What is a messaging platform? (And what’s the best one for your business?)
A messaging platform is a type of customer experience software that equips developers or admins with tools to build interactive messaging experiences. Learn how to pick the right one for your business.
Published August 18, 2020
Last updated December 13, 2021
Messaging has the highest customer satisfaction score of any support channel, with a CSAT of 98 percent. It makes sense: messaging is fast, personal, secure, and asynchronous—in other words; customers can pick the conversation up at their own convenience, without losing the conversation history.
But providing the seamless conversational interactions customers expect requires more than simply offering messaging channels. It starts with choosing the right messaging platform.
Messaging is relatively new and many companies are still trying to understand how these channels fit within their larger support strategies, which makes it challenging to know what questions to ask a potential messaging platform and how to find the right one for your business.
What is a messaging platform?
A messaging platform is a type of customer experience software that equips developers or admins with tools to build interactive messaging experiences. These tools include APIs and integrated development environments that empower companies to go beyond SMS (Short Message Service) with RCS (Rich Communication Services)—think: chatbots, quick replies, carousels, picklists, audio, video, and more.
The limitations of messaging platforms
Because business messaging is so new, the term "messaging platform" can mean different things. Some messaging platforms are channel aggregators that offer little in the way of an agent experience. These are often referred to as CPaaS—or communication platform as a service companies. Others are CRMs that let you connect to various messaging channels, but often with limited functionality or context. And yet others only offer website-based messaging products that don't connect to the third-party chat apps customers know and love.
The key is to find an end-to-end messaging platform that provides the best of both the platform and CRM worlds. Messaging platform providers offer APIs and integrated development environments to equip developers or admins with the tools they need to build rich, interactive messaging experiences. But CRM platforms with messaging capabilities also equip teams with the tools they need to track, prioritize, and manage conversations, allowing a business to create cutting-edge messaging conversations and clearly understand the context and intent behind them.
Customer service CRM providers like Zendesk’s Support Suite provide businesses with popular messaging channels out-of-the-box and a real-time, conversation-focused interface to manage conversations for fast time-to-value. When integrated with Zendesk’s messaging platform, Sunshine Conversations, businesses can build highly customized messaging on any application and deliver interactive conversational commerce at scale.
What's the best messaging platform?
The best messaging platform depends on the needs of your business. Here are five key things to consider to guide the way.
1. The breadth of channels—and the breadth of features available on those channels
Customer feedback tells us that customers have wanted a choice of channels for a while now, but the right mix of messaging channels isn’t one-size-fits-all. It depends on the needs of your customers and the business.
The regions where you operate can make a difference. The messaging application, WeChat, pervades in China, while Japan’s LINE and Eastern Europe-oriented Viber dominate in their respective regions, according to Zendesk’s 2020 State of Messaging report. SMS (or, for Apple users, iMessage) leads the way in the U.S., with social messaging apps like WhatsApp finding their foothold.
Messaging preference varies by industry, too. When communicating with grocery companies, customers are increasingly using social media apps such as Facebook Messenger and Twitter DMs, whereas remote work and learning platform customers are flocking towards text messaging. And nearly half of finance and insurance businesses are using chatbots to empower customers to self-serve at scale.
You’ll also want to consider the channels your customers spend the most time on. If you have a mobile app, it makes sense to offer in-app messaging or live chat support so customers don’t have to leave the experience to get help. And if your customers are also highly engaged on Facebook, it’s smart to include Facebook Messenger, too.
The key is to find a messaging platform that empowers you to meet your customers wherever they are, easily adding or removing channels as their needs grow and change. Messaging-savvy businesses don’t just think about today's channels—they also consider the channels of the future. And it can be difficult to add new channels without the right messaging provider.
Just as important as the breadth of channels a messaging platform provides is the breadth of rich, natively supported features available on those channels: Not all providers offer both a wide range of channel access and rich channel features.
Rich features increase both customer engagement and conversions. Businesses can differentiate from their competition with rich message types like carousels, forms, and picklists to create embedded experiences that enable customers to take action inside the messenger—like booking reservations, making appointments, or completing payments.
As a company rolls out its messaging strategy, it should have the ability to “build once, and deploy anywhere”—in other words; deploy the same or best version of a rich experience across channels. For instance, Zendesk’s Sunshine Conversations platform automatically finds the richest way to send a message on an organization's behalf, removing the complexity of deciphering what channel supports what rich message type.
2. How much context your business will have at its fingertips
But omnichannel means more than being everywhere your customers are—that’s table stakes. It requires a business to find a messaging platform that enables it to go a step further and create a single, unified profile of its customer, one complete with conversation history and context that moves from channel to channel. This allows customers to seamlessly switch between channels, without repeating their mailing address or ticket number ten times while being bounced between different departments or waiting on hold.
One of the top reasons companies offer messaging is to provide more contextual, better-informed support, according to companies surveyed in Zendesk’s 2021 Trends Report. Yet, only 35 percent of those businesses are taking an omnichannel approach—one that connects channels, systems, and software to end siloed conversations.
