With the significant surge in consumption of messaging apps during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital commerce is set to transform considerably.

Over the past decade, messaging has fundamentally changed the way people interact with friends, family, colleagues and companies. At the same time, businesses of all sizes in every industry have embedded modern messaging experiences into their own apps and websites.

Digital businesses are seeing the current COVID-19 situation as an opportunity to improve customer experience at the backdrop of this rapidly evolving messaging landscape.

Abhishek Deshmukh, VP of Engineering & MD Singapore, Zendesk, shares with DigiconAsia some insights into the shifts and usage patterns of messaging apps, and the future of chatbots, multilingual virtual assistants and in-chat payments.

What are some key trends in usage and convergence of messaging technologies, especially in Asia Pacific?

Abhishek: From chatbots to voice assistants and emojis, conversational technology has become mainstream, changing the way we stay connected with the world. While Asia Pacific’s messaging landscape remains fragmented and diverse, WhatsApp and WeChat continue to dominate the conversation.

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, Singapore is the global leader in delivering a seamless service experience, especially in retail (68%), travel (63%) and financial services (60%). These are also some of the top industries in Southeast Asia to adopt messaging channels like WhatsApp and LINE for customer engagement.

When it comes to customer satisfaction, messaging apps have the highest rating of any channel, with a customer satisfaction (CSAT) score of 98%. In 2020, we’ll see APAC businesses deploying conversational technologies to make messaging an instrumental tool in their digital commerce mix, improving sales and customer relationships.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the adoption and use of messaging apps, chatbots and digital commerce?

Abhishek: COVID-19 has altered the way businesses and customers interact, as working from home and social distancing becomes the norm. The pandemic has forced customers to fast track virtual alternatives in all aspects of their lives, including turning to chatbots and mobile messaging for immediate, real-time customer support. In turn, this has accelerated digital transformation roadmaps for many businesses as they rethink how they can scale their self-service operations to continue delivering reliable, seamless customer service, while also taking pressure off remote support teams.

We are seeing these shifts in our Benchmark data as well – WhatsApp usage spiked by 101%, followed by live chat (+34%), and texting (+30%) since the last week of February this year. AI-powered chatbots have also come in handy to digital commerce businesses to deflect tickets by proactively directing customers to relevant resources that help them address their inquiries.

Prior to COVID-19, the chatbot market was projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29.7% to $9.4 billion by 2024. Looking ahead, messaging will only continue to gain a broader appeal with the ongoing pandemic.

How are chatbots being integrated into the fabric of digital commerce for better customer experience?

Abhishek: Chatbots often appear as a proactive chat window that pops up while customers navigate through a digital commerce platform’s website or mobile app. They help automate certain aspects of the customer experience (CX), such as addressing common inquiries about products, offering assistance when it detects inactivity on a particular webpage, directing visitors to FAQs, or alerting them about shipping and tax policies.

Thanks to the growing ecosystem of providers, the increasing sophistication of AI and machine learning capabilities that powers chatbots makes it easier for organizations to integrate them and create better CX for digital commerce. Questions that a chatbot may have failed to answer correctly can be analyzed and trained with new information to ensure it gets it right the next time. As chatbots field more inquiries, they become even better at providing in-context recommendations.

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, chat is currently the dominant self-help channel for Malaysians (18.2%) and Indonesians (16.4%) in Southeast Asia, reflecting how consumer behavior is being shaped by mobile-first economies.

What are some key concerns about chatbots vs human?

Abhishek: There has been an ongoing debate about whether chatbots are replacing jobs – when they’re actually here to help. Customer support has always historically been human-to-customer, while self-service is limited to automated support like chatbots or knowledge centers. It was rare to see a crossover in a single customer interaction. However, our research shows that while 35% of people prefer an instant response from a chatbot to a delayed reply from a person, 60% want to be able to speak to a human at any given point during an engagement with AI.

I expect to see more use cases of chatbots supporting customer interactions and then intelligently handing them over to support agents moving forward. That’s because while AI will continue to evolve and improve the function of chatbots, humans will always have a part to play. Afterall, many situations in customer service still call for empathy and the human touch.

Will in-chat payments be the key to unlocking conversational commerce at scale?

Abhishek: With 83% of online shoppers needing support to complete a purchase, chat plays a crucial part in the conversational customer journey, which is about to get a whole lot easier with future developments. With Apple Pay built in to Apple Business Chat, and Facebook spearheading various projects including WhatsApp Pay and Facebook Pay to Instagram launching Checkout, these innovations for in-chat payments will be key to unlocking conversational commerce at scale. They provide an ease of convenience for people to shop and complete their payments without ever leaving the app.

As messaging APIs from various apps such as WhatsApp, Google and Apple are made widely available for integration across different platforms, chat will become an increasingly powerful tool in the e-commerce mix. Businesses can not only leverage conversational technologies to improve customer acquisition, in-chat payments can also improve customer engagements and shorten sales cycles.

In Asia Pacific’s multilingual landscape, how do you see the development and deployment of multilingual voice-enabled virtual agents going forward?

Abhishek: Our research shows that round-the-clock availability and quick response to inquiries have a huge impact on customer satisfaction. Increasingly, that means being able to communicate across language barriers, especially in Asia Pacific. The ability to speak with your customers in their own language is crucial to establishing greater trust in the relationship, which plays a big part in all stages of the purchasing cycle.

Multiple language support is important to facilitate cross-border commerce, and will determine how quickly a business can grow by scaling to meet increasing customer demands across both existing and new markets. Keeping these learnings in mind for voice-enabled virtual agents, we have recently extended the language support for Zendesk’s Answer Bot, which now includes Chinese, Japanese, Thai and more, with the added ability of understanding uncommon language.