Should Emerging Customer Service Channels Be Handled Like Chat or Email?

Photo Credit: Ibrahim.ID via CC License

This article was originally published on and was my first Advisor Column on this site. Click here to read the original that was published on January 12, 2017.

The landscape of customer service technology is changing rapidly. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and call it a land rush, but that’s pretty much how it is with all technology these days.

On one side we have emerging support channels like social media, SMS (text messaging), and Facebook Messenger promising to make it easier for customers to get the support they prefer and threatening to take a serious bite out of the big three (phone, email, and chat) as the dominant support channels.

On the other side are the myriad of vendors trying to be the first to capitalize on the opportunity to be the preferred platform to handle these channels. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t interact with a vendor promoting their platform as the best. I have the privilege of working at an outsourcer and witnessing a number of clients dipping their toe in the water by piloting some of these new channels and platforms.

Differing experiences handling SMS

I recently sat down with members of one particular team that was piloting an SMS application. The integration with their existing system was set up so that when customers call for support, they’d have an option in the IVR to instead begin an SMS conversation. After confirming their phone number the customer instantly received a text message.

In speaking with members of the team, they noted that when text messages arrived, they were presented as chats, initiating a real time conversation. One problem the team noted was that the SMS conversation didn’t always behave like a chat. Some featured longer pauses between messages while others had a flurry of activity up front, and then… silence. This caused a number of conversations to “time out” before they were complete, probably resulting in follow up contacts from customers.

Other clients have used SMS platforms that integrate with ticketing systems and the messages are handled completely different. Instead of something that resembles a chat conversation, a ticket is opened for the SMS message and the support team responds to the message as if it’s an email.

What are customer expectations for new support channels?

This begs this question: Does it make sense to handle these interactions like emails, chats, or something else entirely?

In a busy support operation each support channel doesn’t typically exist in its own bubble. When we don’t have the luxury of creating a new team of agents to solely handle a new support channel, we need to instead consider ways to integrate these new channels into our existing systems. That way our agents can be cross trained to handle as many types of messages as they can in the simplest way possible. It’s worth noting that the ability to integrate with the likes of Zendesk, Salesforce, and others is essential.

Before we consolidate everything under one platform, we need to make sure our response time goals for each channel align with customer expectations. Here are some general guidelines for expected response times for the various support channels:

  • Social Media: 42% of customers expect a response in 60 minutes or less. (Source: Convince&Convert)
  • SMS (Text): The average response rate for text messages in general is 90 seconds so this should be our goal with customers. (Source: Execs In The Know)
  • Email: Many companies still take 24 hours to respond, but more and more customers expect an hour or less. (Source: Toister Performance Solutions)
  • Facebook Messenger: Facebook shows customers a company’s average response time. In order for companies to be rated as “Very Responsive” on Facebook, the response time needs to be 15 minutes or less. (Source: Facebook)

As far as phones go, let’s assume that our contact centers are striving for a service level of 80% of calls answered in somewhere between twenty and sixty seconds and chat service level goals are probably also in that ballpark.


Based on those results, it’s clear that though it makes sense to group certain support channels under one platform, we risk problems if we don’t take into account customer expectations. For example, dumping SMS and Facebook Messenger messages into the ticket queue and responding even within an hour is likely going to upset many customers.

As you vet these new support channels for your contact center, here are three recommendations to help you do so successfully:

  1. Treat SMS and Facebook Messenger like a chat, not an email.
    The average response time of 90 seconds for an SMS message indicates that your customers want a quick response. There are a number of chat tools on the market currently that will allow your agents to handle chats, SMS, and Facebook messages in the same platform. This also simplifies the job of staffing that queue properly.
  2. Treat social media the same but use a different platform
    While the expected social media response time is sixty minutes, many wise brands aim to respond in 10 minutes or less due to the public and often urgent nature of social. I recommend a separate social media platform that does social listening for all mentions of your brand as opposed to simply monitoring your direct messages and mentions in your existing ticketing or chat system.
  3. Monitor customer feedback for true expectation alignment
    These response time recommendations are not a one size fits all solution. Based on the nature of your business, your customers will let you know if they need a quicker response, and this will absolutely show up in your customer feedback surveys.

Circling back to all of those vendor demos I mentioned earlier, I saw one recently where customers can initiate a web chat online. They can then easily opt to move the conversation from a chat on their computer to either SMS or Facebook messenger on their mobile device. From the agent’s perspective, the conversation always looks like a chat and never skips a beat when the customer switches devices.

Ultimately, that’s where this whole thing is headed. One conversation, multiple channels, some AI mixed in there, and likely a much more consistent set of response time expectations across all channels. The land rush has only just begun, my friends!

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