WhatsApp for better customer service

The impact of personal messaging on your business

★★★ includes 5 best practices and lots of tips & tricks ★★★

Chapter 4

The messaging landscape in 2019

I was talking to Ed Sander, a Dutch database marketing specialist who lived in China from 2011 to 2013. He was mainly doing volunteer work, like teaching marketing basics to NGOs in China. When he arrived in the country, there was a vigorous shake-out going on amongst various Chinese social media apps, wanting to be China’s number #1 Facebook-clone. After all, Facebook had long been banned, because the Chinese government didn’t like that fact they had absolutely no control over Facebook’s content.

Facebook clones were popping up all over the country. But one fine day in July or August 2011, Ed knew the race was over – and social networking had not won it. ‘I started noticing that people all around me were holding their phones all wrong: they were talking to it by holding it close to their mouths instead the usual phone-on-ear pose. As it turned out, these people were all Weixin users, and they were messaging each other.’[28]

Weixin/WeChat: the #1 messaging app in China

That’s the China-effect: sheer numbers matter. There are so many Chinese and Indian people connected to the internet these days, that even a small percentage of fans can shoot an app into the Wall of Fame like a rocket into space. Still, Weixin (aka WeChat) hasn’t quite got a billion users like WhatsApp, and less users than Facebook messenger.

GlobalWebIndex (GWI) published an interesting report[29] about WeChat. Felim McGrath, senior trends analyst at GWI: ‘The China-effect makes WeChat by far the most popular app across Asia, even if it occupies second, third or fourth position in most of the continent’s other markets.’

The very same China-effect will be enormous on the way we’ll communicate in the future. The Chinese way of messaging, in particular, will influence the quality of customer service everywhere immensely. In brick and mortar stores around the world, customers still have a lot to endure: bad-tempered, ignorant or indifferent shop assistants, limited stock, restrictive opening hours. On WeChat, however, customer is king.

Brands that don’t treat their customers well (by offering bad customer service, bad products or bad content) are hugely ignored on WeChat. Only if they create relevant and engaging content will they build a good relationship with their customers, using their favourite app. Only happy customers actively return to check out new updates from their favourite brands, like an on-going conversation. WeChat is conversational commerce at its best.

Swiss army knife meets magic wand

WeChat was launched in January 2011 by online behemoth Tencent, one year after WhatsApp saw the light. It started off as just another messaging app. But if you want to be the greatest, you must innovate continuously – similar to Zara and H&M, fashion brands that introduce new collections every six to eight weeks. WeChat still introduces an important new feature at least once every quarter.

Five months after its launch, WeChat played a killer move: it introduced voice messaging[30] (something Facebook copied only in January 2013, and WhatsApp in August 2013) and took China by storm. Sending voice messages turned out very useful to a people with as complex a language as Mandarin, with about 5.000 different characters used regularly. If it takes you that long to write a text message, wouldn’t you rather talk to your phone walkie-talkie style rather than typing ‘Pinyin’ in phonotype or drawing each character from in strokes on your screen?

WeChat is now used to do almost anything. It’s a productivity tool as versatile as a Swiss army knife, and as quick as a magic wand. People love using it, because it makes them do whatever faster than ever before. Imagine WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Groupon, Tinder and Instagram put together, plus the following functionalities:

generate and scan QR codes;

  • hail a cab, for instance to go straight to the friend you’re chatting with;
  • book a restaurant, order a movie, get train and flight tickets;
  • pay in convenience stores, pay friends, split bills;
  • use public city services (i.e. make appointment for passport renewal);
  • pay utility bills;
  • deposit money in WeChat’s high interest options;
  • pay and charge mobile phones (cheaper than the mobile operators).

Facebook Messenger wants in

The Chinese copycat era is ending. China is starting to stand on its own feet, leaving Mark Zuckerberg looking eagerly to the East for inspiration. Now that people can hail an Uber cab without leaving the Facebook Messenger environment[31], Zuck has finally gone conversational – by copying one of WeChat’s features.

The tables have turned: West is copying East, and Facebook Messenger is slowly turning into WeChat. ‘Integrations with other apps, payments, brand communication – they’re all coming to Messenger,’ Felim confirms, ‘whilst Zuckerberg keeps WhatsApp as pure a messaging system as possible, which will help Facebook expand in emerging markets.’

If we do what Zuck thinks we’ll do, we’ll all be moving onto Facebook Messenger soon, and WhatsApp will find new users in emerging markets.

WeChat for businesses

Chances are that as a Western business with no interest in China, you won’t be using WeChat ever at all. Why should you care about WeChat, really? Because China is changing our future, and we will be using something WeChat-like very soon. And yes, perhaps it will be Facebook Messenger, whose future looks promising.

