Textline and Freshworks: Using SMS and texting as customer service channels

Done right, SMS-based customer service is a great way to earn brand loyalty in the smartphone era. Used in tandem with AI and automation workflows, texting can make high-touch customer interactions convenient, conversational, and incredibly fast. In this discussion, AJ and Sirisha deep-dive into using SMS as an effective component of omnichannel CX and talk about the best practices to implement an SMS strategy into customer service operations.

aj chan aj chan
AJ Chan

COO, Textline

sirisha sirisha
Sirisha Polisetty

Customer Success Manager, Freshworks

What's in this discussion

  • Which businesses can make the best use of SMS as a CX channel
  • How SMSes work with AI and automation to deliver cohesive customer service
  • Top use-cases, implementation tips, and common pitfalls
  • Best practices for delivering high-quality service on the SMS/texting channel



Part 1: Multichannel CX vs Omnichannel CX

Host: Let’s look at some SMS statistics. Omnichannel campaigns that involve SMS are 47% more likely to end in conversion. According to a study by Forrester and ContactBabel, SMS decreases the price of support sessions from $6-20/call to mere pennies/session. Clearly, SMS is critical to building a cost-effective omnichannel solution for sales, marketing, and support. Sirisha, can you tell us what an omnichannel strategy entails?

Sirisha Polisetty: Multichannel customer service strategies enable customers to reach businesses through multiple channels like phone, SMS, and social media. However, all these channels are often not well-connected with each other, and stand as disparate elements. 

Omnichannel gives customers the ability to reach out to you through multiple channels, while companies retain the context of each interaction. The information that they share through each channel is synced to unique customer profiles after every interaction. So, if an agent speaks to a customer on the phone, and the same customer emails or texts another agent two days later, this agent will possess knowledge of all the information the customer shared on the call two days ago.

This enhances the customer’s experience, making them more comfortable with sharing information, and giving them the confidence to use multiple channels to reach your brand. Omnichannel is the best way for brands to personalize customer interactions at scale.

Companies that employ an omnichannel strategy retain 89% of their customers. That’s because the transaction is instantly made more conversational. Customers always want to see if companies are making the effort to personalize every touchpoint. Those touchpoints could be anything: social media, SMS, or phone calls. Customers simply expect you to meet them where they are, rather than their coming where you are.

Part 2: Integrating SMS into customer service strategy

Host: AJ, what are some best practices for brands looking to bake SMS into their CX?

AJ Chan: To stitch SMS into customer support, there are a handful of considerations to be aware of.

  • Be committed to the customer: Texting is really personal. It's not an email, and there's more back-and-forth in a texting conversation than in a phone call. Use text only if your team is equipped to handle the tone, volume, and frequency of interactions.

  • Treat customer service/experience as a competitive advantage: Support can be more than just a cost center. It can be a revenue center. Twilio recently conducted a study, and the results revealed that 85% of customers wanted to have two-way text conversations with businesses, rather than just receiving information from them. It's more than just pushing updates to your customers. Figure out which channels are best for your business. There is a time and a place for each channel – each one serves a different purpose. In certain cases, text may not be the best option.

  • Understand the voice and tonal preferences of your customers. For instance, if you’re a young, fun consumer brand, you can use emojis to text customers. If you're a bank or an attorney, however, texts definitely need to be more professional, but the tone doesn’t necessarily have to be like in an email.

Part 3: How AI and automation enhance customer experience

Host: Speaking of text-based CX reminds me of automation. It’s a critical piece of the CX puzzle, particularly when there are thousands of customer conversations to handle. Sirisha, what do you think about the emerging role of AI and automation in enhancing customer experiences?

Sirisha Polisetty: Five years ago when everyone was talking about automation and AI, we thought it was going to replace people and jobs. That didn’t happen. But it certainly enhanced CX: it made sure that agents are more efficient at whatever they're doing, and they can now deliver personalized experiences using automated workflows. Inquiries that took 5 minutes to resolve can be closed in under a minute, thanks to automation and AI.

Let's look at an example. Today, I went to a shopping website, and I added a few items to my cart. After a while, I got distracted. so I moved to another site, but I got a pop-up indicating the number of items in my cart. So all I needed to do was click on the popup so I could finish my shopping. AI, combined with analytics, can really transform the entire customer experience, and help the agent work more efficiently.

