On March 10, 1876, after years of research and development, inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his new invention, the telephone. It was, admittedly, a clunky contraption. The earpiece was too large and the transmitter was even bigger—but Bell’s invention successfully transmitted his voice along a thin copper wire to his waiting assistant. Bell’s achievement was momentous and would eventually usher in a new era of long-distance communication—but not everyone agreed.
Bell’s financial backer, Gardiner Hubbard, was thrilled by Bell’s invention and sought to immediately monetize the new technology. He contacted Western Union, then the largest telegraphy and telecom company in the world, and offered the telephone patent for just $100,000—approximately $2.4 million today.
Western Union’s executives formed a committee to evaluate the potential of the telephone. After much deliberation, the committee returned a verdict. “Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their telephone devices in every city,” read the committee’s report. “The idea is idiotic on the face of it.” The committee proceeded to savage Bell’s “ungainly and impractical device” and compared it unfavorably with the “clear written message” of telegraphy. Based on its report, Western Union passed on the new communication medium.
The decision was proved foolish within the decade and, in fact, has gone down as one of the worst business blunders of all time. The phone caught on quickly and eventually became one of the most valuable inventions in American history. Today, technology companies sell more than 1.4 billion smartphones each year—a market worth more than $500 billion.
With hindsight, we can see Western Union’s error but at the time its decision probably made sense. Telegraphy technology was everywhere and it seemed to be working perfectly. For Western Union’s executives, it was difficult to look past the omnipresent telegram and see the potential in Bell’s upstart telephone.
The same narrative is repeating itself right now. But instead of the telegram and telephone, we have conventional customer communication channels and digital disruptors. And like Western Union, the organizations that don’t react to the changes will be left behind, consigned to history with an army of fellow also-rans.
The communication landscape, both professional and personal, is evolving—and fast. In the 1950s, when consumers wanted to contact a business, they went to its store. In the 1970s, they called its phone number. In the 2000s, they sent an email. Today, there are myriad new customer communication mediums, such as social media, live chat, apps, and chatbots.
These new channels are built around a new communication paradigm, one where customer convenience is key. Modern consumers want to contact businesses whenever, wherever, and however they wish—and these channels let them do so. They can message their bank from Apple Messages, chat with their gym via Instagram direct messages, and check on deliveries via their courier’s chatbot.
Because customer communication is migrating towards more informal, conversational platforms, the volume of customer communications is ballooning. As more consumers adopt these new channels, the volume of inbound messages is only going to increase. Indeed, experts estimate the number of mobile messaging app users will reach 171.3 million by 2022, and project that more than half the US population will use a messaging app by 2022.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this communication revolution is a short-term fad or temporary blip, either. This is a behavioral tidal wave, which will fundamentally alter the dynamics and momentum of consumer communication with businesses.
Leading the Charge
Responding to the communication revolution is hard. Businesses have never before had to deal with so many customer queries splintered across so many disparate communication channels. If organizations aren’t prepared, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
But the challenge is not insurmountable. Companies like Glossier, Airbnb, and Zappos have already reacted fastest, radically refactoring their customer service departments. They have redefined what customer service actually means and now offer support whenever, wherever, and however their customers want. If that support request happens to be a 3 a.m. product query via WhatsApp, so be it.
As with most early-adopters, these organizations are already reaping the rewards of their innovation. By rebuilding their communication systems around the preferences of their consumers, they’re providing a customer experience far beyond that of their competitors—and that’s extremely important.
Today’s customer engagement landscape is defined by the experience a customer has with an organization. That experience encompasses every last interaction—every call, every email, every chat message. Experts have dubbed this the “experience economy” and, as it develops, businesses will rise and fall on the strength of their customer interactions.
Brave New World
New channels are only the start of the communication revolution. Chatbots and messaging apps are new now, but as we learned with the evolution of Bell and Hubbard’s clunky communication contraption over the last 150 years, they don’t mark the end of the story. As new channels emerge, existing channels proliferate, and old communication technology mutates, the communication landscape will continue to evolve.
Email, for example, is unlikely to remain as the default communication channel for everyday issues. People will gravitate to what’s most convenient for them. That means using real-time communication channels like live chat and messaging apps for immediate problems or queries and email for non-urgent matters.
And as communication technology develops, so too will backend systems.
The biggest challenge for organizations is the significant rise in communication volume. Support staff will have to manage multiple real-time conversations, which is significantly different from older single-conversation phone and email systems.
To support human agents, we expect organizations to implement powerful AI-augmented technology. These new systems will automate much of the coordination, information finding, and problem solving work, leaving human agents free to support each consumer personally and individually.
Companies will also have to manage far more communication channels than ever before. Companies are already responding by divisioning their support staff in such a way that they can focus on their strengths. For example, a company may divide channels between voice and text, and assign agents to the category they are strongest.
If you are apprehensive about the scale of change, it’s important to know that there are companies doing this already. If your organization is not responding, it’s falling behind its competitors. You need to find a smart partner and build your next generation customer communication system.