Courtesy of Salesforce
By Heather Clancy
December 13, 2016

These days, you’re at least slightly more likely to find someone sending messages from their mobile phone than making a phone call, a trend that is not lost on managers responsible for customer service strategy.

Software companies including Facebook (fb) and Zendesk (zen) have moved to support that shift more explicitly over the past 18 months. Now, cloud applications powerhouse Salesforce (crm) is doing the same with updates to its service desk offering. The changes are made possible by technology it gained through its September acquisition of mobile messaging software specialist HeyWire.

Among the revisions is the addition of a new feature called LiveMessage, which enables contact center agents or support teams that use the Salesforce Service Cloud system to answer inquiries and handle customer conversations via Facebook Messenger and basic SMS applications alongside traditional methods such as phone calls or email. Salesforce is also adding bots that can be used to automate routine exchanges, such as communicating about a product order or return process, until the customer requests the intervention of an agent.

While the HeyWire service has been available for some time as an add-on to Salesforce applications, its capabilities are now a native part of the main Service Cloud management console, starting at $75 per user per month, said Meredith Flynn-Ripley, vice president of product, messaging, at Salesforce. The idea is to allow agents to move between these methods without the customer really noticing. “We believe the future of customer service is conversations between people, between agents, betweens bots, between devices,” she said.

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One company already making use of the Salesforce messaging software is quick-serve restaurant Wendy’s, which allows individual store locations to collect feedback through numbers listed on the bags used for takeout orders. The messaging software could also be used for scenarios such as helping a hospital use bots to schedule patient appointments. If an individual can’t confirm a time using the bot, the exchange could be escalated to a human agent.

Flynn-Ripley said the use of messaging as a customer service tool will accelerate quickly over the next two to three years. Not only are consumers using messages more heavily to communicate, but this method could also save money for companies compared with the cost of handling incidents with telephone exchanges, she said.

Prior to assuming her Salesforce role, Flynn-Ripley was the CEO and co-founder of Cambridge, Mass.-based HeyWire, which raised about $30 million during its life as an independent company. (It underwent two different rebrandings and was previously known as Integra5 and Media Friends.) The artificial intelligence aspects of the LiveMessage service were talked up during the annual Salesforce conference, Dreamforce, in early October.

While Facebook Messenger is the first messaging app to be supported, it won’t be the last. Expect support for other wide using apps during 2017, Flynn-Ripley said.

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