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It seems like publications and business owners everywhere are talking about the rise of chatbots. Businesses are supposed to deploy chatbots, consumer gadgets are implementing intelligent systems, and some even say our jobs will be displaced by bots in the future. Whether driven by humans or bots, many of our interactions with contact centers today and in the future will shift from phone calls to online rich-text chat sessions. The real question is, where will these conversations take place?
An omnichannel approach is based on the notion that customers want to interact with businesses on multiple different platforms. Some might prefer phone calls, others could be more inclined to chat online, and some might even use email. A more encompassing notion tries to look at a single interaction as taking place in multiple channels at once. In this scenario, a potential customer could find what they are looking for on a business’ website, initiate an interaction over a chat widget, and close the purchase through a phone call.
The omnichannel world
Moving to omnichannel means more than just more (or all) channels. It means striking a conversation with a customer on their preferred channel. Here are a few of the text-based channels currently available.
SMS and A2P
The most obvious of text channels is SMS. In the business context, it is also known as A2P SMS, or “application to person SMS,” where a contact center sends an SMS message to a customer notifying them of a sale or the status of their recent call.
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While SMS is a ubiquitous channel, it might not be the preferred choice. SMS can be expensive and limited. You can only use 160 characters per message and nothing but text. While it provides a feeling of continuity in an ongoing conversation, there’s less ability for branding. There are other noteworthy messaging mediums today that are useful and needed.
Chat widgets and mobile applications
We’ve seen websites adding chat widgets in the past decade or so. These enable site visitors to strike up a conversation with the website owners. In many cases, companies use chat widgets for support and sales purposes. Companies have improved chat widgets over time, enabling more intelligent interactions through machine learning, images, and rich links, as well as the integration of voice and video calling through WebRTC or callback systems.
There’s a trend taking over chat widgets that also involves marketing automation, segmenting website visitors, and launching a conversation proactively through the use of automation rules. These shifts edge the channel from support and sales toward marketing and sales.
Some companies have taken this a step further by enabling direct chat interactions with their businesses through self-service applications. The communication process is similar to a chatbot on a website. In the case of a website, companies can also add voice and video calling options on top of rich text messages.
What do Facebook Messenger, Line, WeChat, Skype, Telegram, Viber, Kik, Cisco Spark, and Slack have in common? They are all messaging platforms that now offer APIs for the creation of chatbots. And these APIs are designed and built to enable businesses to reach out to their customers on their messaging platform or social network of choice.
There’s a win-win-win situation here:
- Messaging platform vendors want these interactions to happen through their platform. Consumers already use messaging platforms for a large portion of their communications, so relying on them for communication with a business feels more natural.
- Businesses want to be where their customers are, and these messaging platforms make that more possible than ever.
- These types of interactions are bound to take place more on social networks and messaging applications. Such platforms already have over 3 billion users.
And then there’s Apple and Google.
While Google’s current offerings in this domain are slim, Apple offers a more compelling story. At WWDC 2017, Apple shared a developer preview of a new service called Apple Business Chat. This service enables easy discoverability of businesses that register with the service. It also offers the means for customers to communicate with these businesses directly via iMessage.
This approach makes messaging and interacting with businesses an integral part of the user experience of any iOS device.
How do we get there?
There are so many channels these days, and growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down. We have to interact with customers where they are: on the phone, on our branded websites, in our own apps, on social networks, and over every conceivable medium.
Each of these channels has its own integration interface and its own APIs which companies need to use. Some of these channels are simple, and some are more complicated to connect and implement.
When businesses undertake the process of going omnichannel, there are three main approaches they can take.
A business, especially a developer-savvy one, can cobble together its own omnichannel solution.
There’s a challenge in maintaining the pace with supporting these channels. With each new channel, there are two additional activities that companies must take on. These include:
- Integrating with the specific API of that channel. This may also need to go through product management or legal to get access to the API and follow its restrictions.
- Maintaining that code. This is especially important when a service deprecates or updates its APIs.
Self-development is a great option if your team can maintain the resources necessary for updating the current codebase, as well as adding more channels when needed.
Another alternative in creating an omnichannel communication platform is to use communication platform as a service, also known as CPaaS.
Up until recently, these platforms were mostly focused on SMS, voice, and video calling. Some offered IP messaging as well. One of the top trends in CPaaS is support for omnichannel. Nexmo, for example, offers a chat app service.
Twilio recently introduced a new concept called the Engagement Cloud. This solution takes the contact center building blocks to the next level by offering an omnichannel experience to their higher level APIs — what they call Declarative APIs. While classic CPaaS APIs focus on instructing the platform to take a very specific action, a declarative API defines the desired outcome and lets the CPaaS platform choose the optimal way to achieve that outcome. In this case, you don’t choose to send an SMS to a person, you notify them on the channel that best fits the situation at hand.
Then there are services such as Gupshup, which offers “omnichannel APIs for SMS, Voice, and IP Messaging” as well as a bot builder.
As more social networks and messaging platforms start opening up their APIs, the complexity of self-development will grow, which in turn will encourage more CPaaS vendors to offer these omnichannel APIs that companies can use for faster integration.
Using a readymade service
The most common alternative will likely be a readymade service. This is contact center software you can just onboard and use. The challenge here is that most contact center software doesn’t connect to messaging platforms directly. Such a service will probably first appear as an integration API and only later become a part of the platform’s offering.
Where do we go from here?
Messaging and chatbots are part of the modern contact center. They handle everything from fielding and deflecting customer issues to initiating conversations proactively with prospects at the right point in time.
When adding a messaging medium to your contact center, think about offering it in a multichannel environment — one that allows for the number of channels to continue to grow.
Tsahi Levent-Levi is an independent analyst and consultant for WebRTC. He sometimes writes on behalf of Twilio. He is the author and editor of bloggeek.me, which focuses on the ecosystem and business opportunities around WebRTC.
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