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Beyond buzzwords: how small companies are using AI, automation and conversations to grow in 2023

Messaging is a great way for businesses to stay on top of customer conversations. Here's how to get started.

By Jesse Martin, Staff Writer

Last updated January 4, 2023

The world of tech, business and media is rife with buzzwords. Distinguishing new, tangible technology from new, intangible ideas can be difficult, especially for businesses trying to find their place in a changing digital landscape. Futurists optimistically embrace Web 3 concepts like cryptocurrency, NFTs and the metaverse, which in turn are becoming everyday parlance beyond certain parts of Twitter, Discord and LinkedIn.

For most businesses, however, these ideas have little practical usage. It’s not practical to suggest that a small support team should be present in the metaverse when nobody has clarified what the metaverse is. It was not long ago that buzzwords like AI, automation and omnichannel struck a similar chord. The technology existed – and so did the curiosity – but what did it look like for businesses?

Artificial intelligence, automation and conversational service are no longer industry buzzwords — our data shows that over 75% of businesses are familiar with conversational service in 2022. Each has real and practical applications that benefit scaling businesses, yet smaller firms are lagging in the adoption of the very technologies that have become essential for modern, thoughtful customer experience. With customer experience as a key differentiator, here is how growing companies are benefiting.

The state of conversational service

There are a few ways conversational service has evolved over the last few years. Most notably is the shift away from live chat towards richer, more convenient channels.

What is conversational service?

In 2022, 70% of customers expect conversational channels to be available. Since 2020, support requests over messaging channels like WhatsApp and Instagram have spiked. Savvy brands and early adopters use messaging apps to create a convenient and personal customer experience. As the standard for great CX changes, familiar channels like live chat are have a make-over to resemble their messaging-app counterparts, becoming asynchronous and more flexible.

Get our free CX Trends report to learn more

Even with robust ticketing systems and large support teams, managing more than one session-based conversation poses challenges. Messaging, where the conversation is not limited to a single session, offers agents flexibility while being more convenient to customers than live chat.

Chat or messaging?

Distinguishing messaging from chat can be confusing. In the context of Zendesk, chat refers to the channel that is session-based, where conversations have a finite beginning and end. Messaging, by contrast, is not session-based and does not necessarily need to have an end. It also refers to social channels (like WhatsApp or Instagram DMs) or owned channels, like a widget on a website or in an app.

Unlike live chat, messaging is asynchronous. Live chat, while quick, is transactional in nature. Messaging was created to build long-lasting relationships and build customer loyalty. It fits into the going, complex nature of customer relationships today. On the back end, conversations from every channel occur in the same agent workspace.

AI, chatbots and buzzwords

According to Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of American buyers opt for remote human interactions or digital self-service at various stages of their decision journey. Automation in conversational channels is often the first touchpoint for customers, and characteristic of modern customer support experiences. Few brands, if any, use sophisticated undetectable bots that pass the Turing test. Instead, simple automated interventions like custom-built conversational flows, quick replies and routing are shown to have a direct positive impact on Average Response Time and Customer Satisfaction.

In the 2022 the CX Trends report, 40% of small businesses reported that they have the capacity to spend money on AI – but they do not. As the technology is accessible and easier than ever to deploy, this is a huge growth opportunity. When bots are the first point of contact in a messaging conversation, customers have a chance to resolve their issues before needing human intervention, 24/7, even outside of service hours. In Zendesk, administrators can have bots surface helpdesk articles, aiding customers in self-service. Admins can also customise the bots’ responses, guiding customers through conversational flows before handing off the conversation to an agent if necessary.

Better customer service tools

In growing companies, employees wear a lot of different hats. For small support teams dealing with a high volume of tickets, messaging presents an opportunity to save time. Despite overall familiarity with messaging channels, only 17% of companies are set up with a unified platform that brings all of their service channels together. That means many companies are treating each channel like its own silo, which can negatively affect productivity and the availability of important customer data. Identifying, automating and optimising workflows can help to free up agents’ time and improve performance.

A unified agent workspace can bring all of these channels together. Social messaging channels like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp can be contained alongside conversations from other channels – and supported with crucial customer context. It’s more efficient for agents, who spend less time searching for information and more time focusing on complex queries that can’t be sorted out with automation or self-service.

For small businesses trying to stay on top of customer conversations and DMs, investing in the right tools can be a key differentiator: Only 50% of growing retail companies, for example, offer messaging as a support channel, yet companies that offer messaging show higher customer satisfaction and loyalty. A siloed approach could mean important conversations fall by the wayside.