My advice is to learn now what WeChat is all about, in order to be one step ahead of your competitors when Facebook Messenger (or another upcoming app) is finally the West’s #1 messaging app. In that future, you’re doing quite the same as what Chinese businesses are doing right now on WeChat.

Let’s zoom in. There are two ways in which brands can claim their spot on WeChat[32] (courtesy of Ed Sanders):

A subscription account empowers companies to reach out to their potential customers by sending out messages like newsletters. Subscription accounts are pretty basic and a little old-fashioned, perfect for group messages. These messages are grouped in a separate folder, making them less visible to WeChat users than service account messages.

A service account empowers customers to get in touch easily and directly. A service account gets you a mini mobile site within WeChat, plus some interesting ecommerce features like interactive menus and mobile payments. If users have a question they can easily reach out, and their question must be answered with 48 hours – that’s the rule.

WeChat service accounts in particular are a huge step in the evolution of customer service. Customers can do so many things with WeChat. This includes buying stuff quickly and easily from special mobile WeChat shops that are connected to WeChat Payment and whose customer support team can be reached just as quickly and easily. Communicating with customers directly, as if you live in their pocket, will make conversational commerce the norm instead of something strange and scary.

Living in your customers’ pockets

WeChat was built for mobile, and is indeed mainly used by the mobile-first generation. These are mainly young people who never owned a pc or a laptop, because they didn’t have that kind of money. They now, however, own a smartphone – and it never leaves their aura. They use it all the time – and not for browsing the world wide web, but the worldwide living room, with the worldwide marketplace right there, too.

Unlike WhatsApp, WeChat’s API is as open as possible: the company makes money by allowing third parties to tap into its enormous user base. WeChat is like a giant, very busy mall, and the brand stores in this mall all pay the mall-owner good money, allowing them to stay in business there[33]. If your brand only has a website, chances are slim that the mobile-first potential customers will ever see it. Claim a space on WeChat, however, and they might just see you and like you! You’ll have to attract their attention, though…

Who is “they”? These are the WeChat demographics, according to GWI:

WeChat is popular in the younger age groups and higher-income quartiles. After teen favourite Snapchat, it actually has one of the youngest user bases on any chat app, helping to explain why usage is higher among the much-coveted 16-24 group.
WeChat has become an important force in many other Asian countries too, with about 3 in 10 being active users in Hong Kong and Malaysia. That 26% of the online population in India (mostly of Chinese background, but still) is using WeChat is key too: taken together, the size of the online populations in China and India are colossal (what’s more, the numbers of internet users in both countries are rising sharply each year).
WeChat users are most likely to “follow” people they know in real-life via social media. However, an impressive 53% says they’re following their favourite brands. And with close to half saying they follow brands they’re thinking of purchasing from, the importance of WeChat as a brand-consumer touchpoint is clear[34].

Read that last bit again:

An impressive 53% says they’re following their favourite brands. And with close to half saying they follow brands they’re thinking of purchasing from, the importance of WeChat as a brand-consumer touchpoint is clear.

About half of all WeChat users follow the brands they love on WeChat, quite ready to buy something from those brands. They’ve come to converse, to communicate with brands that grab their attention. So learn how to stand out. Read everything you can about WeChat, play around with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger so you can move onto the next level as soon as a WeChat-like app gains momentum in the Western world.

The rise of artificial intelligence

In the meantime, another race is being run: there’s an “AI arms race”[35] going on, and all of the big boys are involved. All over the world, scientists are vigorously “working toward a future where artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality are commonplace”[36].

Facebook is also working on a laser communications system to beam data from the sky right into rural communities, which is pretty smart as they can then introduce WhatsApp to those emerging markets (and Messenger once they’re advanced enough). Also, if Zuck’s dream comes true, human beings will be immune to diseases in the future. In fact, there’s already an AI machine (IBM machine Watson) assisting hospital doctors[37], transforming healthcare as we speak.

Artificial intelligence is here, and together with messaging, it will change the future of customer service forever.

Take a look at these headlines:

January 2014 – Google acquires a ‘secretive’ artificial intelligence company called DeepMind Technologies, which builds learning algorithms for simulations, e-commerce and games[38].

October 2014 – Google acquires Dark Blue Labs and Vision Factory, two Oxford University spin-off companies specialising in machine learning and computer vision.

Mid 2014 – Facebook creates a Behavior Modification Laboratory, aka the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Laboratory (FAIR Lab).

