Apple Business Chat – A Contact Center Perspective

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A week ago, I wrote about how iOS is slowly turning into an operating system for your life, not your devices, by adding customer service and eCommerce functions into its core OS. In this piece, I’ll provide an overview of how Business Chat works.

With Business Chat, Apple is jumping on the messaging bandwagon. As it’s their business practice, they’re late to the game, but they’ve become the most valued company in history by letting others be first, then come in and rethink how to “do it right”. Whether they’ll accomplish this here again remains to be seen, but things look promising with one caveat. I’ll get to that at the end.

Discovery

Business Chat, i.e. the ability for consumers to chat with businesses over iMessage, will be deeply integrated with various places of iOS:

Apple Business Chat- iOS

Furthermore, Apple will soon allow businesses that don’t have a location, say an online business, to be found in these places – something that hasn’t been possible before.

Contact Prequalification and Authentication

Just like an IVR integrated with the contact center would in the world that I’m sure Apple would love to call the “old world”,

Apple Business Chat values

Business Chat lets you signal the reason for contact (they call it “Intent”), and the skill group or queue needed to handle the inquiry (they call it “Group”). This will be realized through a special URL that can be rendered as a button on a website to kick a conversation off.

Apple Business Chat- SMSUser identification happens through an internal unique ID, which only allows one-way mapping. Businesses will not be able to know who is contacting them, except for the language and device region to allow accurate contact center routing, until the customer is ready to share more information themselves. This is a big difference to how, e.g., Facebook chose to treat identity on Messenger. While that, in turn, means that businesses will be forced to ask the customer for identifying information such as email address or phone number, Apple makes use of the predictive keyboard feature that offers up the answer right above the keyboard.

Furthermore, in Apple’s introductory presentation, they stress that Business Chat must always be initiated by the customer – they are starting the chat. This would mean in turn that businesses may not use Business Chat to message customers outbound. Whether that remains a mandate is unclear at this point. But again, it means much less power for the business, and more privacy for the customer – however, some proactive communication such as payment reminders or shipment notifications are usually welcome by the consumer.

Apple also acknowledges that the Messages application is highly personal today. To avoid a clutter of business contacts mixed with personal contacts, users can hide alerts for chats from businesses.

Rich Interaction

Users can attach the usual media types such as images, or videos. On the agent side, this would require an agent desktop thatApple Business Chat- map allows attachments as part of their workflow – something not every desktop client might be able to do on day 1. Messages of the business can be laid out as desired, e.g. enriched with a map.

In addition to that, Apple identifies lists and date/time pickers as frequently needed interactions. As such, both will be integrated from the start, overcoming one of the disadvantages of a purely text-based UI:

Apple Business Chat ApptApple Business Chat Color

Using the existing iMessage Apps framework, businesses can extend this limited set on their own. The example the presenter gave of seat selection for an air ticket booking was the first time the audience gave spontaneous applause:

Apple Business Chat Seat Check Apple Business Chat Seat Check 2

One of the biggest advantages Apple has over its competitors is its Apple Pay ecosystem. With Business Chat, customers can make payments right within a conversation. That is certainly a huge catalyst for not only customer service use cases, but also eCommerce.

The Customer Service Play

Contrary to most competitors, Apple seems to have identified customer service as a key enterprise unit to embrace Business Chat. And it seems logical: when customers have issues, they contact customer service. People hate to call contact centers, wait on hold, get transferred multiple times, repeat information over and over again. Messaging seems like a logical solution.

And yet, Facebook, kik, Line, Viber, most of Apple’s messaging “competitors” have tailored their pitches to the marketing and eCommerce space. “Talk to your customers more, sell more” seems to be their mantra. And indeed, most launches of chatbots – digital employees on the other end, vs. live employees, are being launched to attract customers to make purchases. Not so Apple Business Chat- Registerhere. (Twitter, by the way, also identified Customer Service as the more pressing area of improvement, as I wrote here back in late 2016 when they launched their overhauled DM solution.) Not only does Apple not mention “bots” with one word, they specifically target customer service in their market messaging, and with the fact that the customer needs to make the first move. That is a classical situation in customer service, but not in marketing.

The lack of a focus on chatbots is probably a result of Apple drawing a conclusion from the not-so-great performance of the first deployments on Facebook Messenger. While this more reflects a lack of UX design expertise vs. a lack of technological maturity, it is understandable that Apple refrains from going all in with it at this point.

The problem with this strategy? The contact center, contrary to digital marketing, is not known as the place that spends money right and left to embrace the next best shiny consumer object. In a nutshell: the more traditional contact centers are trying to REDUCE the number of contacts, as they are mostly considered a cost center to their business. They are not sitting there waiting until they can integrate yet another channel into their organization – they are already struggling to deal with email, phone, SMS, web chat, social, etc. (if they have even embraced the latter three.) If they make it too easy for customers to reach out, so their logic, they will be forced to grow their agent pool, which will make their bottomline look even worse. Especially if the only answer, according to Apple, seems to be to staff the other end with live employees.

What is overlooked here, though, is the opportunity to build a closer relationship with the customer. By being only a tap away, and with the rich interaction features Business Chat will provide out of the box, you can provide unparalleled service that your customers will love.

So, it remains to be seen how many businesses will jump on this right away. Knowing the speed at which contact centers move when it comes to new technology, mass adoption of this channel could easily take 5-7 years, if not longer.

However, if you are serious about differentiating your business through Customer Experience, you certainly don’t want to miss out. With almost a billion iPhones out there, if estimates are to be believed, you will reach a big crowd out of the gate. You could say that it’s sad that for more traditional contact centers, this is scary rather than exciting. And with the lack of outbound outreach abilities, marketing departments might be less excited about Business Chat than they were about Facebook’s “Businesses on Messenger” launch.

If you want to view the introductory video to Business Chat from Apple’s WWDC 2017, go here: https://developer.apple.com/videos/play/wwdc2017/240/

If you’re a developer and want to get your hands on it, Apple offers a sandbox that simulates an agent desktop:

Apple Business Chat

Check it out at https://register.apple.com/business-chat

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Tobias Goebel

Tobias is Director of Emerging Technologies at Aspect. He has over 14 years of experience in customer care technology and the contact center industry with roles spanning engineering, consulting, pre-sales engineering, program and product management, and product marketing. As part of Aspect's product management and marketing team today, he works on defining the future of the mobile customer experience, bringing together channels such as mobile apps, messaging, voice, and social. He is a frequent speaker and blogger on topics around customer service and, more recently, the (re-)emerging chatbot, NLP, and AI technologies. Tobias holds degrees in Computational Linguistics, Phonetics, and Computer Science from the universities of Bonn, Germany and Edinburgh, UK.
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