Text messaging was first developed by cellular network manufacturers as a way for engineers to communicate with each other. But text, or short messaging service (SMS), has been the surprise success of the mobile industry. The Mobile Data Association (MDA) says UK mobile users today send over two billion texts a month.
But business take-up of SMS has been slower. The MDA estimates that only 14% of text messages are sent for business reasons. This has led mobile network operators, such as Vodafone, to run business-specific advertising campaigns to promote SMS. A text message can, the network argues, be a quick, convenient way to tell someone you are running late, or to say thank you after a meeting.
But polite as these niceties can be, the growth in business text messaging is more likely to come from vertical markets, and from communications either to or from customers.
One issue standing in the way of greater use of SMS is the design of mobile handsets – developed primarily for voice – and the lack of any structured way to archive business texts.
Most people (except teenagers) find texting slow and awkward. Newer devices like smartphones with alphanumeric keyboards will help, but they do not solve the archiving issue. This limits what a mobile worker can do with text to simple messages that do not need to be kept for future reference. Communication from the central office to mobile workers, though, is a far more mature proposition. A range of vendors offer PC to text gateways, some using a messaging application such as Microsoft Exchange and some based around a web interface.
Service providers offering SMS gateways usually offer message fees far below those on mobile phone tariffs, with a cost per message of around 2p fairly common for companies sending more than 5,000 messages a month. This, and the possibility of integrating text messaging with call centre or CRM software, makes it a viable way for companies to pass customer messages to staff in the field, whether they are engineers or sales teams. And, unlike mobile email, SMS works with any phone.
Web and ecommerce developers Digital Ink have created such a service for a firm of financial advisers, but have gone a stage further and linked it directly to the client’s web site. If a client requests a call from an adviser, software uses postcodes to route it to the nearest member of staff. He or she can then call the customer to make an appointment.
According to Digital Ink, the gateway cost only a few hundred pounds to develop, and has brought quick benefits to the client in terms of customer satisfaction. But Digital Ink also has its sights on what mobile commerce observers believe is a far larger market: communications from companies to their customers.
Digital Ink is developing SMS applications for several rugby and football clubs around London, with a view to helping them maximise ticket sales. The clubs send registered fans text messages with late ticket availability, for example for replays. And with replica shirts an important source of revenue, clubs could use texts to allow fans to reserve new strips.
SMS service vendor TextAnywhere has also found interest in the sports and leisure industry, including from a chain of health and fitness clubs. The company, which sells a web-based text service, has set up a system that allows club managers to email members with promotions such as guest days or personal training sessions. Member response, TextAnywhere claims, has been very positive.
Away from sport, the company has created a customer service system for Manchester-based Mail Order Phones, a three-year-old mobile phone provider. The company uses text messaging to communicate customer services messages, including information about upgrades and contract renewals.
The company has not yet integrated the text messaging service with its back office applications, instead using the web-based front end. But the time and cost savings over using a mobile handset are substantial, says MD Nick Goodenough.
Mail Order Phones sends simple messages asking customers to call the company on its toll-free number, allowing subscribers to call back at their convenience. Moreover, a call centre can reach far more customers in a day using group SMS than it could with voice calls.
The company recently used the system to advise over 100 customers that a particular model of phone was out of stock. Within an hour, 20 customers had called back to make alternative arrangements. As long as text messages are used appropriately, Goodenough says, customers are happy to receive them. And the savings to Mail Order Phones – cutting the time taken to complete a job from a day to a few hours – have been substantial.