Chatbots and personalisation: the impact of COVID-19 on communication

Viber cristina-constandache
Cristina Constandache
Chief Revenue Officer at Rakuten Viber
Chatbots and personalisation: the impact of COVID-19 on communication

(Originally published on The Drum, April 2020)

With digital communication methods in the spotlight thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, brands are re-examining how they interact with customers. How can you strengthen relationships with loyal customers and establish new ones in a time of rapid digital change?

Ironically, the current circumstances have actually led to people communicating more. With a quarter of the world’s population on lockdown, a lot of people now have more time to focus on building, strengthening or restarting relationships free from outside distractions. In many cases, we find ourselves talking more and having more meaningful conversations.

From a business perspective, I think it forces brands to completely rethink their communication strategy – how they communicate, who they communicate with, and what they communicate. Quite apart from showing empathy and contributing to the community effort where they can, a lot of businesses are focussing their communications on existing customers and customer care rather than acquiring new customers, which I think is the right approach. I can’t imagine any business at this time would indiscriminately push promotional campaigns. As a business, I would want to take care of my existing customers, make sure they are ok and that they have confidence in the product and the means to continue to buy my product or engage with my service, whatever it may be. So there’s a clear shift from sales messaging to customer care.

Going digital for the first time

Lots of businesses are also now dipping their toe into the digital space for the first time. It’s obvious why – the brick-and-mortar shops are closed, so of course, they’re forced to focus on digital. 

Those just starting out with digital should choose a communication method that’s personal, interactive and engaging. You shouldn’t just be sending out blanket newsletters via email marketing. No one wants to receive them at the best of times, let alone now. Rather, you want a channel where users can answer back, and engage with the brand by asking for info, help, or to try a new range of products/services. Only messaging can offer this kind of real-time response. It’s a dual-way of communicating, rather than one-way. If you want to respond to marketing emails, you need to look for a customer care email address or phone number… it’s a hassle. We’re all at home, we’re all in communication mode, is that the right strategy to pursue? Probably not.

Now that most brands don’t have a physical presence, it’s more important than ever to establish a dialogue with your customers. Forward-looking brands understand this. And if your customer care workers can’t come to work because of social distancing or they’re self-isolating? That’s why god created chatbots. It doesn’t take months or even weeks of development to create a basic chatbot. So you can – and should – still help out your customers during this difficult time.

Staying safe

Security is another thing to consider. You want to be sure that whatever channel you use, you have the same peace of mind as you would during an in-person chat. If you’re worried your conversation isn’t private, it adds unnecessary stress. And I think we all have enough stress in our lives right now.

Evidently lots of people agree, as we’ve seen Viber use quadruple in the last month. And that’s just peer-to-peer messages, it doesn’t include people communicating with brands. But that’s increased too, which goes against the grain for this time of year.

The new normal?

It’s too early to speculate, but the current situation could have long-lasting effects on how we communicate. A lot depends on where we are economically speaking once we get out of this. But I would imagine messaging apps will be the go-to choice for customer care in an omnichannel strategy. A lot of companies have had their hands forced to adapt to this new reality, and so they’ve incorporated messaging into their strategy at a much more rapid pace than they usually would have – we’re talking under a month for what would normally take them three to four months. Once they see what can be done, they could well continue like this after the crisis, because it’s more cost-effective, gets higher rates of engagement, and it’s a lot more personal. Why would they go back?

If we assume that this crisis will have a very strong economic impact, a lot of consumers will be reluctant or unable to go back to their previous purchasing patterns. They won’t revert to the type of mass consumption from before the crisis, but will be much more careful about what they buy. This means they will demand personalised offers, personalised services, and the personalised marketing approach that messaging gives you. 

They will have more choice too – a lot of these smaller companies have a head start, because they’re a lot more advanced in terms of digital communications compared to more established, traditional players. Traditional companies will have to work hard to catch up. It could level the playing field somewhat, which would be good for consumers.

However the current crisis plays out, it’s obvious messaging has an important part to play for both consumers and brands alike.