Amid news of an iOS 11 update and the unveiling of the HomePod smart speaker at Apple’s WWDC conference, you might have missed the new Business Chat, which will connect businesses with customers on iMessage. More details on how Business Chat actually works will be announced Friday (watch this space).
“Using Business Chat, your customers can get answers to questions, resolve issues and complete transactions on their iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch,” reads the WWDC session description and this newly made page on the Apple Developers website. “Customers can find your business and start conversations from Safari, Maps, Spotlight, and Siri.”
The introduction of Business Chat sends an unmistakable message that customer service is a major front in the chat wars between tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon.
In recent months, these companies have rolled out some pretty powerful new features to place chat with brands and businesses not just on chat apps like Messenger but also in your Twitter or Facebook feed, Bing search results, websites, and elsewhere.
Here’s a quick primer on the stiff competition Apple faces in this space.
Bing and Skype
Last month at Build, Microsoft made it possible to embed Skype chat into any business website and brought bots to Bing web searches. That means every time you search for a business in your area using Bing you will be given the option to talk with a bot — so instead of searching a business website for information, you can just ask the bot your question in a casual, conversational way. This bot in web search feature is currently limited to businesses in the Seattle area, but the company plans to expand FAQ bots into web searches across the U.S. and abroad.
Business owners will be able to publish their own bots in Bing web searches, but to assist them, the Bing Business Bot service helps clients (starting with restaurants) create bots for chatting with customers. In the future, Microsoft may consider automatic generation of bots for popular web searches, a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat.
Another recent development: The largest update to the Skype app in years is being rolled out now to Android users. It brings Bing search and local business and restaurant listings into the Skype app for the first time.
Skype video bots that can participate in video calls or could even act as a virtual secretary also made their debut last month. The first Skype video bots are scheduled to enter the Skype Bot Store this summer, Skype VP Amritansh Raghav told VentureBeat at the Microsoft offices in San Francisco.
Combine all these new features and the plan becomes clear: Any conversation that begins on Bing or a website will now sync with the Skype app and can be continued there.
The brand everyone is anticipating to enter this space is WhatsApp. With 1.2 billion monthly active users behind it, WhatsApp vowed to allow businesses to use the platform to communicate with customers last year, a promise that has yet to come to fruition.
Testing of business chat services began in March with companies involved in the latest batch of the Y Combinator startup incubator.
Facebook Messenger has been perhaps the loudest voice in the customer service chat arena. Working alongside industry incumbents like 7 and LivePerson, customer service has been a part of Facebook’s pitch to businesses since the launch of the Messenger Platform last spring.
With the launch of Messenger Platform 2.0 in April came Discover Tab, one of the biggest changes yet in terms of connecting businesses with customers. Discover Tab showcases popular and featured bots alongside businesses. First there are the corporate giants, like Verizon, Office Depot, FedEx, and oil behemoth Halliburton. Categories like “health and fitness” and “shopping” can surface popular bots, as well as your local gym or shops.
Parametric codes — Messenger’s version of QR codes — can also be used to direct customers to a particular chat experience or web link. To adjust to this change, the Messenger camera now scans QR codes (Siri will also be able to scan codes soon).
Bot advertisements in News Feeds, which bring a person directly into a conversation with a bot, first began last fall. Like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger currently hosts 1.2 billion monthly active users.
Twitter debuted its first products that automate chat with customers — Welcome messages and Quick Replies — last fall, but perhaps the most interesting development came last month. Direct Message Card is a new ad unit that puts bots into a user’s Twitter feeds. Direct Message Cards can begin a conversation with the tap of a button in the card.
Cards for sliding into a customer’s DMs are only available to a limited number of businesses at this time.