Will the WhatsApp business app disrupt the live chat market?

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Would you want those pervasive door-to-door salesmen in your back pocket, able to reach you anytime, anywhere? You know the ones – the people that invade your doorstep, knock on your door just as you’re about to sit down to dinner, and try to talk to you about something you don’t want to deal with.

For all its ‘trust-building’ intentions, this is what WhatsApp’s new app for businesses could enable. WhatsApp is now allowing companies to establish an official presence on their service, enabling them to communicate with customers through the hugely popular app. 

With this move, WhatsApp could turn business to customer communication on its head – particularly when it comes to traditional business chat channels. The launch could bring disruption to the demand for web chat and cause a shift in the way we interact with brands. Or, it could fail miserably. Howard Williams, marketing director at live chat specialist Parker Software, investigates.

Change is on the horizon

In January 2018, WhatsApp launched its new business app in select markets, ahead of a planned global rollout. Small companies in the chosen countries can now set up a WhatsApp “Business Account” by filling out key information and becoming verified.

From there, they can chat to permissive customers in much the same way as a standard customer service chat channel. Businesses will even be able to access handy tools like canned responses, messaging statistics and desktop messages through WhatsApp Web.

Plus, with WhatsApp as a messaging service, you get the bonus of meeting your customers where they are. WhatsApp comes with an audience of one billion already using the app, providing a great opportunity to connect with your customers.

It sounds ideal… for brands. But while businesses may want customers to see them as friends, and to chat to them via personal channels, that’s not necessarily what customers want. For the end consumer, the WhatsApp business app brings propriety into question. At what point does accessibility become intrusive?

The rise of messaging

Messaging is increasingly popular amongst people of all ages. With so many people using messaging apps in their daily lives, it makes sense for businesses to view them as a communication opportunity.

Traditionally, businesses seeking real-time chat with their customers would deploy live chat software on their websites. This chat model has worked well since the early noughties, and chat has gradually risen to become a mainstream service channel.

Non-live messaging apps, however, have started to rise in recent years. While live chat needs team members to respond immediately, messaging apps are more relaxed on time, enabling busy teams to respond to customers whenever they’re available. Options such as Facebook Messenger have been seized upon by businesses, and customers are getting used to interacting with brands in an informal chat format.

For services likes WhatsApp, this presents an immense opportunity. Messaging is finding its feet in the corporate customer service landscape, and this opens a new path to revenue.

Pervasive and personal

As opportune as messaging may be for brands, it’s not a clear route to success. There can be no denying that messaging is a huge part of our daily lives. It’s how we communicate with friends and loved ones. We like chatting with them, and a message popping up while we’re in line for a coffee, waiting for the bus or watching TV is welcome. Messaging is fantastic for maintaining our personal relationships.

When it’s a business, however, it’s different. Our money is involved. Message pings now remind us of problems needing to be solved, or of services needing to be rendered. They become a nuisance, and infringe on a space usually reserved for informal interactions.

With messaging channels like WhatsApp, customers lose control of when business representatives can reach them. They become forced to be reachable at any point. A dream for businesses, maybe, but this could easily lead to frustration in customers.

Put simply, WhatsApp could prove too pervasive to be used for business interactions. Customers approach businesses to conduct business, and while the friendly human touch can go a long way, a line still needs to be drawn.

Abuse of trust

The intimacy and informality of WhatsApp could lead to abuse of customer data. For example, a Just Eat delivery driver recently hit the headlines after sending unsolicited text messages to the person he'd delivered to. The fact is, messaging services like WhatsApp are less official B2C channels, and are therefore easier to abuse.

This isn’t an isolated incident either. After taking her experience to Twitter, the victim of the Just Eat harassment case discovered that hundreds of people had experienced similar betrayals of trust. The fact remains that this kind of invasiveness would be less possible with a corporate, monitored live chat channel than a casual WhatsApp conversation.

In the words of Pascal: “Live chat is great to keep people on your site, to convince them to buy, and then buy a bit more. But when that chat ends, the connection is broken.” This is the way customers want it to be. Businesses aren’t our friends. They’re there to supply us with products and services, and support when they go wrong.

Customers don’t want to be forced into supplying personal data like WhatsApp account details just to get help when they need it. They most certainly aren’t looking to be harassed by rogue employees.

Suitability

When looking at the pros and cons of the WhatsApp business app, it’s a question of suitability, and meeting customer expectations. Are your customers likely to be happy to wait for a reply? Are they going to trust you enough to give out their phone numbers and account details?

Live chat software doesn’t put such requirements on your customers. They won’t be forced to wait for the support they need, and in today’s fast-paced society, that’s everything. Plus, live chat software doesn’t force your customers to have or download an app, or supply your company with their personal phone number.

Also, with functions that allow supervisors and colleagues to oversee chats, a live chat channel is far easier to regulate. This means there’s less risk of data abuse, and less risks of sketchy exchanges for customers. Live chat is less pervasive and less likely to infringe on privacy. It’s a less personal form of real-time support, but it doesn’t sacrifice the human touch.

A threat, or a fad?

At present, the WhatsApp business app is largely untested. However, caution is advised before forcing customers to carry a support team in their pockets.

Reliance on a channel such as WhatsApp is not only pervasive, it risks negative experiences for customers. Companies more well-known and regulated may 'get away' with using WhatsApp due to their reputation, but it will still raise a series of questions regarding privacy and propriety.

So, could the WhatsApp business app overthrow traditional customer service delivery, and disrupt the traditional live chat market? Time will tell, but it seems unlikely that customers will relish rubbing shoulders with brands inside their personal, private and thoroughly informal communication channels.

Howard Williams, marketing director, Parker Software
Image Credit: Endermasali / Shutterstock