- Apple expanded the test of an iMessage feature that lets consumers more easily chat with businesses via mobile device, the company announced in a blog post. Business Chat, which was quietly introduced in June 2017, gives users who search for a business in Maps, Safari, Search or Siri an option to contact the business without leaving the app to ask a question about a product or service or make a purchase using Apple Pay.
- Companies including 1-800-Flowers, Discover, Hilton, The Home Depot, Lowe's, Marriott and Wells Fargo are the initial brands to test out Business Chat, which arrived last week with the rollout of Apple's iOS 11.3 software update. The 1-800-Flowers feature, for example, lets people initiate chats with customer service and buy flowers through Apple Pay. Customers can take a picture of a flower display and send it by iMessage to the representative to get help in finding something similar, per CNet. Customers don't have to stay active in a conversation in order to view the history and can pick it up at a later time as long as they don't delete the thread on an iOS device.
- Only users can start a conversation with a business, not the other way around, to prevent users from getting annoyed by intrusive pop-ups. Companies can't see users' personal information, such as name or phone number, unless a user chooses to share that information to coordinate appointments or deliveries. When customers delete message threads, businesses can't contact them until the customer reaches out again.
More than half of consumers (56%) said they prefer to interact with a business by text or chat feature, not a phone call, a Facebook-commissioned study by Nielsen found. Tech companies like Apple and Facebook are taking note of this growing consumer preference and are building out their chat capabilities to cater to businesses and tech-savvy customers who interact and make purchases on a smartphone.
Apple wants to distinguish its Business Chat service with an emphasis on communicating with live human beings, not clunky chatbots with limited conversational ability. A checkmark appears to indicate when a customer is talking with a representative, though some early messages in a conversation may be automated ahead of complex tasks. LivePerson, a communications management company, is providing its customer service platform for Discover, Lowe's and Home Depot, per a statement provided to Mobile Marketer. "What we're seeing is a tremendous shift to conversational experiences, and it's top of mind for many CMOs," said LivePerson founder and CEO Robert LoCascio.
Facebook is Apple's greatest rival in the business chat marketplace, with its Messenger platform serving more than 1.3 billion users worldwide while Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp has 1.5 billion users. Facebook not only has added more chatbot features to Messenger, but the company also began selling sponsored chats to businesses that want to reach targeted customers on its platform.
Apple has several key advantages over Facebook in reaching customers with its business chat platform. Namely, Apple's iMessage function comes preinstalled on every iPhone and iPad, making it easier to use than texting apps that require an additional download and account setup. Apple is highlighting the service as a way to communicate with real people, not bots, as chatbots are still a bit clunky and frustrating in complex situations for some consumers. Apple also is emphasizing its privacy protections with iOS 11.3 as a way to contrast its service with Facebook, which is currently embroiled in a data privacy controversy. Reports that political ad firm Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal information of 50 million Facebook users and allegedly used the data to target voters in the U.S. have led to government investigations, lawsuits and calls to delete the social networking app. Apple's push for privacy tied with its latest iOS update and business chat rollout is well-timed in light of Facebook's struggles.