Marketing

Conversational customer engagement and the future of email

Find out what the idea of conversational customer engagement means to email marketers as other communication channels become part of the marketing mix.

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We talk a lot about email on this blog, but today, we need to talk about something new and what it means for marketers. Something called conversational customer engagement

The methods customers use to interact with businesses are expanding – and it’s happening quickly. Conversational customer engagement is an evolutionary leap in the way people and organizations connect. 

So, what’s driving this shift? The short answer is social media and messaging apps. 

People expect a fast, friendly, seamless customer experience when communicating with and receiving communications from your brand. They also want the ability to engage with brands through whatever channel or application is most convenient to them.

According to survey results in a new report from IDC and Sinch, almost 80% of companies have already implemented or plan to start using conversational customer engagement. Many of those companies are exploring what’s known as a communication platform as a service (CPaaS) to help them manage everything that’s involved in this approach.

If some of these terms are new to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Let’s explore where customer experiences are heading and what it could mean for the future of email.

**Spoiler Alert: It does not mean the death of email marketing.**

What is conversational customer engagement?

While the phrase may be new to you, there’s a good chance you’ve already experienced conversational customer engagement firsthand.

Conversational customer engagement typically takes place in real-time on mobile messaging apps, as well as SMS and chatbots. You may have encountered it through a text message to confirm an appointment or when getting help from customer service online. Conversational engagements are literally conversations, which means it’s a two-way street. Customers don’t just receive messages, they can talk back and get answers too.

The goal of conversational customer engagement is to reach people wherever they are however they want in an authentic, relatable way.

While conversational customer engagement can directly connect people with other human beings (aka live agents), a lot of it is powered by artificial intelligence (AI). However, the AI used in conversational engagements is anything but robotic. 

As analyst Courtney Munroe of IDC explains in the Sinch-sponsored report:

“AI adds an emotional flair that converts an interaction into an enjoyable engagement to ensure repeat engagement. It elevates interactions from transactional to emotional and leaves a lasting impression.”

Courtney Munroe, IDC Analyst

What is CPaaS?

Communication Platform as a Service or CPaaS is one of the latest in a growing list of “XaaS” solutions. (Honestly, we’re going to run out of acronym possibilities pretty soon.)

We can define CPaaS as a cloud-based system for delivering and responding to customer communications across a variety of channels. The best such platforms offer APIs that make it easier to integrate conversational messaging with a business’s processes and applications.

The result of using CPaaS is a seamless customer experience across messaging platforms. The animation below illustrates how the Conversation API from Sinch looks on the front-end for consumers within different messaging apps.

The adoption of CPaaS solutions is a major trend. IDC estimates it will be a $17.7 billion industry in 2024. Gartner predicts 95% of international enterprise companies will use API-enabled CPaaS solutions by 2025 to stay competitive. 

Navneet Gupta, an IT leader writing for the Forbes Technology Council says the CPaaS market is in hyper-growth, adding that the pandemic helped spark that growth out of necessity.

“Through the Covid-19 pandemic, more companies have turned to digital channels to support customer communications. This digital-first movement has accelerated CPaaS innovation and its flexible APIs that continue to drive enterprise forward.”

Navneet Gupta, Forbes Technology Council

What problems does CPaaS solve?

There are so many different ways to reach customers in the digital age, and consumer expectations for personalized experiences are very high. It can feel overwhelming. Consumers are overwhelmed too – by tons of information and options. And both businesses and consumers are inundated with boatloads of data.

Conversations provide context and clarity while helping people get answers and helping companies solve problems faster. Some say we are entering a new age… the “Conversation Age.” As business writer Geoffrey James explained for Inc.com:

“What people do on their phones – talking, emailing, texting, and social media – isn't about information and data. It's about conversation and connection.”

Geoffrey James, Business Writer

The history of email began about 50 years ago, and it didn’t become a viable marketing and communication channel until decades later. Before that, landlines, snail-mail, and face-to-face encounters were the main ways to have conversations with customers.

Flash-forward to today – it’s easier than ever to reach individuals and to target groups of people you want to reach – anywhere, anytime. But it’s also a huge challenge to manage. Call it “communication sprawl” if you like. 

CPaaS provides the extraordinary benefit of having all those communications flowing through one place. Additionally, integrations, customizations, and personalizations that extend across channels are easier to pull off.  While customers are completely unaware of it, CPaaS also provides a consistent, faster, more enjoyable experience.

Uses and benefits of conversational customer engagement

The use of conversational customer engagement lends itself more to some situations than others. Among enterprise organizations that are already using it, the Worldwide Customer Engagement Survey from Sinch and IDC found these to be the top areas of impact:

  1. Customer satisfaction

  2. Level of customer engagement interactions

  3. Increased sales

  4. Faster resolution of customer problems

  5. Reduced customer churn/improved retention

The survey also found that more than half of respondents are investing in conversational customer engagement to bolster customer care and support. This is likely because the AI elements reduce mundane tasks such as answering frequently asked questions and solving common problems. That improves call center efficiency and lets customer service reps focus on bigger issues.

The second-most cited use case was for collecting customer satisfaction surveys. However, conversational customer engagement is also useful for all sorts of transactional and operational communications. That includes order status and delivery updates, cart abandonment, as well as returns, exchanges, and refunds. 

