In an increasingly global and competitive world, where substitute products and services are widely available, meaningful and impactful conversations with customers are essential for businesses to stand out from the crowd. To address this, companies have been investing in new engagement channels and looking at how they can better integrate existing channels to provide truly ‘unified’ customer-centric experiences.
This call for ‘unified commerce’ has been fuelled by customer behaviour and influences from industries where the growth and adoption of digital engagement channels continues to shape customer expectations, with customers demanding timely, seamless, and personalised experiences. Customer conversations are becoming increasingly digital, collaborative, multi-experience interactions.
With customer expectations evolving and businesses looking to respond, technological innovation continues at breakneck speed as firms turn to technology to help enable differentiating customer conversations and experiences. With this speed of change, it is important to understand how customer conversations are evolving, and how businesses can leverage them to deliver profitable future growth.
Traditionally, businesses have communicated with their customers through a multi-channel model delivered through channel-centric teams which in many cases led to inconsistent and disjointed conversations with customers. Up until the past 5-10 years, the primary channels for customer conversations were in store, via a call centre and through their website.
Today, over 3 billion people regularly use smartphones, with ever increasing amounts of data available quickly and cheaply, providing users with access to manage almost every aspect of their lives through their mobile device.
The Apple App Store and the Google Play Store have provided the foundation for an explosion of companies developing apps suited to mobile devices, from banking to travel, entertainment, and many more. Experts anticipate that over 72% of all retail e-commerce will be performed through the mobile channel in 2021.
Some of the major players in the app space have been using social media and messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and more recently, TikTok. In 2019, Facebook reported that 20 billion messages every month were exchanged between customers and brands through their messaging platform alone. For businesses, this has represented a new way of opening a dialogue with customers. More and more companies are offering live-chat services to customers both during the sales process and as part of their customer service channels, expanding the breadth of two-way customer touch points along the customer journey, contributing to a shift toward ‘Conversational Commerce’.
Keeping up with these rapidly evolving customer expectations is a real challenge for businesses, however, the financial benefit of investing in a ‘unified commerce’ strategy is significant. Studies by the Harvard Business Review estimate that ‘omni-channel’ customers spend on average 4% more than single-channel customers when purchasing a product in-store, and 10% more online.
To help address these challenges, many companies are investing in advanced CRM platforms - such as Salesforce - to enable their sales, marketing and customer services team to share a unified 360 degree view of their customers and build a unified understanding of all customer interactions.
Despite significant efforts to deliver a ‘unified’ experience for customers, many businesses continue to struggle to hide their internal siloed channel management from customers. Gartner anticipates that by 2022, 50 percent of large organisations will have failed to unify engagement channels, resulting in the continuation of a disjointed and siloed customer experience that lacks context.
Just as customers interact with friends and family as and when they want and across a combination of channels (phone calls, video calls, emails, social media posts, and messaging), so too do they expect this ‘on demand’ experience when interacting with businesses.
With many organisations present on multiple channels, customers can now choose whichever channel they feel is most convenient for them to address their needs successfully.
A customer may begin a conversation on one channel and conclude on a different channel, for example, using their mobile device whilst on the move, but switching to email once at a desk. Businesses must be ready to facilitate these conversations across all channels in a way that gives the customer a convenient, seamless, and ‘channel-less’ experience.
Figure 1. BearingPoint’s vision of the evolution of Retail, July 2020
It's not just the direct conversations that businesses must be ready for as customers are increasingly relying on peer feedback. Today, 42% of online customers find recommendations from friends and family influential. Product peer reviews are a powerful way for brands to initiate conversations with their customers both to attract prospects or to retain dissatisfied customers, and organisations should be increasingly aware of the influence these feedback channels have, and harness this accordingly in their unified commerce approach.
With the demand for increasingly ‘unified commerce’, organisations who need to invest in their customer experience will have to take into consideration a multitude of factors, from new technology through to changing customer needs…
Technology plays an indisputable role in facilitating ‘unified commerce’. BearingPoint conducted an analysis of over fifteen conversational commerce vendors in July 2020. These vendors have been mapped according to which step of the customer journey they provide the most value to, and whether this is primarily reliant on humans or bots.
Figure 2. BearingPoint's conversational commerce vendors analysis, July 2020
Five trends have been identified through this analysis:
Improvements in AI technology are transforming the experience of engaging with virtual customer assistants (or chat bots), making interactions more natural and helping customers to find answers to their questions more effectively.
