Messaging and conversation experience designed for customers: How to boost social engagement and sales conversion? | Layer

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An Open Letter to Retail

Yes, retail can be saved

Retail, You Have a Problem. I’m worried about you, retail.

One of the first jobs I ever had was at Best Buy. I was just 16 years old and a much quieter individual at the time. Having to educate customers about new technologies really taught me how to have meaningful and empathetic conversations with people. It’s a valuable lesson I’ve never forgotten as my career has shifted toward tech startups and that human connection is one of the reasons why I love retail so much.

You used to be the ones in charge, but now a $350 billion bully is taking your lunch money.

Traditional big box retailers have watched their revenues decline slowly over the past 10 years—holidays are bringing less and less foot traffic, cost per good sold is increasing, and margins are wasting away.

Now, you’re facing a do-or-die moment. It’s sad to say, but you have to change. Don’t worry, though. Change can be difficult, but it also brings an opportunity—the chance to monumentally alter the way people purchase goods (for the better).

Every retailer has two options. Are you going to be the company with the Circuit City five-year plan? Or are you going to be the retailer that embraces digital and thrives in a 20+ year future?

Amazon—The Ever-Growing Giant

Let’s talk about the 800-pound gorilla that is Amazon. Ever since the introduction of Amazon Prime in 2005, the looming giant has been chipping away at retail market share and converting it to e-Commerce. It’s been more than a decade of dominance that can’t be denied.

Hindsight is 20/20, but what if retail started taking action against Amazon early on? You certainly would have if you had lost 50% of your market share in just one year (instead of 10). But for more than 10 years, Amazon has slowly beaten retail at its own game.

Amazon offers the same products at the same (or better) prices as big box retailers—all with better accessibility and free two-day shipping. Consumers are like lightning. They’ll always find the path of least resistance and Amazon has provided just that.

You could try to go head-to-head against Amazon with the same game you’ve always played—the one Amazon has stolen from your hands. To some extent, this is what Best Buy is doing with its “New Blue” strategy for digital transformation. However, incremental differences are exactly what will keep Amazon in control.

Instead, you have to focus on creating monumental differentiation. This means playing a new game that capitalizes on Amazon’s weakness.

The Problem with Reviews and the Chink in Amazon’s Armor

We all know that when the options are fast, good, and cheap, you can only choose two. And while Amazon may seem like the exception to so many rules, this one reveals a weakness that you can exploit to change the retail game.

One thing missing from Amazon’s business is a support staff that can advise customers on informed purchase decisions. No one is going to spend $2,000 on a new television without doing some research. However, Amazon can’t possibly staff product experts for every item it sells. Instead, Amazon has relied solely on customer reviews.

If you’ve ever sifted through thousands of Amazon reviews for a product you’re interested in, you’ve probably noticed that the system is far from perfect. First of all, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the growing volume of fake (or paid) product reviews.

More importantly, there’s a fundamental flaw in consumer product reviews—they’re based on someone else’s specific needs, not yours. One person’s five-star review might be a one-star review for you. Everyone thinks they want a 75-inch television and the one you choose on Amazon might have five stars—but who’s going to tell you that a television that big will be a waste of money if you’re putting it in an eight-foot by eight-foot room?

In the wake of less-than-trustworthy Amazon reviews, we’ve seen the rise of the professional reviewer. Someone like Marques Brownlee can give you high-quality, professional reviews of popular products. The production quality is great and the information is valuable when you’re researching certain products.

However, there’s still something missing with professional reviewers—a focus on the specific products you’re considering. This leaves us with a service gap between professional reviewers who have limited portfolios and the millions of consumer reviewers who don’t have your needs in mind.

Here’s your opportunity to change the retail game. For years, retail hasn’t valued human connection as much as it should. Your employees can fill the reviewer gap and act as product experts for customers.

Digital Transformation Should Start with the Employee Experience

In most industries, digital transformation starts with a focus on the customer experience. But when Amazon is your competition, you can’t just maintain the status quo. Instead of starting with the customer experience, enabling your employees to have valuable conversations with consumers is the key to executing digital transformation in retail.

Even after I stopped working at Best Buy, I used to go to the brick-and-mortar locations for my tech needs. I realized one day that every time I go into the store, I end up spending a lot of time talking to an employee about anything from home theater systems to computers and beyond.

The people working at Best Buy aren’t just knowledgeable about products (when the company brings manufacturers in to train and educate the staff, this isn’t surprising), they’re enthusiastic about them. At a time when availability of goods is commoditized by Amazon, your core product isn’t what’s on the shelves—it’s the employees you’ve trained to make empathetic connections with customers.

