Article

The complete guide to conversational commerce in 2021

Use messaging, live chat, chatbots, and more to improve sales and support.

By Patrick Grieve, Contributing Writer

Published October 27, 2020
Last updated July 30, 2021

The age of conversational commerce has arrived, as customers and businesses alike embrace messaging en masse.

In 2020 alone, Google launched Business Messages, Apple expanded Business Chat, and WhatsApp reached a global milestone of 100 billion messages a day. And of the 40 percent of companies that added a new customer support channel last year, 53 percent turned to messaging—making it the most popular one by far.

Conversational commerce is more than a trend—it’s an expectation of today’s consumers. To meet buyers where they are, businesses must learn what conversational commerce entails and how to reliably deliver it to their audience.

What is conversational commerce?

Conversational commerce definition: The use of messaging and communications technologies to provide customers with more convenient, personalized interactions.

The term “conversational commerce” was first popularized by American blogger Chris Messina in a 2015 Medium post. (Messina is best known as the inventor of the hashtag, so when he highlights a trend, people pay attention.)

The article noted that businesses were increasingly investing in messaging apps and voice assistants to connect with customers. These technologies made it easier for customers to ask directly for information rather than hunt for it themselves.

Conversational commerce is especially useful for reaching mobile users. A person on their smartphone may prefer to message a brand on Facebook rather than open a web browser app, find the brand’s website, and try to navigate it.

Messina predicted that “concierge-style services may become the primary way in which people transact on their mobile devices. No more tapping and swiping—it’s easier to just hand-off to someone with a computer that’s set up for complex information tasks like online shopping or research.”

Because of its name, many people think conversational commerce is all about sales. In reality, conversational commerce can (and should) encompass every stage of the customer journey.

Imagine someone scrolling through Instagram and seeing an ad for hiking boots. Clicking the ad takes them to the brand’s website, which uses a live chat greeting to let them know about current deals and discounts. Moving from the “awareness” to the “interest” stage, the prospective customer uses live chat to ask questions about shoe sizing.

They ultimately decide to make a purchase—the use of conversational commerce doesn’t end there, though. Now that they’re a customer, they can use apps like Facebook Messenger to contact support if they need to exchange an item or ask questions about shipping. The real-time responses they receive from customer service help instill a sense of brand “loyalty.”

In other words, conversational commerce isn’t just a sales strategy. It’s also a way to enhance CX overall and increase customer retention.

Conversational commerce tools and channels

There’s more than one way to engage in conversational commerce. In fact, that’s sort of the point—it’s all about talking to customers in whatever way is most convenient for them.

Messaging

Messaging channels are great conversational commerce platforms because they allow customers to exchange instant messages from wherever they are. Many companies connect with customers through social messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat. Some brands also have a messaging channel embedded on their website or in their app.

Messaging naturally lends itself to the “conversational” approach, too. Most messaging tools allow users to send GIFs, emojis, images, memes, and videos. For businesses, that’s an opportunity to engage with customers in a fun, playful, and friendly fashion.

What’s especially beneficial about messaging is its popularity among consumers—which has only grown in a post-pandemic world. During the pandemic, messaging experienced the biggest increase in first-time users of any customer support channel, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021. This trend was led by Millennials and Zoomers, over a third of whom used messaging for the first time in 2020.

Popular messaging apps by number of active users

Source: Statista

Messaging apps were already popular with customers before the pandemic, particularly in Latin America and Asia. But in 2020, usage spiked to an estimated 2.77 billion monthly users around the world, and support requests surged on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

In 2021, providing messaging isn’t just a “best practice”—it’s table stakes.

Live chat

Live chat is a tool that lets customers have real-time conversations with an agent or a bot on a company’s website or app.

That probably sounds a lot like the “embedded messaging” you just read about. So what’s the difference? Well, traditional live chat doesn’t save the conversation history once an interaction ends. It’s a purely synchronous tool, meaning that if the customer leaves the page or doesn’t answer soon enough, the conversation will end and effectively disappear.

Messaging tools, however, actually record the conversation between a customer and a sales or support agent. That enables customers to have asynchronous conversations—they can ask a question and then do something else, knowing they can check back to see the answer at any time.

Messaging platforms also allow conversations to continue across devices. For example, a customer can start a Facebook Messenger interaction on his desktop, then continue the conversation on his phone if he has to run an errand. A traditional live chat conversation, on the other hand, can only continue on the same device, in the same browser, and on the same web page.

Zendesk introduced a traditional form of live chat in 2015 but has since upgraded to a modern messaging system with live chat capabilities. You can now add live chat to your website or mobile app and engage in asynchronous, cross-device conversational commerce.

Zendesk even allows you to transfer conversations between channels, so a conversation that starts in live chat can be continued in a messaging app, an email, or anywhere else. Agents always have easy access to the conversation history, too, so customers don’t have to repeat themselves or wait forever to get an answer.

Chatbots

Both messaging and live chat apps can be made more efficient with the use of automation. A chatbot is a type of conversational AI that allows businesses to automate certain interactions in a way that still feels friendly and familiar. Bots can be deployed over any messaging app or channel to provide instant responses to a customer’s questions.

As messaging becomes more common, so does the use of chatbots. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021, interactions with automated bots surged by a whopping 81 percent in 2020.

It’s easy to see why the technology is so popular. Chatbots can help enable conversational commerce at every stage of the customer journey. When a visitor on your site is still considering a purchase, chatbots can answer simple questions about pricing, product features, availability, and other concerns. For existing customers, chatbots are able to tackle common support requests, like changing a password, updating customer information, or troubleshooting product issues.