For AI-powered tools that help both agents and customers, take the example of Freshworks’ AI-powered bot, Freddy (now part of Freshdesk Messaging). It works on both the agent’s side and the customer’s side. On the agent's side, let’s say a customer asks an agent how a particular feature works. The agent would normally need to either type in the entire answer or search for a solution article and share it with the customer. Freddy reads the content of the email and automatically suggests FAQ articles along with links, so the agent can just send it to the customer with zero time delay.

Part 4: Use cases: Texting as a CX tool

Host: AJ, can you tell us the popular use-cases for texting in customer service?

AJ Chan: I’ll highlight three use-cases.

  • eCommerce Fulfillment: If you think about e-commerce, customers commonly contact support when packages have not arrived, packages are damaged, or to return something. Usually, you try to email or call the seller. But now, you can pick up your phone and text them. What would help the agent here is the ability to send pictures back and forth. If someone says their packaging is broken – they can simply send the picture of the broken packaging to the agent via text. The agent can also use SMS to send updates to the customer, without having to ask the customer to log-in to a portal to get updates.
  • Logistics: Here’s where a lot of back-and-forth communication needs to happen in real-time. Sometimes, phone calls don’t serve the purpose as people tend to miss calls. Texting is an easier way of communicating updates as it has a 95% read rate within the first 3 minutes of being sent. People see texts, and respond quickly.  
  • HIPAA-Compliant Healthcare Updates: Textline is a HIPAA-compliant texting tool. We’ve helped build text-based solutions to simplify day-to-day tasks at a medical office, like sending appointment reminders, scheduling appointments, following up after appointments, and being able to chat with doctors. This enables collaboration between the front-desk, the nurse, and the physician’s assistant through texting. One needs to be careful about this, since there’s a lot of regulation involved, and any texting solution you use needs to be HIPAA-compliant to protect patient information. 



Part 5: Improving B2C customer experience for large SMS volumes

Host: AJ, how can we handle large volumes of SMS for big B2B businesses? And how do you improve customer satisfaction when the volumes are high? 

AJ Chan: A lot of our customers look at texting as a solution because they're trying to scale their customer support. Live chat and phones are real-time, so agents have to be fully present in that 15-minute window of a live chat or a call, and one agent can only talk to one customer at a time. So the cost for every customer support call can be upwards of $12/interaction, whereas for texting, it could be as low as 25 cents/interaction. With texting, an agent can have 10-12 conversations at once. The best part is, customers are able to respond whenever it’s convenient for them, allowing brands to set expectations. That said, here are a few ways in which text-based customer service helps agents deliver better B2C CX:

  • Manage customer expectations: If an agent was flooded with tickets, they could just text the customer: “Let me get back to you in 15 minutes”. That would buy them time and also set expectations for the turnaround time (TAT). But if they were on a call with them, the customer probably has to set time aside for the call, so they won’t be too happy about waiting. 
  • Reduce agent effort per ticket: Providing agents with easy-to-handle channels like text allows them to put greater effort into customer interactions, thereby delivering more personalized experiences. At Textline, our agents love texting – it’s less stressful than a phone call since they’re not put on the spot and text is a lot easier to train for. With text, agents can handle more tickets with less effort, and also make every customer interaction feel more human and personalized.
  • Reach customers on more personal channels: If you’re handling a lot of inquiries, you're probably a big company. Too often, big brands feel impersonal to customers. Texting gives these big brands an opportunity to feel more personal. It's a great way for agents to deliver that personal touch by showcasing their personalities – they could use emojis and be appropriately funny or quirky in support conversations. Tailor-made conversations demonstrate to the customer that brands aren't scared to have two-way conversations with them.

Part 6: 4 Best practices for using SMS in customer service

Host: AJ, what are some common mistakes businesses make while implementing SMS solutions? Do compliance issues factor into these cautions?

AJ Chan: Sure, here are some things to watch out for:

  • Channel Preferences and Consistency: Try and understand which channel your customer favors. If a customer has texted you, simply text them back if you have their phone number. If they've been receptive to a phone call in the past, you can follow up with the call. Understanding which channels your customers use will go a long way – for instance, you wouldn’t email a customer who never checks their email.