Right now, the conversation in retail is all about how you can increase foot traffic at brick-and-mortar stores as Amazon continues to grow. Instead, you should be asking yourself how you empower employees with the tools and processes necessary to connect with customers—both in-store and online.

Returning Retail to Its Former Glory

When I reflect on my retail roots, I realize that the human connection has always been the foundation of my passion for the industry. How can big box retailers like Best Buy, Babies”R”Us, and others take advantage of technology to get back to that former glory?

Saving retail is all about making mobile and customer connectivity part of employee DNA. You already have the infrastructure in place to match Amazon’s distribution (you have more storefronts and product experts out there than Amazon could ever match in the next five years). Now, you need to start facilitating meaningful conversations between your product experts and the consumers who are always researching potential purchases.

I believe messaging technology is the best way to maximize the potential of human connections in retail. Mobile chat has become the universal experience, giving retail employees a chance to have simple, rich, and dynamic conversations with customers.

The combination of chatbots for simple question/answer situations and human interaction for more complicated inquiries can help you design a high-quality customer experience. When product experts can guide consumers through the buying process and make sure their specific needs are met, you’ll start to build trust with customers—the one thing that will help you thrive in a retail world overtaken by Amazon.

So here we are at a fork in the road, retail. You can remain romantic about your past successes and go the way of Circuit City, Kmart, and others. Or you can play a new retail game and return to glory.

We’re trending back toward commerce done at the distance of a handshake and it’s time to get on board.

Algorithms Are Not Enough in Financial Services

Algorithms Are Not Enough in Financial Services

For every article you see about the advantages of emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technology, it seems like there are 3 or 4 discussing how machines are going to take all our jobs.

Finance has been one industry where employees are already experiencing significant displacement. However, financial services firms shouldn’t get carried away with automation.

The most successful firms will be those that can master a hybrid approach to financial management. Computers give you algorithms—but humans facilitate the experiences customers need.

Using Computers for What They Do Best

At times, the outcry about computers displacing human workers goes too far. There’s nothing wrong with automation, but companies have to find the appropriate use cases.

The hallmark case study for computers overtaking humans in financial services is at Goldman Sachs. Back in 2000, Goldman employed about 600 cash equities traders who worked with the firm’s largest clients to buy and sell stocks. As of early 2017 automation has taken hold—only 2 of the 600 traders remain.

According to CFO (and former CIO) Martin Chavez, this is only the beginning of automation at Goldman Sachs. In a recent speech, he explained that “everything we do is underpinned by math and a lot of software.”

The business benefits of automation are clear. Rather than paying high six-figure salaries for 600 traders, the firm only has to pay the 200 computer engineers that have taken their place in that division. When the trades include pricing analysis for things that easily are determined on the market, complex trading algorithms remove the margin for human error.

And Goldman is even starting to implement algorithms for investment trading processes that have typically relied on salesmanship and relationship-building skills. It’s clear that these types of efficiency gains will only increase.

If you take Goldman Sachs as the example, you might think that they’re on a collision course with total human displacement. However, if you look at Goldman’s venture into online retail banking (GS Bank), you start to see the value of balancing computer algorithms with human experiences.

Hybrid Financial Management: Balancing Automation with Human Experience

Streamlining operations with automation has given Goldman Sachs more freedom to pursue other markets. And in early 2016, the firm set its sights on the millennial market by entering the growing online banking sector.

By avoiding the costs of brick-and-mortar retail banking locations, Goldman can keep its delivery costs down and compete with direct banks like Ally, Discover Bank, and Capital One 360 by offering attractive interest rates.

The only problem is that technology can be commoditized and other digital disruptors will always be able to rival Goldman’s product offerings. This is why financial services firms have to balance automation with human interaction—because the customer experience is your key differentiator today.

Despite its aggressive product offerings, GS Bank has seen complications in terms of customer experience. A reliance on IVR systems and the absence of branch offices have showcased the dangers of eliminating human interaction from banking.

While you embrace automation to drive your financial services business forward, you have to make sure you never lose sight of the fact that your human employees are the ones that create customer experiences. If you can create a hybrid financial management platform—one that can automate trading while giving access to humans for greater personalization and service.

Basing your hybrid financial management platform on a universal messaging experience can give you the best of these two worlds. Automation and intelligence can work harmoniously to scale personal human interaction, while delivering value to customers for whom high-touch service would previously have been too expensive.

If you want to learn more about designing a customer experience that lets computers and humans each do what they do best, contact us today for a free demo of the Layer customer conversation platform.

