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SMS - It's a Two-way Thing

David Murphy

The simple SMS message could be the next business tool to revolutionise customer and employee interaction - and not a moment too soon, says Peter Tanner, Founder of Boomcomms

Peter TannerBoomerang The potential of the humble text message has been largely lost on the
business world until now. Yes, companies have used one-way SMS to
confirm appointments or delivery times, or have experimented with the
medium for advertising. The critical challenge they have failed to
overcome, however, has been how to enable the recipient to respond in
such a way that closes the loop and completes an automated database
transaction.

Solve this problem, and the business possibilities are endless. Credit
card transaction verification could be confirmed in an instant, without
requiring the customer to call a helpline and wait endlessly in a
queue. Engineers could sign themselves off site for health and safety
purposes (and be prompted if they forget), or provide regular updates
on the status of a job, automatically triggering the scheduling of new
work.


Better than BlackBerry, timelier than Twitter

Fortuitously, a facility has recently been introduced to enable such
transactions to be completed by SMS, without intermediary human
intervention. The timing of this development is very pertinent, given
the fragile state of the economy and the imperative for organisations
to be able to do more with less.

While some of the above transactions could be completed using a
BlackBerry and email or a special application, this requires a big
investment, rendering the opportunity impractical for the majority of
potential users. It also demands that the recipient is carrying the
right device, and is tuned in to the right messaging medium when the
interaction is initiated.

Such limitations are overcome by using SMS, which is supported by all
mobile devices, used by the masses, and offers more immediacy and
greater simplicity than mobile email or a specialist software
application. Moreover, it requires no additional investment or training.

As the frenzy over Twitter continues to gather pace, the realisation of
just what can be communicated in a targeted 160-character message is
beginning to dawn on businesses. Requiring no special membership or
opt-in clause, SMS offers such broad coverage for no extra investment
that not exploiting the medium seems a waste. This is a tool any
organisation (private or public), of any size, could harness, in just
about any way they choose.



Curbing call centre queues


Simply add the two-way SMS facility onto an existing business process,
and the automated workflow is successfully extended, boosting the
customer/employee experience, without increasing costs. On the
contrary, organisations stand to save many thousands of pounds by
reducing the burden on call centres and redeploying staff.

The significant development making all of this possible is the
introduction of a solution that couples an incoming text message with
the original outgoing message. This means the content of the reply can
be fed back directly into the organisations database so that the next
step in the process can be taken - all without any human intervention.

So when a patient responds to their SMS reminder to say they cannot
make a hospital appointment, a new appointment can be automatically
issued and confirmed without the need for a series of phone calls. The
patient has a much less stressful experience, and the health service
avoids a wasted appointment and valuable administration time being
diverted to complex rescheduling.



More compliant than voice exchanges


Even where the consumer is happy to make the follow-up phone call,
voice-based transactions are much harder to capture for auditing
purposes. SMS messaging offers a valuable advantage here, too, meeting
compliance requirements by providing complete traceability of the
interaction, including sequence and time information.

The real potential of closed-loop text messaging will be seen when the
big software vendors and their development and integration partners
begin rolling out applications with the two-way SMS facility already
built in. To this end, it is no coincidence that we have already signed
a major deal with Microsoft for our 2-way SMS solution, Boomerang. The
deal will enable the software giant to exploit the technology with its
partner community, and many other leading software publishers and
developers are also showing a keen interest.

Applications already exist, too, which allow businesses to embed an SMS
option into Microsoft Outlook, so that individual users can send and
receive linked text messages via their PCs. This is achieved without
the need for individual inbound numbers, which would be prohibitively
expensive.


Bypassing voicemail

Given the relatively immediacy of a text-based interaction over email,
or even a voice call (less than 50% of phone calls get straight through
to the recipient today, thanks to voicemail and routine call
screening), the ability to exploit the SMS option more readily as a
business tool will be extremely useful in a work context. This applies
equally to sales, customer service, distribution, and accounting or
legal admin.

Once interwoven by a message thread, SMS messages take on a similar
power to that enjoyed by email when first introduced if not greater,
because the population with a mobile phone is much broader
demographically than that with access to email. Options exist to
protect the anonymity of the sender and recipient, too, paving the way
for online dating applications, discrete charity donations and so on.


Productivity progress

In this day and age, where immediate, live communications are
considered to be at the centre of many critical business challenges,
including honed productivity, sharper efficiency, and superior customer
service, it is a wonder that SMS has remained untapped for so long.
Existing applications have rendered the mobile handset little more than
a dumb terminal, leaving customers frustrated, rather than delighted,
because of the inability to reply with equal efficiency.

With the reply conundrum addressed, SMS promises to be a small but
significant revolution in the business-customer/business-employee
relationship, breaking down boundaries, enabling direct interaction,
and bringing greater speed and efficiency into the equation.

Embedded into either existing or new business processes, this simple,
two-way, closed-loop SMS-based database communication mechanism offers
a unique means of extending automated workflow and, happily, without
breaking the bank. In the current climate, who can argue with that?

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