E-commerce has made some major technological strides in 2015, but one area in which there's definitely room for improvement is customer service. The majority of online stores still filter you through a list of FAQs before asking you to fill out a form, eventually sending some sort of automated response to your email inbox, and still making you wait 24 hours before anyone gets in touch. If you haven't actually made the purchase yet… well, you might just never bother.
Fortunately, some retailers are trying to streamline that experience, inventing a new way for us to shop in the process. Nordstrom launched TextStyle this summer to allow customers to be in touch with, as well as buy directly from, sales associates or personal stylists within the same text conversation.
Berlin-based e-commerce giant Zalando similarly introduced instant messaging with its stylists, but through Facebook-owned Whatsapp, which is Europe’s leading messaging app. Though less popular among U.S. consumers, it has 900 million monthly active users worldwide, and sees more than 30 billion messages sent everyday. With Zalando, shoppers are able to use it to get in touch for advice and tips.
Meanwhile, Tictail, a Swedish marketplace for independent designers and small businesses, has just launched Tictail Talk, an in-app messaging tool that enables its sellers to chat directly with customers. “We've done a lot of research and across the board live chat is the leading communication channel in customer service; 95 percent of shoppers opt for it," says Siavash Ghorbani, co-founder and CTO of Tictail. "And it makes sense: we all use messaging as our primary form of communication with friends. It is intuitive and real-time."
Perhaps more importantly, he notes that it also decreases cart abandonment "by keeping the shopper within the purchasing experience." Today, 60 percent of sales on Tictail come from mobile, and that number is only increasing.
Ana Andjelic, SVP and global strategy director at the consultancy Havas LuxHub, says online commerce is still very much a sport of guessing and any retailer helping to make that less the case is more likely to gain conversions. “Shopping online provides a lot of information, but being able to talk to an actual human on the other side of the chat app helps tenfold to alleviate a lot of anxieties that surround the online purchase.”
It's impossible to talk about such aims with instant messaging and mobile commerce without looking to China. Tencent-owned messaging app WeChat, which has nearly 650 million active users worldwide, is the market leader in this space. No longer just a tool for conversation, it's also now a primary place for shopping, and that's what western retailers, and competing platforms including Facebook Messenger, are looking to replicate: instant messaging with a buy button. On WeChat, an app that most people in China already have, you can hail a cab, split the bill in a restaurant, order movie tickets and, of course, buy clothes. WeChat Wallet is integrated in the app meaning shoppers don't have to leave at any stage in order to complete a purchase. In terms of speed and ease of checkout, WeChat far surpasses any U.S. retailer's mobile capabilities.
The product roadmap for Facebook Messenger, which has 700 million active users, is distinctly similar to WeChat's – an integration of tools that enable users to seamlessly move from conversation to commerce. Facebook began bringing businesses onto Messenger this year, including Everlane, which uses the platform to communicate with customers and even allows them to buy products within the app.
An added benefit is a thread of messages tracking a relationship between the brand and the shopper. As Ghorbani says: "Tictail Talk is an excellent way for brands to keep tabs on a shopper's purchase history so that they can go back to users with new styles they think they'd like, information about when product is back in stock, even let shoppers know if they are hosting an open house, holiday sale or unique product collaboration.”
Michael Kushner believed so strongly in texting relationships between retailers and consumers that he co-founded Stefan's Head, an SMS-based e-commerce brand. It's built on the idea of having a conversation with "Stefan." Informal text messages cover everything from new music to cool brands. Every couple of weeks it also includes details of new products coming out — the team started with graphic T-shirts but is evolving into exclusive collaborations with other designers and artists. "We think you should be able to message with a brand just like you do with your friends," Kushner adds.
It's about reaching consumers in the place they spend their time already, and doing so in a way that feels personal, but not too invasive or pushy. It works because it's for a demographic that sends messages as second nature. The millennial audience has grown up with messaging, which is something Ryan Babenzien, founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based, start-up footwear brand, Greats, says is key.
"They're living with their mobile device, so we're communicating with them in the way they prefer. If we call them, they might not pick up; if we email them, they may not look at it. But with text, you will open it. That's how we’ve been taught to treat messages," he says.
Though Greats uses text as one-way dialogue at this point, it's getting 100 percent open rates on what it sends, and starting to see conversions follow as a result. Today, 40 percent of its revenue comes from mobile, up to 60 percent when a new exclusive shoe will launch. "If something is seen to be very scarce and could be sold out quickly — that's when kids want to use their mobile phone. That's something to grab hold of," Babenzien adds.
What all this means is that 2016 will likely be the year that retailers get much savvier about how to communicate with us via instant messages and/or text. If it solves online customer service headaches and makes shopping that much easier, we're all for it. Just make sure you have a good mobile plan.