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Best practices for superior customer service through text message

Customer Service Channels

Today, more than 95% of Americans have some kind of mobile phone, while globally, five billion people have a cellular device, according to the Pew Research Center.

Thanks to its convenience, speed and ease of use, texting has become a ubiquitous experience. Despite this prevalence, however, only 39% of companies have adapted to their customers' behavior and preferences in this regard.

Offering support via text is an opportunity to reduce handle time and provide a frictionless experience to those looking for support. Here are a few best practices to ensure your brand can successfully execute the unique nuances of SMS and increase customer satisfaction in the process.

Text or voice?

From an airline texting a passenger about a gate change to a customer asking what sizes are in stock, customer support by text is conducive across a large cross-section of interactions.

That said, there are some types of exchanges that don't make sense to conduct over text, like when an issue requires an empathetic approach or highly technical instructions. Sensitive conversations referencing a person's medical records, finances or insurance information, for example, should be moved to a phone call for security purposes, says Marsha Collier, author of The Ultimate Online Customer Service Guide and a leading customer service expert.

Texting can still be a good port of entry for these types of interactions, even if they need to be completed using another channel, advises Leslie O'Flahavan, a customer service writing expert and a contact center consultant. SMS can serve as a valuable ally to triage inbound customer queries and determine which to move to the phone.

In circumstances where switching channels is required, the move should be framed as a request, not a command — i.e. “Can I call you at this number to continue our conversation for security reasons?" — and should be handled by the same agent if possible.

Don't be afraid to use emojis

Customers want to feel as if they are engaging with an actual person through text, a challenge for a channel that does not always accurately convey tone or emotion.

O'Flahavan points to a few basic guidelines for texting support success: Keep each text to around 160 characters so they don't get truncated, use contractions, emojis and short sentences to make the message less formal, and consider using first person pronouns like "I" or "we".

Including the proper context in a text exchange is also an important element. By ensuring customer service agents have access to the brand's CRM (customer relationship management platform) and the appropriate data, they'll have a strong historical foundation to resolve the issue quickly, with a personalized approach.

"If you can respond in a human way with the proper context, it makes people feel like you're talking to them and you're not a robot [using] the same script for everyone," says Asif Khan, a consultant, speaker and founder of the Location Based Marketing Association.

Utilize automation

Mobile push notifications are becoming increasingly important in nurturing brand-consumer relationships. Automated messages such as appointment reminders, shipping updates, travel alerts and so on are opportunities for companies to provide proactive customer service, reduce inbound volume and achieve deeper loyalty.

There are more nuanced benefits, too. Because push notifications are opt-in and require consumer consent, they promote the idea that consumers have some agency and measure of control over their relationships with brands.

While push notifications are an excellent opportunity to integrate automation into your customer service strategy, there are some important stipulations. O'Flahavan cautions brands to be mindful of the frequency and timing of notifications; too many messages — especially those at strange times of day — can prompt opt-outs. To avoid this mismatch, she suggests using customer location data to ensure appropriate timing. She also advises brands reserve sending push notifications for the most impactful opportunities that either improve customer satisfaction and/or drive revenue.

It's also a good idea to make sure automated messaging is consistent with a brand's established voice. “They can't be flat, officious or utilitarian only, as they have to be recognizable as branded communication," says O'Flahavan.

With more than six billion text messages sent each day in the U.S. alone, it's clear that SMS popularity isn't fading anytime soon. But, if you're still on the fence as to whether mobile text support is the right channel for your brand, consider O'Flahaven's parting advice: "If that's the way the customer wants to contact you, then that's the right channel."

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