  • Agent Training: Once you've determined the proper expectations to set with the customer, make sure you can meet them. Your team is obviously managing multiple channels. Depending on how teams are set up, we see organizations making their support team handle phone calls, live chat, texting, and email, and they just round-robin it. Other organizations say that they group text and chat into one bucket, and phone and email into separate buckets. Different things work for different teams, but make sure you optimize, train, and organize your team to handle appropriate channels. 

  • Channel-appropriate Tone: I cringe a little when support teams respond to a text like they’re writing an email. They'll say, “Dear Julia, this is AJ from Textline”, and literally write a three-paragraph email in text format. That's how my mom writes texts, and that's not the best customer experience. Make sure you’re in line with the medium.

  • Compliance: From a compliance perspective, do unto others as you wish others to do unto you. The dreaded four-letter word is spam: don't spam your customers, don't text them a coupon when they’ve only given you their phone number to receive delivery updates. But text the people who want to be texted – who have opted-in to marketing communications. Always add value. If it’s something you could pick up the phone and tell them, then you can text it to them. But if you're going to send them a newsletter, you need to send it via email, not via text. That's not a great customer experience. 

Part 7: Live Q&A

1) In certain countries (like India), support-related SMS can only be sent one way, and not the other way around. How do you accommodate these restrictions while framing an SMS-based support strategy?

AJ Chan: There are certain countries that have text restrictions that we can't do anything about. So in those cases, what we do is send out messages that have information on how to get in touch with the business. It could be a link to the Help Center, it could be having them contact another number. 

2) How cost-effective is SMS/texting compared to other channels?

AJ Chan:  A phone call can be upwards of $12/interaction, because a call can get pretty long. Other channels, like live chat, are pretty comparable to the cost of text. The difference with live chat is that you have to be able to serve that customer while their chat box and window are open. Texting doesn’t have that restriction. Texting can cost as little as $0.25/interaction. Social media is another emerging channel. This is a hard channel to put a price on, because a lot of times you don't know how much that one person frequents their social channel. While you may have contextual conversations in place, if customers don't respond back for a few days, you now have to restart and re-look at the full thread, even for an existing ticket.

3) If we already have staff that feels overworked and finds it difficult to keep up with phone and emails, how do we introduce another channel (texting) without inducing panic? 

AJ Chan: Yes, it is another channel that your team will need to manage. But one thing you can do is start deferring more of those phone calls to texts. For instance, companies might just put a number on their support page and ask customers to text rather than call. The same can be done in support emails and social platforms. Think about how you can make the phone number harder to access via calls and easier to access via text. Set the expectation so your team doesn't feel like they are on the clock for fulfilling an SLA in under 90 seconds for text. Over time, you can improve those SLAs. 

4) Can texting result in faster resolutions?

AJ Chan: The thing with phone support is, agents may have follow-up questions for the customer, like asking for a receipt or a photo, or they may want to send the customer a link. A text conversation makes all that easier. Instead of a 10-minute conversation, it is closed in 6 minutes. That frees up your team’s time as well. This is even better if you have an omnichannel strategy – you could have all the customer information you need without even asking the customer for it, and just send your questions via text.

5) Is there a limit to the number of customers you can send a broadcast message to before being flagged as spam?

AJ Chan: One of the unfortunate things with the telecom world is that it's a black box, so it's impossible to give a precise answer. What we found, though, and what we've built into the Textline product, are ways in which you can broadcast messages – we call them announcements – where you can send one message to a lot of different folks, either across one number or across multiple numbers. The more numbers you use, the more messages you can send out at one time. Some big reasons why carriers mark certain phone numbers as fraud or spam: One, if customers opt-out or ask you to unsubscribe them on a text, that's a red flag. Two, certain keywords trigger the carriers to block numbers or not deliver them. You can think about it like the spam folder, Gmail doesn't tell us what exactly they're filtering out. But we can deduce or make assumptions that text messages with dollar signs or photos in them are spammy.

From a volume perspective, we don't really necessarily see issues, unless it is blatant spam or spam-like communication.