation open-ended. They should steer clear of words like "closed case" or "terminated" and use phrases like "let me know if there's anything else you need." Because messaging feels so personal, customers have different expectations. Even if a conversation isn't picked up for a month, the customer thinks he's talking to the same agent (or bot), an expectation he'd never have with a traditional call center.

2. The Customer Is in the Driver's Seat.

Agents should let conversations follow their natural course and not feel constrained by session handle time or traditional scripts. In some instances, an issue could get resolved in a couple minutes. In other cases, the customer might not respond for a couple hours. No matter how much time has passed, agents shouldn't ask if the customer is still there. Customers text when they have time and expect the company to be there. If an agent's shift is ending, message the customer to let her know while emphasizing that another agent is ready to help.

3. Make Your Hours Known.

Just like brick-and-mortar stores list their hours on their storefronts, you should do the same with messaging support. If messaging is only staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., let that be known. When a customer messages in after-hours, she should get an automatic message saying the company will get back to her during business hours. And, ideally always provide a 24/7 phone number for urgent issues.

4. Avoid the B Word - Busy.

The most dreaded phrase in customer service is "All agents are busy right now. We'll be with you shortly." We've all heard it. And yet, it's an inevitability unless your customer service team is wildly overstaffed, which is another conversation altogether! Instead, let customers know when agents will be with them. Better yet, infuse some of your company's personality into the message. A travel agency could say something like "An agent will be with you in 10 minutes to plan the trip of a lifetime!" A shoe company could say "We'll help you pick out your new kicks in 5 minutes."

5. What's in a Name? A Lot.

Customers have names, and it goes a long way if companies can personalize messaging conversations with them. Agents should personalize conversations when possible, in a way that's respectful of customer privacy. If there is recent purchase information on file, ask how they liked it? But be careful.

6.Only Ask for the Information You Need.

No one wants to give up more of their data than required. Agents should only ask for personal data if needed to complete the issue at hand.

7. Messaging is an Extension of your Brand.

Messaging creates a huge opportunity for a personalized customer experience. Companies should message in a style that reflects their brands and clientele. A wealth management company targeting high-net-worth individuals should strike a different tone than an alcoholic beverage delivery service. Moreover, empower agents with freedom of expression, emojis, and accountability to strike the right tone with customers.

8. Bot or Agent? Identify Yourself.

Messaging can be done with or without bots. We're in the early days of bots, and they work best when they gather low-level information (i.e. customer name, address) and then pass the customer to an agent, all within the same messaging chat. To work well, the company must be transparent about who is talking to the customer. If it's a bot, say so. And if the conversation is transferred to a human agent, the customer should be told.

Messaging has tremendous potential for companies to communicate with customers in a scalable, personalized way. We're at the cusp of conversational messaging becoming widespread, and I can't wait to see companies begin to deploy it more broadly.

Jared Long is a product manager at Salesforce.com responsible for LiveMessage, a Service Cloud product. He focuses on bringing messaging capabilities to companies by introducing "conversations as a platform" across Salesforce and currently manages the LiveMessage platform. Before that, Jared managed mobile messaging at HeyWire, which was acquired by Salesforce in September 2016. Jared studied marketing at Boston College and received his MBA at Boston University in marketing and entrepreneurship.