Omnichannel may be the word of the year for many businesses, but for a vast swath of small, independent players, just expanding beyond the single channel of their local storefront remains a struggle. In some cases, the dream is so distant that these busy, tight-for-time entrepreneurs neither know how to approach it, nor have time to take on the challenge.
Eric Rea, CEO and Co-founder of Podium, said these merchants are the target audience for Podium’s customer interaction platform. Last week (May 1), Podium announced its new Webchat service, which enables businesses to take customer conversations from their website to the texting channel to drive convenience and conversions.
Do people really want to text businesses? More to the point, do they want to give their phone number to businesses who could use it to text them back uninvited?
According to Rea, that’s a non-issue since these businesses are so small and local. It’s less like giving one’s phone number to Walmart or Applebee’s, and more like getting a reminder text from the dentist when it’s time for that semi-annual cleaning. The numbers are not sold or used for marketing purposes.
The alternative? Rea said a lack of answers, or inability to contact the business at all, can often lead customers to abandon ship and go shop with a more mainstream player that offers greater convenience. He said that 40 percent of Google searches for local businesses end with the customer visiting the business’s website, only to give up the journey because there’s no good way to reach out.
Here’s how he said texting could change that.
Rea said many local businesses limit their contact methods to a landline phone number and an email contact form; they don’t even have a live webchat. The problem with landline calls is that most merchants only accept them during business hours — when customers, too, are at work. That can lead to frustrating, lengthy games of phone tag, whereas texting can be more free flow.
When businesses do offer live chat, Rea said, it’s rarely manned by the business itself — it’s generally outsourced to a third party, which can provide 24/7 support that the business owner cannot. However, these partners are often based overseas, so they don’t always have answers to the customer’s specific queries. That creates a poor customer experience.
That’s only compounded by the frustration of sitting around on the webpage waiting for a response to a live chat query. This experience feels like waiting on hold for a phone call, and that feels like a waste of time to customers. The expectations around response time for a webchat experience are high.
Conversely, opting to take the conversation to a texting channel — whether that’s by phone or a platform, such as Facebook Messenger or Google Chat — gives the customer freedom to walk away and do something else until an answer comes through. And when it does, that answer will come directly from the business itself, so it’s more likely to get to the heart of the customer’s needs.
Rea said that, in addition to improving the customer experience, leveraging text as a communication channel can take some of the pressures off respondents on the business side of things.
Expectations for response time by text are much more forgiving than those around webchat, he said. When a person sends a text, they don’t expect an answer in 30 seconds or less — 20 minutes later is fine. That gives merchants time to see the message and construct a meaningful response.
Texting also makes it possible to continue the conversation throughout the merchant’s relationship with the customer. For example, say the business is a local car repair shop. Using text chat means that the mechanic can send a video or picture of the car while it’s up on the hoist, or show pictures of the old tires to explain why they need to be replaced.
Responding to texts can save a business time compared to answering phone calls, Rea said, potentially enabling the company to eliminate dedicated staff for customer support.
Even if a business doesn’t have a dedicated call center or webchat task force, texting can free up the front desk concierge to manage multiple customer conversations at once and still focus on other tasks, such as invoicing. Doing that on the phone would mean putting callers on hold, said Rea, which is never a good experience.
The number one fear about texting businesses, Rea said, is data security. First, they want to know their information will be protected from the prying eyes of bad actors, and second, they don’t want the business to abuse their information by sending out offers and deals by text.
Rea said that messages sent via Podium are encrypted end-to-end to keep sensitive information out of the hands of fraudsters. As for spam, he added, Podium doesn’t support any form of marketing. Phone numbers are kept private between the business and the customer, exactly as if the customer were calling with their number showing up on caller ID. Standard opt-out selections are available, too.
If customers still feel uneasy, Rea said, they can always keep their phone number to themselves and have the conversation on Facebook Messenger or Google Chat.
“We want every conversation between businesses and consumers to be meaningful for both parties,” Rea said. “The easiest way to make unhappy customers is to send them offers by text.”
Today, Podium allows businesses to sell products through the channel by redirecting customers to platforms where they can pay. However, it does not have its own product for collecting payments if a customer wants to complete a transaction right then and there on the texting channel. Rea explained this could be a major opportunity for Podium someday in the future.
“People are so motivated by convenience due to us all being conditioned by companies like Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb to expect that,” Rea said. Thus, convenience can be a critical tool for creating loyalty.
Rea added, “Our customers are all in very competitive spaces. Car dealers have the same inventory as the other dealer down the road. The prices are the same, and they can even sell each other’s inventory — so what they end up competing on is experience. If they can give customers that, it completely changes their loyalty.”