Apple Business Chat looks to polish customer messaging

Harvesting the power of the iPhone, Safari web browser and other search assets, Apple is looking to cultivate integrated chat between businesses and customers.

Apple Business Chat is so new that it doesn't even exist yet. But, when available, it could change how we think about the customer experience.

The chat service was unveiled in June at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. At that time, Apple explained Business Chat this way: "A powerful way for customers to communicate and complete tasks with businesses."

Last year, Apple introduced iMessage apps in iOS 10. IMessage apps enable application developers to integrate with Apple's iMessage and get users to interact with their application through the iPhone's messaging app. But enterprises have not exactly adopted iMessage apps, which are largely used in gaming and entertainment.

Apple Business Chat, however, takes Apple's iMessage service a step further and brings it to the enterprise and its contact center.

Businesses join Apple's 'Yellow Pages'

For the consumer, Apple Business Chat offers a way to communicate directly with businesses.

Once a business registers a Business Chat account, it will be discoverable on Apple's assets, such as the Safari browser, Spotlight search, Siri assistant and Apple Maps. In each instance, when an Apple device suggests a business to a user, it will show a chat icon that lets the consumer start a conversation with the business.

It's like a chat widget on your website. But, in this case, your business is essentially in Apple's Yellow Pages. The interaction between consumer and business is handled in Apple's Messages app as just another message.

Conversations have context, longevity and richness. Consumers can keep the messages as long as they want and include images. Apple also added Apple Pay to the mix, making sure it gets its share of the transaction that occurs.

The chat service is largely frictionless for consumers and businesses, since there's no installation or opt-in.

Business Chat targets existing contact centers

Apple Business Chat is another channel to manage for enterprises. As the omnichannel experience emerges, businesses are expected to be where their customers are -- no matter what the channel. And Apple Business Chat is going to be an important one.

For enterprises, Apple Business Chat offers access to its iPhone users. To make this happen, Apple has focused on two markets: developer-savvy businesses and contact-center vendors.

Apple Business Chat

No communications-platform-as-a-service (CPaaS) vendors or other communication API providers are involved with Business Chat at this point, which shows two things:

  1. Apple is focused on easy wins and enterprises with large contact centers. Having LivePerson, Nuance, Genesys and Salesforce as part of the developer preview illustrates that point.
  2. The chat service is not about greenfield contact-center deployments or digital transformations, which is where CPaaS vendors play an important role in omnichannel and messaging. Apple Business Chat looks to enhance existing contact centers.

Chat service boosts businesses' visibility

Apple Business Chat is taking aim at other messaging apps that focus on business enablement, APIs and chatbots. None of the existing messaging apps -- including WhatsApp, Skype or Viber -- can offer such deep integrations. Maybe WeChat can.

Businesses have a hard time getting discovered on messaging apps. Apple addressed this challenge by having Business Chat appear prominently everywhere a consumer might search for a company on a smartphone.

Facebook Messenger, one of the largest messaging players, only has discoverability within Facebook itself. Users need to open the Facebook app and search for businesses, which creates a bit of friction. However, iPhone users can search for a business and then chat with its representatives.

In this case, users would typically use Apple Business Chat to communicate with a business via an omnichannel contact center, which would also have SMS and Facebook as communication options. 

Why? Think of how people search for businesses and talk with them. Consumers usually start by searching for a business's website online to find the phone number to call. Now, however, consumers often encounter the option to chat. And that capability won't be through an SMS or Facebook Messenger. It will be directly from the iPhone's Messages app. In this consumer exchange, Apple Business Chat steals a key step from social networks -- the step that can be monetized for businesses.

Search shifting from Google to Apple

Apple Business Chat steals a key step from social networks -- the step that can be monetized for businesses.

Google has no such capability in place. In recent years, Google has invested in multiple messaging possibilities. It has Google Jibe, Hangouts and Allo -- all offering messaging capabilities for Android devices -- as well as its own built-in SMS application.

None of these alternatives are ubiquitous, frictionless or used daily by enough Android users. This favors Facebook and other social networks that have time to grow their offering around business chat, gaining customers' and businesses' loyalty in the process.

The limitation of Business Chat to Apple devices will only benefit Apple and hinder Google, as it shifts search -- and its derived insights and indirect revenue -- from Google to Apple. It will also further differentiate the iPhone from Android devices.

This weakness in Android gives social networks the time to build their own business chat offerings, getting both users and businesses onboarded and used to their service -- a clear loss for Google.

No voice and video calling -- for now

Apple has decided how future interactions should look like, offering all the necessary hooks and crannies for enterprises.

One thing missing from the developer preview of Apple Business Chat is voice and video calling. Apple has these capabilities in FaceTime, but has decided, at this point, not to make them part of Business Chat. This is a reasonable decision, as Apple is taking its time to build its assets and have the different pieces in place.

Apple started Business Chat with iMessage, added an API on top and now offers better integration focused on businesses.

To add voice and video calling, Apple would need to focus on greenfield contact centers, which would take time to mature, or integrate with existing on-premises contact centers -- an excruciatingly hard task, considering the various deployments available. Apple's better off ignoring voice and video calling for now and adding it later when the time comes.

Apple has provided a glimpse into the future. It has decided how future interactions should look like, offering all the necessary hooks and crannies for enterprises and maintaining its polished user experience and privacy for the consumer.

This is a clear win for Apple. Only thing left is to wait until Apple Business Chat becomes publicly available -- sometime next year.

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