Smoothing the Path for Mobile Customer Support

Retailers and app developers share best practices on providing in-app customer care.
Customer Service

Consumers who are inseparable from their smartphones and apps increasingly represent the average customer across industries, placing pressure on companies to deliver excellent mobile experiences. In August, comScore reported Americans spend the majority of their time consuming digital media within mobile applications.

Apps account for seven out of every eight minutes of media consumption on mobile devices and when broken down between smartphones and tablets, they account for 88 percent and 82 percent of usage, respectively, according to the study.

With mobile app usage on the rise, it's critical for companies to offer customer service directly from their apps or risk negative reviews and customer loss. For example, John Porter, owner of Kitch n' Kaffe, a kitchenware store and coffee bar in Mahopac, N.Y., wanted a quick way to respond to customers in the store who need assistance. For customers who would rather send a text message than look for an employee to help them, Porter posted signs throughout the store two months ago with a QR code for customers to scan if they needed assistance.

The QR code is powered by a startup, Satisfi, that provides a platform where customers can select an issue from a checklist, such as "I can't find an item" or "an employee was rude to me" or type in their own request, and submit their feedback along with their email address.

Porter receives the feedback as a text message and can immediately respond via text or email, even when he isn't at the store. "What I like about this app is it lets customers reach me in real time," he says. "One customer, for example, had already left the store but let me know he couldn't find a certain item. I emailed the customer and quickly solved the problem."

Satisfi also allows clients to set up automated responses to complaints. Porter says he directly responds to most messages since he only receives an average of three to four text messages each week from customers. He acknowledges that the service would be less useful if he received a constant stream of complaints but notes, "if I was getting overwhelmed with complaints, then I've got bigger issues to worry about."

Addressing customer issues before they lead to a negative review on sites like Yelp and Facebook is critical, Porter adds. Even though there is no guarantee that customers will avoid airing their complaints on social media sites, he hopes addressing issues within a private channel will decrease the chances of complaints being splashed across the Web.

"Luckily, I haven't gotten to the point where a customer was steaming," Porter says, "And even if customers don't provide their email addresses and just want to leave an anonymous complaint, at least they're venting to me."

Providing in-app customer care is also an opportunity to engage customers at critical points, notes Abinash Tripathy, chief executive officer of Helpshift, a company that offers mobile-based customer service capabilities.

"The only way most users contacted app companies in the past was through social channels, email, or review boards, but it's not easy to jump to a browser on a mobile app without having to close out of what you were doing," Tripathy says. "We wanted to help companies better engage with customers on their apps."

The company offers a software development kit (SDK) that lets companies communicate with customers via in-app chat or messaging features. As an example, Tripathy points to a customer, online retailer ModCloth.

ModCloth's app lets shoppers browse through photos of clothing and accessories and make purchases directly from the app.

ModCloth identified areas with the highest abandonment rates where customers tend to drop off before completing the transaction. The company used Helpshift's SDK to embed chat options in those areas. When a customer enters a conversation with a Modcloth representative, Helpshift uses device information like the IP address and network, as well as any available CRM data to identify the user's past interactions with the retailer.

"So if ModCloth says, for example, I want to know how many items this person has placed in her cart and whether she is a returning customer or first-time user, they get all these signals via the conversation and agents can jump right in because they have so much context and can close the sale," Tripathy explains.

Customers prefer the chat option instead of a phone call since it allows them to get a real-time response quickly, says Audrey Griffith, director of customer care at ModCloth. "From a care standpoint, we are able to address multiple customers at one time making it super efficient for the team and the customer," she says."We have also been able to collect data around the interactions to drive strategic change and speak more relevantly to other parts of the organization."

Griffith declined to comment on the amount of churn reduced by chat, but Tripathy noted that his clients see an average of 30 percent to 40 percent churn reductions. Other clients include Flipboard, Wordpress, and mobile game developer Supercell.

In June HelpShift raised $10 million in Series A funding, which it is using to further develop its offerings in text or chat-based support, according to Tripathy. "We're not making a bet on voice support," he says. "Phone-based support is expensive whereas chat is efficient, especially on apps and we think the right support for mobile is chat."

Some companies, such as the travel agency CheapOair, see a continuing value in providing agents who can speak with customers over the phone. The travel company offers an app where users can book reservations and tap a customer service icon to speak with an agent. "[We] encourage our customers to call us directly," comments Chief Operating Officer Werner Kunz, who adds that the app also lets users fill out a feedback form on the app.

CheapOair's app has been downloaded more than three million times, but only 2 percent of customers contact the travel agency's customer support through the app according to Kunz, suggesting that consumers may not be accustomed to interacting with customer service agents through an app or have fewer reasons to do so.

Jeromy Ko, brand analyst at digital marketing agency The Social Firm, notes that customer service has become a core function of many apps, even though apps also provide standard help features. For example, the Columbus, Ohio-based agency created an app for a company called Rite Rug Flooring that is designed to help consumers sample different types of flooring.

The app, Flooring at Your Fingertips, offers 25 flooring styles for users to place over a digital version of a room and call or message a sales representative. There is also a feature to find the nearest Rite Rug location so customers can speak with specialists from a specific store.On the backend, user data shows Rite Rug Flooring which products are getting the most traffic and which ones are under-performing.

"We believe that this app is at its heart, a customer support application," Ko says. "The app itself is our agent and the advantage of building an app around the customers is that you put the power in their hands."

If a customer has additional questions, the app offers an FAQ section and a "report a bug" feature, he adds.The app is awaiting final approval in Google Play and the Apple App Store. It's expected to launch in a few weeks and based on test models, The Social Firm estimates that the app will increase in-home shopping leads by 25 percent.

Increasingly, service industries like airlines, hotels, and retailers are rolling out apps with self-service features as the core functionality, combined with marketing features like push notifications. This trend points to a merger of customer service and marketing features, notes Mike Lazerow, CMO of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

Cloud-computing giant has been ramping up on its mobile offerings, including in-app customer service and marketing capabilities. Earlier this month, the company unveiled Salesforce Service Cloud1, which includes chat capabilities and the ability to interact with clients on video on an app. Clients could potentially combine customer feedback and other data from Service Cloud1 with's other solutions, such as Journey Builder for Apps, which lets companies connect data from an app with other databases to map out a more comprehensive customer journey.

"A lot of the companies we work with don't see a difference between service and marketing," Lazerow says. "If you look at the Delta [Airlines] app for example, I can research and book flights on the app without speaking to anyone and Delta can also send me offersit's about serving the customer in a frictionless way."