Apple’s Business Chat is a powerful new channel for customer service & inbound sales

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The HomePod got most of the attention and headlines last week at Apple’s developer conference. However, Business Chat may be the initiative that has a bigger impact.

Messaging has become a very big deal globally, with most of the major platforms doing interesting things with Chat, including Microsoft’s integration of chat into search results. Apple Business Chat, which is being pitched as a customer service tool, also includes Apple Pay integration and scheduling capabilities, so it clearly has broader implications for sales and marketing.

With Apple’s Messages Framework, developers can integrate parts of their app experience into iMessage for a broader array of functions and possibilities (imagine reservations or food ordering, for example). Business Chat will be accessible from iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch, and presumably the Mac’s Messages app.

Users will be able to tap into Business Chat in several ways, through Safari (mobile web), Apple Maps, Spotlight search and Siri. Business Chat won’t become publicly available until next year, but it’s being made available now to developers for testing and integration.

Unlike for Microsoft and Facebook, the focus for Apple is human interactions, not bots. However, third parties and customer service technology vendors will likely be able to integrate bots into Business Chat in the near term.

At this time, companies need a “customer service platform” to deploy Business Chat; someone will create this capability for small businesses, if it doesn’t already exist. The major CS platforms are already on board — including Salesforce, Genesys and LivePerson.

As with Facebook Messenger, once a user initiates a conversation, it remains open unless terminated. The user can receive notifications and a range of other types of communications from the business (including attachments). Apple also suggested that Business Chat was yet another app discovery tool, where businesses can expose their apps if users don’t already have them installed.

But before marketers start thinking about iMessage as a “push” channel, Apple is making clear that users are totally in control. The company said it never wants them to receive “unsolicited messages.” Accordingly, they can block alerts or delete conversations as desired. Brands will need to be respectful or be deleted.

Apple created three built-in features for developers: Apple Pay, Time Picker (scheduling tool that integrates with the native calendar app) and List Picker (a way to show customers lists of products or choices). As indicated, Apple’s Messages Framework allows for more elaborate or branded experiences for iMessage.

The example presented during the developer overview session was an airline enabling a customer to select a seat in iMessage (via the Messages Framework). As the screen below shows, the airline could simultaneously promote its app in the context of the message.

Apple said that Business Chat is equally for e-commerce pure plays and brick-and-mortar businesses. It’s also possible to enable every location in a chain to have its own Business Chat capability. This creates a dilemma: centralize Business Chat or distribute it to each location?

One final and compelling scenario demonstrated by Apple was the initiation of Business Chat using a QR code. The iPhone camera scans the code, and a conversation is launched in iMessage. One can imagine QR codes on packaging, signage or websites as an alternative way to contact customer service (or sales). That code can also embed information to avoid tiresome preliminary questions.

Indeed, Apple is doing a lot on the back end to make Business Chat efficient and effective for both businesses and customers. For example, it’s providing “chat intent” referrers that indicate context and where the chat was initiated (e.g., specific page/section of a site or app) to enable appropriate handling or routing by customer service.

Apple has been thoughtful about Business Chat and its features. It has enormous promise as a customer service and inbound sales channel for enterprises. Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.


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