If Covid-19 leaves one lasting legacy for the business world, it's that online shopping reigns supreme. Juniper Research reported $4.9 trillion in global e-commerce for 2021, with that figure expected to rise to $7.5 trillion by 2026. 

How people shop and interact with businesses though, will continue to evolve. It's no longer good enough to put a few product photos on a website and have the customer pick the item up in store, which is what many small and midsize businesses did in the early days of the pandemic. Consumers want their favorite brands to know who they are, provide personalized offers and incentives, and be easily accessible on the same channels they use to communicate with friends and family. 

There's one part of the customer experience in particular that could look a lot different in the coming years than it does today: customer service. Back in the day, if a company wanted to reach someone or vice versa, they would make a phone call, but that's a lot harder to do today when no one wants to talk on the phone. At the same time, consumers aren't using apps in the same way they once did: rather than engaging with 20 different apps on their phone, they're following their favorite companies on Instagram and Facebook. 

How will customers connect with brands then? Through two-way messaging, says Stefanos Loukakos, a Menlo Park, California-based entrepreneur, who worked at Facebook (before the name change to Meta) as its head of the Messenger business. "People message each other all of the time now, and that's where they want to connect with brands," he says. "They want to have meaningful conversations with businesses, while businesses want to transact with customers all in one messaging thread." 

Richer customer communication

Loukakos is the co-founder and CEO of Connectly, a cloud-based messaging platform that helps businesses deepen their customer connections across WhatsApp, SMS, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram. He saw the value of many of these channels during his time at Facebook, and for WhatsApp in particular, where more than 100 billion messages are sent globally every day.  

WhatsApp is also ideal for this kind of customer-business interaction, as "it allows for much richer two-way communication," says Loukakos. Unlike a chatbot, where a consumer has to be on that company's website to interact with it, one can use WhatsApp from anywhere to ask a company a question. It can also authenticate who that person is through the phone number they're using and call up personal details, such as the name of the person, where they live, and past purchasing data. "That makes the experience much more personalized," he explains. 

Another advantage to messaging is that a person's entire communication history is saved in one thread. Typically, chatbot messages disappear the moment the pop-up window closes, and phone calls require people to re-explain their issue depending on which customer service agent they're speaking with. "People and businesses want one thread of communication," says Loukakos. "You don't want to start something and then get another message and another message--this is way more powerful." 

More personalized messages

Connectly, which was formed in December 2020 and is a WhatsApp Business Solutions Provider, lets companies automate their messages to customers or have an agent communicate with them directly. Connectly has customers in Brazil, Mexico, India, the U.S., and other locales around the world that are using the platform to onboard new clients, send out personalized marketing offers, and answer questions from customers. One gas station operation is even using it to send out daily gas price updates. 

The technology is complicated, says Loukakos, but it integrates with a company's back-end systems, including its customer relationship management (CRM) software. If a customer messages the company, the program will automatically pull data from the CRM, which, depending on what the company collects, could include everything from total dollars spent at the business to whether the customer has a pet. The platform can then use that information to interact with that client in a more personalized way, such as calling them by name or asking them how their last purchase went. 

The company is also building an artificial intelligence engine that analyzes the CRM data and provides recommendations to the customer service agent on how to respond. For instance, if a person messages the company, the AI will attempt to predict why that customer is reaching out in the first place. It could also offer new products the person should consider based on what they've previously purchased. "We want businesses to push people in the right direction," he says. "Is this a customer support question? Are you a new customer? Do you want a new product? We're using AI to really understand the customer." 

While it's still early days for Connectly and for message-first customer service, Loukakos says that it's only a matter of time until the majority of businesses interact with their customers in this way. It won't replace a website or Facebook page, he says, but it does offer a different--and, most importantly, a one-on-one--way to communicate. "It's going to be complementary to what people already have," he notes. "But it allows businesses to speak directly to their customers, and that's really important."