From Instagram DMs to a holistic customer view

Luxury jewelry retailer Chupi saw their customer support team grow organically with their company, with support duties falling between employees across shipping and returns. Some of their customer support was outsourced to a call centre, while Instagram DMs took on a life of their own.

It’s a classic portrait of a great business realising an ad hoc approach to customer support leaves much to be desired, especially for luxury clients. Throw in the Instagram angle and you have a modern twist on a timeless classic. After implementing Zendesk, Chupi’s six dedicated customer care specialists were able to lower full resolution time to under 20 hours, increase CSAT and even increase customer service team sales by 300%.

Scaling customer service was difficult because customers would call in but the “call centre that had no idea about our product”, they said. Chupi had a more holistic vision for customer care.

“First and foremost, I decided to look at a platform that could pull all of our customer data into one place”, Chupi CTO Brian Durney told us. “We needed all of our calls, tickets and DMs from Instagram and Facebook going into the one platform.”

Using Zendesk, Chupi’s customer case team can seamlessly access conversations across Zendesk channels, all within a single interface.

Durney said “they’re seeing that same customer ring, on chat, on email and in DMs. So, they can keep them all in the same ecosphere the entire time”, Brian said. Previous conversations are included in the thread, while all the relevant context – like interaction history and pages viewed on the website – is displayed alongside the conversation.

Brian explained that it was important not to have “three or four different systems that you need to jump in and out of”. With Zendesk’s Shopify integration, “it’s incredibly useful to see a customer’s full details and purchase history”.

Why messaging?

  • Messaging channels, whether social or embedded on web or in-app, work seamlessly with Zendesk products, services and workflows
  • Over one-third of Zendesk customers choose messaging and automation to deflect common support questions
  • Nearly 40% of surveyed customers report a near-immediate decrease in Average Response Time.
  • Automation means customers can still seek support outside of business hours, while surfacing relevant knowledge base articles and reducing the number of agent touches
  • Zendesk customers who switched from live chat to messaging report a 40% increase in agent productivity

Next steps: How small companies can start messaging

According to the 2022 CX Trends Report, by putting the customer at the centre, scaling businesses can maximise growth and customer loyalty. Here are three ways for them to get involved in creating conversational experiences.

1. Get leadership buy-in

  • Engage the leadership team: Leadership can include customer experience part of your company’s strategic roadmap and business objectives. For example, by tying the compensation of senior leaders to customer service performance.
  • Benchmark performance: Knowledge is power – how does your business match up? No two businesses are alike. Monitor the performance of your customer support team and make adjustments as needed.
  • Keep leaders looped in: According to our recent research, small companies with the most mature CX organisations are six times more likely to be reviewing service performance metrics daily.

2. Make a business case for conversational support

  • Focus on immediate ROI: Support agents have the power to drive profits through upselling and cross-selling, informed by insight into the customer journey. Tip: establish a separate profit and loss statement that captures revenue generated by agents can make the link between customer service and business growth more tangible.
  • Optimise and centralise systems: Do not settle for a mishmash of disconnected systems and support channels. Keep your conversations in one place alongside all of the relevant customer data.
  • Choose software with easy setup: Some software solutions take weeks or months to deploy, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Zendesk provides growing businesses with all the tools they need to offer customer support – with all the messaging perks included from the start, like chatbots than can be easily configured.
  • Review performance frequently: Conduct frequent reviews of KPIs and corresponding revenue projections that reveal opportunities to iterate on ways to improve customer service quality. Metrics like first response time, average handle time and Net Promoter Score (NPS), can tell you more about the quality and progress of your support strategy.

3. Focus on creating high-quality experiences

  • Streamline workflows With your support team wearing many hats, it doesn’t help to weigh agents down with repetitive, manual processes. Optimising workflows, such as with automation, help free up agents’ time and improve performance. Giving agents access to valuable customer information alongside the thread of conversations can improve the customer experience overall.
  • Personalise conversations: Empower agents and admins to leverage chatbots with the Flow Builder tool, creating automated conversations that work for them.
  • Choose scalable solutions: Zendesk works out of the box but can also be customised to fit the unique needs of your business and customers.
  • Lean in to social: Be where your customers are. WhatsApp and Instagram offer numerous business features – like verified profiles and an API that integrates with Zendesk – all while appearing alongside conversations from other channels.