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Mobile Text: A Tale of Two Experiences

Text messaging generated significant interest last month at Enterprise Connect 2018, with the major buzz revolving around the use of business-to-consumer (B2C) text as a vehicle to support enhanced mobile commerce from the contact center. From all of the discussion, my takeaway is that delivering that next level of customer engagement will require contact centers to support two separate mobile text options: one for Apple users and another for everyone else.

As contact centers make the transition to omnichannel engagement, the ability to support customers via text, particularly when augmented with artificial intelligence (AI)-enhanced chatbots, appears to be gaining on voice as the vehicle of choice. While support for voice calls remains necessary for untangling particularly complex problems, replacing live voice agent service with some flavor of mobile text interaction is high on the priority list.

From Simple to Rich Messaging

Mobile texting was easy to support when the only option was the mobile operators' ubiquitous Short Message Service (SMS), a universal solution that relies on mobile numbers for addressing. Of course, SMS is exclusively text-based, with a maximum message size of 160 characters (though extended through the end devices). And it's now effectively open for commerce by communications platform-as-a-service (CPaaS) providers like Twilio.

Amazon and other vendors with enough market strength can get users to download customized apps that can include chat capabilities, or companies can depend on Web chat for brief, focused exchanges. However, for building customer relationships, persistent chat is the preferred option, and most marketers will have to depend on publicly available services that fall into two groups: SMS (or "enhanced SMS") and premium texting services like Apple iMessage, WeChat (in China), WhatsApp, and even BlackBerry Messenger.

By enhanced SMS, we're talking about the long-promised upgrade to SMS called Rich Communication Services (RCS). This 3GPP-defined standard for mobile texting promises to bring key features of the premium services (for example, typing indication, delivery/read notification, and multimedia) to SMS.

RCS offers a new and better lingua franca for mobile texting, but while Google, Samsung, and most others in the Android ecosystem are starting to build toward the RCS Universal Profile, Apple has been a persistent holdout. From the start, Apple has steadfastly refused to support RCS, and as of last week, with the iOS 11.3 release, it now supports richer customer engagement via iMessage on Apple devices with its proprietary Business Chat capability (for related coverage, read my previous No Jitter post). (Note, I've heard some sources claim that Apple will one day succumb to market pressure, making its support for RCS inevitable. To be clear, these are people who either have no understanding of how Apple works, or have something to sell you that's predicated on that groundless assumption.)

Apple has a great messaging app in iMessage, and it integrates with SMS, too, -- but it makes sure you know the difference. With Apple's proprietary iMessage, the network automatically identifies when you're texting another Apple user, and you get group chat, pictures, videos, emojis, Animojis, typing indication, delivery notification, user selectable "Read" indication... and the list goes on. For SMS, you get text only -- and the message appears in green (rather than Apple blue) to remind you that you're texting someone who hasn't bought into the Apple way of doing things. In short, you're getting the inferior SMS capability, and it's your own fault.

The thing you must understand about Apple is that it's not going out of its way to do anything to help anyone else, least of all its competitors. Apple wants you to know SMS stinks, so on its platform, that's all you're getting in the way of alternatives to iMessage -- no enhanced SMS, or RCS. You want to abandon the "Apple Club?" Here's what your messaging is going to look like -- unless you get all your friends to install WhatsApp and go that way.

Even though Samsung and the other Android platform providers committed to RCS represent a much bigger slice of the worldwide market than Apple, a lot of the upper-income population is still in the Apple camp -- and that's an audience marketers covet.

Strategic Planning

So, what's a contact center to do? If you can get away with it, do nothing, or at least wait on it. If you're not in a highly consumer-focused business, or you're fairly sure your clientele is not going to demand the latest and greatest in mobile experiences, you should probably hold off. Supporting Business Chat or RCS, or both, is going to cost money, and if you don't need to spend it now, don't. As time goes on, the cost to implement these capabilities will go down.

On the other hand, if you're in a leading-edge consumer business, catering to that tech-savvy young executive class, it's time to start moving on a richer mobile messaging experience. But, to which format do you design your interface: Business Chat or RCS? The answer, unfortunately, is both.

Given Apple's market presence and attractiveness of its customer base, there's a good chance that many contact centers will first roll out support for Business Chat-based enhanced mobile experiences. Genesys and Twilio are working on it, but surprisingly, many of the contact center folks I spoke to at EC18 didn't seem to know what any of this is. That's really scary, but I'm sure they have their inventory of toll-free numbers squared away.

Some think you can get away with simply doing Business Chat, but no marketer in his or her right mind is going to intentionally alienate a significant chunk of a company's customer base. Marketers will have to build something for the Android/RCS base as well, and since neither Samsung nor any of the other major Android platforms has a messaging app or Business Chat equivalent of its own, RCS is the only advanced texting option on the table.

With all of the confounding issues and unknowns in the contact center business today with chatbots, AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics, it's nice to see that at least something is clear. Text is the next big communication channel companies need to master for customer engagement, and SMS is too limiting a tool. Better tools are there in the way of Business Chat and RCS, but, unfortunately, Apple's recalcitrance around RCS will keep it separate.

I wish I could tell you there's a simple way around this, but Apple isn't known for making things simple -- except for its users. The one hope for unification is that Apple's market position diminishes over time and as such it'll be forced into the RCS camp -- but that scenario is long term and speculative.

The good news is that even though creating two interfaces will increase the call center's expense, the type of mobile user experience we'll be able to deliver will go up exponentially for each of these two mobile communities.

Follow Michael Finneran on Twitter.