New technologies leverage smart algorithms to route customer requests to the correct human or virtual customer assistant, taking previous interactions, orders, reviews, and sentiment into consideration to better understand content and personalise the conversation. The key to a successful integration of bots in customer conversations is to ensure a fluid bot-to-human transition, providing a seamless end-to-end experience. The start-up Quiq offers its clients the ability to alternate seamlessly between bot and human several times during one single experience, depending on the complexity and nature of the interaction. Providing this ideal combination of automation and human expertise/emotional intelligence allows businesses to be more widely available, anytime, anywhere.
Self-service and intelligent automation will be imperative in creating much needed capacity to service customers throughout their ‘unified customer’ experience.
With the emergence of COVID-19 through the early part of 2020, we are seeing an exponential increase in adoption of digital tools that support communication and collaboration. We have seen two important trends emerging for the future of customer conversations. Firstly, people are becoming increasingly comfortable using video, where historically, particularly in the home environment, voice has been favoured. Secondly, people are developing more familiarity with digital collaboration tools where rich content can be shared and interacted with. We expect to see these trends persist beyond Covid-19 and represent a significant opportunity for companies to interact more personally with their customers and leverage those technologies to bridge the gap between online and in-store.
Messaging and video technologies offer a unique opportunity to connect with online customers and to provide support and recommendations to increase conversion. Companies such as GoInStore and Hero are providing solutions that facilitate conversations between customers/prospects and in-store sales representatives (for example, one-to-one video or chat). They offer an enriched online experience while facilitating purchase completion across channels (web, mobile or store). GoInStore report driving up to 25 percent conversion rate through these new hybrid conversation channels.
Through social messaging platforms, direct messaging, or web ads, tomorrow’s marketers will transition from one-way outbound communications toward two-way conversations. By leveraging technologies such as Apple Business Chat (reaching over 1.4 billion monthly active Apple product users), companies like Jumper Ai are enabling businesses to seamlessly engage in an end-to-end conversation with their customers on their platform of choice. This discussion is further facilitated by the development of CPaaS (Communication Platforms as a Service) vendors, offering the latest AI and speech recognition technologies to bring outdated IVR technology into the modern day. Smart IVR can recognise meaning and intent of speech and, when combined with contextual information pertaining to previous customer conversations and customer data, can make voice self-service more effective. Once the conversation has been initiated, companies such as iAdvize offer their clients the opportunity to leverage crowd-sourced communities of experts to provide engaging personalised conversations with their customers through messaging platforms.
The integration of social channels such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Apple Chat and Twitter will become the norm for businesses responding to customers who expect to interact in the same way as they do with friends and family.
Businesses will need to focus on integrating all customer touchpoints to be able to offer a unified and coherent experience.
[24.7]ai offers its clients a platform allowing customers to have a continuous discussion between SMS and webchats. A customer can now start engaging with a brand following a personalised marketing SMS on his mobile and seamlessly continue the discussion in a webchat while on his computer at home.
In order to keep up with the rapid pace of evolution of technology and consumer behaviours, more and more companies are choosing to leverage industry vertical offers developed by numerous conversational commerce vendors.
Financial Services is a perfect example of a highly regulated yet rapidly evolving industry where adoption of new technologies can be extremely challenging. Companies such as Unblu and Glia for example propose highly secure and compliant technology platforms with a full range of unified digital experiences including secure co-browsing, messaging, and social channels. The development and adoption of these technologies will mean that companies will be able to transform a conversation into real time digital collaboration, improving customer experience while reducing overall customer support costs (based on their implementation at ZKB, Unblu claims that customer support costs can be reduced by up-to 50 percent).
The way in which businesses interact with customers is evolving, and the future of customer conversations is shifting toward continual interactions across multiple channels.
Customer conversations are becoming increasingly digital, collaborative, multi-experience interactions and seamless, personal experience is now an expectation.
To meet this expectation, businesses will need to focus on integrating customer touchpoints, focusing on quality of integration over quantity of channels. This will be a challenge for many organisations struggling with legacy platforms and mis-aligned organisational structures.
Technology will play a key role in delivering the change, and competition is building between more established players and new entrants.
Ultimately, companies that can flex their operating model around the changing needs of their customers will be in a better position to have more meaningful conversations and improve business performance as a result.
 Gartner, Market Guide for Digital Customer Service and Support Technologies, 19 March 2020