Lots of brands also view the technology as a big cost-saver—chatbots significantly reduce the need for human agents—and that’s certainly one of the biggest benefits of adopting conversational AI. But businesses shouldn’t be too eager to hand everything over to the machines. You should still have human agents who can step in and take the reins if the interaction is too complex or too sensitive to be handled by bots.

For example, a chatbot can be programmed to recommend a self-service article to a customer, then ask if they find it helpful. If the customer says no, the bot can transfer the conversation to a human agent, who can read through the interaction before offering their own input.

Voice assistants

Live chat, messaging apps, and chatbots have become relatively commonplace over the last few years. So, what’s the next big thing in conversational commerce? It could be voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.

A voice assistant is a type of software that responds to a user’s voice commands, answering their questions or following their directives. The growing popularity of voice assistants could create a more vocal form of conversational commerce.

Many brands still haven’t found a great use case for the technology, though. A 2020 survey found that 74 percent of retail managers believed voice commerce could represent a “great opportunity for their brand.” But at the same time, 77 percent of them also viewed the emerging tech as a “significant challenge.”

There’s also concern about the power held by voice assistant manufacturers—namely Amazon. Over 70 percent of respondents agreed that Alexa would disproportionately promote Amazon’s private labels at the expense of other brands.

3 tips for providing conversational commerce to your customers

Many companies think conversational commerce simply means selling their products or services via live chat and messaging apps. But true conversational commerce means using those technologies to create an ongoing conversation with consumers across the entire buyer journey. It encompasses conversational marketing, conversational selling, and conversational customer support.

With that in mind, here are three tips for providing conversational commerce to your customers.

  1. Find out which channels your customers are using

    It’s not enough to just offer chat or messaging on your website. You need to integrate with the third-party apps your customers are already using. According to Zendesk’s CX Trends Report, half of all consumers prefer to contact customer service on the same channels they use to talk to friends and family.

    Start by asking your customers which messaging apps they use most often. You’ll likely find a large variety of answers.

    Our 2021 survey found that more customers (45 percent) prefer to use embedded messaging to communicate with businesses, as opposed to social messaging apps (31 percent). Yet social messaging is seeing the biggest surge in popularity, with 110-percent growth in the percentage of customers who say it’s their preferred channel.

    Geography also plays a big role in determining which app consumers choose. WhatsApp is particularly popular in Latin America. WeChat is the standard in China, while Facebook Messenger is the favorite in North America. Smaller apps like Korea’s KakaoTalk, Japan’s LINE, and Eastern Europe’s Viber have their own regional strongholds as well.

    Popular messaging apps by country

    Source: SimilarWeb

    If you want to succeed at conversational commerce, you need to meet consumers where they already are. Integrate with the third-party apps that make the most sense for your customer base.

  2. Adopt a holistic conversational commerce platform

    Ideally, you should be able to manage your messaging apps—and all your other channels, for that matter—from a single place. Otherwise, conversations become scattered and inconsistent.

    Consider this scenario: A customer purchases a wireless keyboard from your company. Three months later, the keyboard starts malfunctioning, so the customer messages your company on Facebook. A support agent says a replacement keyboard will be shipped out later that day.

    But a few weeks go by, and still no keyboard. The customer visits your website and clicks on the live chat widget for support. They’re connected with a different agent who has no idea what’s going on. The customer has to repeat everything— what their initial problem was, who they talked to, what steps they’ve already taken to troubleshoot the issue, and so on.

    According to surveyed consumers, having to repeat themselves is one of the most frustrating aspects of a bad customer service experience. So if you manage communication channels in silos, you’re going to lose customers. Period.

    But if you use a solution like Zendesk, your teams will be able to track, prioritize, and respond to customers in one unified workspace. Agents can see every interaction a customer has had with your brand—chat message or not—in a single view, giving them the context they need to provide better support. They can even move a Facebook Messenger conversation over to email with the click of a button.

    Agent view

    Conversational commerce is about creating an ongoing relationship with consumers throughout the entire customer journey. To keep conversations going, make sure your messaging apps seamlessly integrate with all your other communication channels.

  3. Don’t just focus on the “conversational selling” aspect

    The “commerce” part of conversational commerce is a bit misleading—this type of communication isn’t just about selling your products or services through a messaging app. If that’s your only focus, you could end up losing your customers by making them feel undervalued.

    Remember: Conversational commerce spans the entire customer experience—across sales, marketing, and support. Agents must be able to effortlessly pick up a conversation with a customer, regardless of where and with whom it originated. To do this, they need access to customer data and conversation history, no matter where those interactions took place.

    With Zendesk, employees can see key information about each customer, such as their purchase history, previous conversations with sales and support, shipping info, and more. This data allows agents to provide a consistent, personalized experience across the buyer journey.

    1. Embrace the future of commerce

      Messaging apps can open a direct, ongoing conversation with your customers. They make it possible for consumers to receive the convenient, highly personalized experience they want, on their terms. But for conversational commerce to truly work, brands must be able to deliver that experience throughout every stage of the customer journey.

      Using a solution like Zendesk can help set your team up for conversational commerce success: Our software consolidates your communication channels into a single view, so support agents have easy access to the customer context, integrations, and tools they need to maintain long-lasting conversations that enhance the customer experience.

      When coupled with a conversational commerce strategy that leverages various tools and channels—such as messaging apps, bots, and live chat—customer service software can help you boost revenue, increase customer satisfaction, and reduce churn.

Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021

Discover how top companies provide experiences that keep customers coming back.