This represents a sweet spot where a CRM platform, like Zendesk, can close the gaps, unifying customer information from different sources—such as mobile apps, billing systems, e-commerce providers, or marketing software—into one complete picture. This ensures everyone across your business—including chatbots—has basic context like what channel a customer is reaching out on as well as the less direct context they need to create a consistent, personalized experience; for example, a customer’s:
- Previous support interactions
- Purchase history
- Product usage
- Lifecycle stage
- Opened outbound emails
- Abandoned shopping carts
This is only half the story though: businesses should also have the ability to understand the context coming from the conversation itself. For instance:
- The sentiment and intent: To read in between the lines and understand what a customer is saying behind a message, organizations can integrate third-party services, such as two-way language translation and intent detection, to predict customer sentiment. With Zendesk, for example, hospitality companies can translate messages and their underlying context from international travelers in real-time. Or, telecommunications providers can use natural language processing to understand customer sentiment and recommend next best actions to reduce churn. Zendesk’s Mike Gozzo, VP of Product, Conversations put it best: “Like body language, sometimes what hasn’t been said is just as critical.”
- The knowledge needed to intelligently route conversations between humans and chatbots: When bots have access to underlying context—like if the human on the other end is one step away from purchasing the pair of boots in their shopping cart or if they recently complained about a pair of heels being uncomfortable—it can tailor its response accordingly, and even pass on the information to a human agent, CRM, or other piece of software to inform a future interaction.
“Like body language, sometimes what hasn’t been said is just as critical.”Mike Gozzo, VP of Product, Conversations, Zendesk
3. The agent experience, including the tools your support team will have to manage conversations
Support teams need an omnichannel user interface for responding to conversations on the front-end, yes; but it’s equally as important to have the tools for managing those conversations at scale on the back-end. What’s tricky is that few messaging providers offer both an easy developer experience and a great agent experience.
To answer customer questions effectively, agents will need to clearly understand each customer’s unique case and have the ability to effectively manage it. For instance, the Agent Workspace within Zendesk’s Support Suite equips support teams with the tracking, routing, and collaboration tools needed to close out an issue, live updates about incoming messages, and the ability to seamlessly channel-switch—in other words; an agent can follow-up a message with an email, without ending the messaging conversation.
As businesses introduce chatbots, automation, and multi-department messaging infrastructure, they need a way to centrally define rules of engagement and streamline handoffs between people, automation, and AI across the business. With the help of triggers, automations, and workflows that go beyond ticket-based routing, agents can streamline customer-facing interactions, saving support resources and decreasing time-to-resolution.
When you can effectively manage customer conversations between teams—as well as bots and systems—you open up possibilities like:
- E-commerce companies connecting a third party payment processor, such as Stripe, to enable agents to initiate a refund workflow across multiple systems: If a customer meets predefined criteria–if they’re a “gold” level loyalty member and their refund amount is less than $20–a workflow can automatically initiate the refund or require a managerial approval step for all other returns that do not meet the predefined criteria.
- Internet providers automatically assigning a repeat dissatisfied customer to a specialized customer support team–by looking at context, sentiment and intent.
- Software companies using bots to deflect routine tickets and automatically assigning a high priority to conversations with VIP customers, routing them to a live salesperson for help—with conversation history.
4. Your use case
The right messaging platform is one that’s customizable and programmable to your business’ needs. Here are a few examples and things to consider:
- How many participants will you need in a single conversation?
- Do you plan to offer self-service?
- How can you brand the messaging experience?
Modern customer relationships often include multiple parties inside and outside the business. Marketplace companies will likely need to connect buyers with sellers and riders with drivers. Most messaging providers offer one-to-one communication: the key is to find one that’s also successful at one-to-many.
Businesses can integrate chatbots for self-service at scale, enabling customers to find answers on their own, in context, around the clock. An e-commerce company can deploy a chatbot on its checkout page so customers don’t abandon their cart due to lingering questions. Businesses should look for a messaging provider that gives them the ability to launch a bot across multiple channels and is bot and AI agnostic—in other words; gives them the flexibility to do what they want in the conversation, on their terms, as opposed to being locked down to a specific set of integrations or capabilities.
With the help of SDKs for web and mobile, you can build in-app messaging on any device to drive engagement within the products and services your customers use every day—such as on the web, Android, or iOS—using rich content types like GIFs and location sharing.
5. How the solution fits with your current infrastructure—and will allow you to scale in the future
It’s important to pick an open platform that allows your business to change quickly, and go wherever your customers go next. Initial time-to-value and continuous time-to-value are key for creating a seamless customer experience. An ideal messaging platform is configurable to support any workflow and powerful enough to handle the most complex business, but flexible enough to scale at any pace.
A platform that’s based on open APIs, like Zendesk’s own, doesn’t lock a business into using proprietary tech. It lets organizations leverage the technology investments they already made and surface data wherever they want—like their homegrown applications. And developers can use the tools they already know, empowering them to build fast.
An open and flexible solution also makes it easy to integrate with new channels, software, and third parties your organization adds in the future, whether that’s bots, natural language processing, automation, or reporting and analytics. This ensures that sales, support, and marketing teams remain on the same page—not in siloes—as your business scales, so they can spend time helping customers rather than administering a system.
Of course, businesses need a solution that will continue to meet its security requirements, too—which means every customer can rest easy.
When a platform and a CRM walk into the same bar...
Businesses see the most success when they find a messaging platform that’s both a platform and a CRM—a CRM platform—to give them the developer tools they need to be agile, innovative, and able to scale as well as the ability to manage each customer issue and clearly understand the context and intent behind it. That’s the secret cocktail recipe to a great messaging experience.