January 2015 – Facebook acquires Wit.ai, a company that makes it easier for companies to build their own ‘Siri’, an intelligent virtual assistant or AI bot who can turn natural language into ‘actionable data’ (like book a restaurant for you or jokes around a bit).

April 2015 – Facebook adds 6 AI experts to its FAIR Lab.

June 2015 – Facebook opens a second FAIR Lab in Paris (FAIR Paris).

October 2015 – Apple acquires Perceptio, a company that makes image-recognition technology for smartphones.

October 2015 – Four days later, Apple acquires VocalIQ, a start-up developing technology to help computers understand human speech.

January 2016 – Apple acquires Emotient, a start-up that uses artificial intelligence to analyse people’s facial expressions and read their emotions.

February 2016 – Microsoft acquires Swiftkey, maker of a predictive keyboard powered by artificial intelligence installed on countless smartphones worldwide.

A few years from now, big brands will get so many questions directly from customers that their customer service teams will be too big to handle. Enter the virtual assistant, aka the chatbot. ‘We need it to make conversation commerce a scalable option,’ Jarno Duursma, social media expert in the Netherlands, says.

AI is going to take over a part of business communication. ‘We don’t yet know how that will work exactly,’ Jarno admits, ‘but I’m sure that large customer service teams will be supported by a virtual assistant between now and five to ten years.’ I can only agree whole-heartedly, and so would Ted Livingston, founder of Kik:

The beauty of bots: [they] can reduce friction to as close to zero as computing allows.[39]

AI is already present – albeit not all that impressive yet – in Facebook (M), Apple (Siri), Google (Now), Microsoft (Cortana). According to Jarno, M is the best so far. ‘And it will undoubtedly improve even further. Facebook is financially capable of buying AI companies just to reel in the best artificial intelligence experts.’ Apart from lots of money and a smart team, the Facebook company gets top-notch data to feed its AI bots: Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are like 3 big data-cows. Facebook will definitely be part of our future – it can’t not be.

Her is here

For now, the future’s still in China. The best chatbot of them all (though I can’t verify that without Mandarin knowledge) is XiaoIce, a text-based chatbot developed by Microsoft for the Chinese market. “Little Bing” is a true conversationalist: allegedly, she’s witty, sensitive, cultured and sweet, chatting away as naturally as a friend. To learn how we humans tick, XiaoIce taps into as many social media messages as she can and ‘reads’ them.

When XiaoIce was released for a public test on WeChat on May 29 [2015], she received 1.5 million chat group invitations in the first 72 hours. Many people said that they didn’t realize she isn’t a human until 10 minutes into their conversation[40].

1 in 4 of its over 40 million users have already declared their love for XiaoIce[41]. To Microsoft that must be a confirmation that XiaoIce has turned out just the way they wanted her to: ‘An example of the vast potential that artificial intelligence holds — not to replace human tasks and experiences, but rather to augment them.’[42]

One day pretty soon, artificial intelligence will be so advanced that chatbots can offer better customer service than a human being. And customers won’t care. Whether they’re being helped out by a human being or by a chatbot is irrelevant – as long as they’re being helped quickly and well. In fact, they’d rather buy from a brand with a good chatbot than from a brand they can’t reach out to and don’t have a true relationship with.


  1. For the Dutchies: check out this very interesting talk by Ed Sander on YouTube, hosted by Jarno Duursma in Groningen.
  2. GWI PROFILE Q1 2015 on WeChat, GlobalWebIndex
  3. More about WeChat’s evolution on ChinaChannel.
  4. ‘You Can Now Order Ubers (And Soon Lyfts) In Facebook Messenger To Prove You’re On Your Way’, December 2015, TechCrunch
  5. ‘WeChat: the difference between Subscription and Service brand accounts’, August 2014, Econsultancy
  6. In fact, my first company, Livecom, made one of those apps for China Telecom. That was worth a party in Amsterdam and Shanghai…
  7. GWI PROFILE Q1 2015 on WeChat, GlobalWebIndex
  8. ‘Apple has bought 2 artificial-intelligence companies in 4 days’, October 2015, Business Insider
  9. ‘Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the future is full of artificial intelligence, telepathy, and virtual reality’, July 2015, Venturebeat
  10. ‘Six ways IBM is putting Watson to work in hospitals’, November 2015, Mobihealthnews
  11. DeepMind’s generic self-learning algorithms can now outperform humans on arcade games.
  12. ‘The Future of Chat Isn’t AI’, March 2016, Medium
  13. ‘Your Next New Best Friend Might Be a Robot’, February 2016, Nautilus
  14. ‘For Sympathetic Ear, More Chinese Turn to Smartphone Program’, July 2015, New York Times
  15. November 2015, Microsoft official blog