As consumers have come to expect instant connectivity at the click of a button, it’s no surprise that more than 6 billion SMS messages are sent each day in the U.S. alone.

And while text messages have traditionally served as a means of communication between individuals, businesses have also begun incorporating various types of messaging capabilities into their sales strategies in order to meet consumers’ changing preferences for interaction.

Marketers recognize that today’s consumer path to purchase, particularly for high-consideration products and services, isn’t linear, winding through digital, traditional, and mobile touchpoints. And messaging, whether via chatbot or a text message, can be leveraged as a way to bridge that gap and close new business.

But with this new mode of communication comes new complexities and questions: What is the ideal role of messaging in a sales conversation? When does it improve the chances of sales, and in what instances can it actually help answer customers’ questions?

What actually happens when consumers text companies?

Our data shows that offering consumers the option to text (when they already have the option of email or phone) generally increases consumer engagement, but can also cause confusion, as consumers may not have much prior experience with messaging businesses. So let’s start with a few situations where messaging is helpful to the purchase process.

At its best, messaging helps consumers answer basic questions while giving a business insight into a consumer’s intent. Take online promotions, for example. A cable company might run a campaign that offers local students discounted television and internet services. If a student comes across a mobile advertisement promoting the discount, they may wonder, Does this apply to me? Rather than take the time to call the cable company and speak with an agent, some students would prefer to text the company as a first step, to confirm their eligibility before taking the next steps. For binary questions like this, automated messaging or chatbots are especially promising.

At this point, a salesperson can guide the consumer down the best path to purchase. It also entices consumers to take the next step, which is often a phone call, as the conversation becomes too cumbersome or complex for messaging.  In our trials, more than 20 percent of texts to businesses lead to phone calls or in-person conversations. What’s more, these phone calls are shorter, as most of the initial questions have already been answered, and convert at more than double the rate of a typical call. In these instances, messaging helps to move these qualified customers down the sales funnel, boosting revenue for businesses.

Where messaging falls short

Still, there are some situations in which messaging can do more harm than good. Our analysis shows that messaging is not suitable for complex purchases or inquiries, which constitute half of all communications between consumers and businesses.

Take our student looking for cable packages. While the student was able to determine if they were eligible for the cable promotion using messaging, they may ask one of 100 different types of questions before making a decision about what package they actually should purchase. This is where messaging falls short. Any one of these questions has an exponential number of potential follow-up questions, which an automated response cannot easily satisfy.

If businesses attempt to remedy complex questions with messaging, they run the risk of annoying customers and losing potential sales as a result when their messages are misunderstood. The same desire for instant gratification that has given way to the rise in messaging also results in frustration when their needs aren’t easily met.

For instance, it’s common for consumers texting businesses to say “Are you there?” because of long wait times or bad cell phone service, and because they aren’t sure if the conversation is live. It’s also common for someone to text “I don’t understand.” It’s at that moment human intervention is required to rescue the potential purchase.

So where do companies net out with messaging?

It’s clear that consumers today demand easy access to information, and businesses that ignore that desire will be passed up for their competitors that do offer services like messaging. There is promise for messaging and automation early in the sales process, to help establish initial intent and encourage conversions. But a company’s best bet will be to balance automated, text-based, and voice-based interactions appropriately to maximize sales from the mobile consumer.

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