Beyond the tactical benefits, there are also what you might call “soft benefits,” which come from the emotional connections that conversational engagements create. This type of positive customer experience generates loyalty because it helps establish brands as trustworthy, accommodating, attentive, and likable.

Does this mean email’s end is near?

If you’re an email marketer, and you feel a little nervous right now, we don't blame you. It does seem like SMS and mobile messaging apps are creeping in on email’s traditional territory. 

The good news is that, when done right, email can totally be part of the conversational customer engagement mix. In fact, it’s safe to say that while email isn’t 100% future-proof, it would be extremely hard to replace.

That’s why big players in the CPaaS game, including Sinch, are acquiring companies that provide email solutions. Voice and video also play roles in a holistic customer communication strategy.

As noted in an article from Juniper Research titled The Future of CPaaS:

“It is important for CPaaS players to ensure that they are able to deliver traffic across the largest variety of technologies in order to attract the largest clients.”

It’s not about picking winning and losing channels, it’s about doing what’s best for your customers and your organization. It’s also about adapting to change and diversifying your customer communication portfolio (so to speak).

Email and messaging parallels

The truth is, we can look to email and learn a lot about how and how not to use messaging apps for marketing and communication. That’s because SMS and messaging apps are in the same place that email marketing was in the ‘90s. 

At the time, people were regularly using email for personal communications, much like texting is used now. In the ‘90s, email spam was becoming a significant problem that eventually prompted legislation to fight it. Today, text message spam complaints are skyrocketing while robocalls are slowing down.

In 1992, email gained the ability to send multimedia attachments with the MIME protocol. Around 2002, SMS evolved into MMS (multimedia messaging service). People used to say they were addicted to checking their email in much the same way people now feel compelled to check texts and social media.

So, as you can see, there are some striking similarities. But the question remains… where does all this leave the future of email?

How does email fit in the picture?

Email will remain a useful communication tool even as other options enter the scene. But what is its role in conversational customer engagement? Can email be used the same way and for the same purposes?

Yes and no. Here’s some advice on how email can be used to replicate the kind of conversational experience that messaging apps provide.

It’s not just copywriting

Don’t assume that conversational email copy is the equivalent of conversational customer engagement in the inbox. The ability to write conversationally is an awesome skill to have, but it’s only part of the formula.

What you’ll need to accomplish are real, engaging, back-and-forth conversations with customers over email. That means email needs to be a tool that brands use to listen to their customers and prospects – not just a megaphone to amplify marketing messages.

The no-reply email address has to go

While the no-reply email address was extremely common not long ago, many top email marketers now advise against using it. Writing on the topic for the Mailjet blog, Chris Arrendale explained that no-reply email addresses can hurt deliverability, brand reputation, and the customer experience:

“When a customer replies to an email, it’s because they have something to share. They could have a support question, a comment about your product or service, or just some constructive feedback that can help a brand with its marketing efforts.”

Chris Arrendale, Founder/CEO, CyberData Pros

To align with the trend toward conversational customer engagement, we’ll need to give subscribers the power to use email replies as a means of communication. 

For most companies, that’s going to mean different reply-to addresses depending on the message. Replies to promotional emails go to one inbox, replies to transactional emails go to another. Replies to welcome and onboarding emails go to Customer Service and Success, while replies from prospects to nurturing emails go to Sales.

Automation and AI are keys to success

Of course, opening up the email floodgates to subscriber replies could create another management problem. That’s where automation and the artificial intelligence used in conversational customer engagement can help.

Advanced email strategies already take advantage of automated trigger emails based on customer behaviors. For the most part, however, research shows the use of AI in email marketing is primarily for optimizing campaign performance.

But what if you could automatically respond to customer emails with friendly, conversational, AI-generated copy? As email evolves to support more interactivity, these automated replies could also include things like multiple choice questions, ratings and reviews, or even the ability to complete a purchase within the email.

Email integration is essential

One of the best things about conversational customer engagement is how it creates a seamless communication experience for the customer. If you start a conversation via email, it can continue on a chatbot or a messaging app.

For that to happen, all of these channels need to connect and share data. And if live agents are communicating with customers instead of AI-generated messages, those employees need to be able to easily access information about the customer as well as the ongoing conversation.

That’s where CPaaS swoops in to save the day. As a cloud-based communication platform, CPaaS aggregates data from different sources and allows an agent to talk with customers on any channel from a single environment.

And, since major CPaaS providers are including email in their service offerings, it’s safe to assume that the future of email and customer communication is in good hands.

Why omnichannel communication is the future

The report from IDC and Sinch found that 100% of survey respondents are engaging with customers on multiple channels, including 62% that use at least two messaging apps.

It’s important to realize that people have personal preferences surrounding the ways they correspond with brands. However, that preference can easily change based on the situation. It’s all about meeting people where they are while providing an unforgettable customer experience.

Email may be the right channel while someone is at work and has questions about the status of an order. A chatbot makes sense if a customer is on your website looking for answers. A social messaging app works well when they’re using a smartphone, but a hands-free phone call may be necessary if they’re commuting.

There’s a difference between multichannel and omnichannel. “Omni” literally means all. So, you really can’t have omnichannel communication without including email.

Discover the future of customer experience

Download the full white paper, Digital Customer Experience: Leveraging Conversations to Drive Innovation and Differentiation in the Enterprise for free.

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