Messaging 101 Series: The Importance of Avatars

Messaging 101 Series: What to Know about Avatars!

Guide to Messaging & Avatars

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But who says pictures can’t be worth more than just a thousand words?

In your messaging experience, pictures/avatars could make the difference between lasting customer engagement and losing business to competitors. At a time when nearly 90% of companies are differentiating themselves through their customer experience, it’s important to add an emotional/human dimension to your messaging experience when it makes sense.

When you’re building out the nuances of your messaging conversation list, you have to consider where avatars fit in.

3 Ways Avatars Improve Your Messaging Experience

As with any aspect of messaging, your use of avatars will depend on the needs of your customers.

However, there are 3 main ways that avatars can improve your messaging experience:

Improve “At a Glance” Convenience: Much like your choices in sorting messages and presenting conversation details, avatars are important components of “at a glance” convenience. When there is a distinctive avatar for each thread in the conversation list, your users can quickly scan and locate the messages they’re looking for.

Establishing Trust in the User Relationship: The internet breeds a sense of anonymity, but that doesn’t mean your digital customer experience has to follow. Adding a face to your interactions with customers can make a significant difference in user engagement. When customers see who they’re speaking with, they start to trust that person (and the brand), which can lead to better sales and lifetime value.

Additional Sorting Information: There are times when users don’t just want to filter their conversation threads by recent activity or unread messages. If your use case has customers opening multiple threads about multiple distinct products, it might help to use an avatar that indicates the subject of each conversation. Don’t think that your avatars always have to be pictures of users—they can come in a variety of forms.

Avatars Aren’t Just For the End-User

When we think about delivering a messaging experience to improve the customer experience, it’s easy to get too focused on the customer side. Avatars are also helpful on the agent side—especially when it’s your sales team interacting with customers.

Take a use case like Trunk Club, for example. When agents are responsible for multiple customer relationships, the conversation list can quickly become chaotic. Having avatars for each conversation can make it easier to locate the specific conversation the agent is looking for.

The easier it is for agents to identify which conversation belongs to each customer, the more effort they can spend making customers as happy as possible.

You build your messaging experience with the customer in mind—but it doesn’t hurt to make life easier for agents, too.

If you’re ready to improve your digital customer experience through messaging, you can dig deeper than just avatars by reading our full Messaging Best Practices Guide.

Introducing Atlas: Open Source Messaging UI Components for Layer

Let’s face it: modern application development is hard. Savvy consumers demand the world from developers: applications that are elegantly designed, buttery smooth, and well integrated with the services and content they love. At Layer, we believe the future is a world of more intimate, connected, digital experiences where applications are woven together with the most human of fabrics: communication.

When an app is empowered with communications it becomes immediately more useful, personal, and engaging. But these benefits come with a steep price tag.

Developers are asked to take on a whole new set of problems around real-time communications. At the same time, advanced consumer messaging applications such as iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp have raised the bar on what can be considered table stakes functionality. Consumers demand not just fast and reliable messaging, but features such as delivery & read receipts, the transmission of photo and video content, and robust offline experiences.

Over the last year thousands of developers have worked with the Layer platform and integrated our native SDKs into their applications, gaining access to simple, elegant APIs that provide world-class messaging primitives with all of the features their users expect and demand. With Layer integrated, developers were freed from the minutiae of networking, persistence, security, and state management and could focus on the core value of their user experience.

But then something funny, and in retrospect, not all that surpising started happening: Developers began pinging us to see if we had any UI code laying around that they could use to bootstrap their integration and accelerate their time to market. For quite awhile we had envisioned creating a set of UI components to complement our SDKs and the iOS and Android teams were already maintaining sample applications for internal dog-fooding. Why not prioritize, polish, and Open Source this work so that all our developers can benefit?

Six months and nearly 3000 Git commits later we are ready to unveil the fruits of this labor and proudly introduce Atlas, a set of native user interface components for Layer-enabled applications.

Atlas is a powerful new tool in the app developer’s kit, extending the leverage offered by Layer beyond infrastructure and core messaging services up through the UI, enabling developers to rapidly add rich messaging to new or existing applications.

Prior to Layer, developers were required to make significant up-front investments in infrastructure, application architecture, and networking to add communications to their apps. With Layer, the infrastructure and architectural requirements are minimized, shifting the development focus to the user interface. Here developers encounter a set of second order bootstrapping problems: an initial user interface must be designed, developed, and integrated with the underlying messaging functionality before the real work of product iteration can begin.

Atlas closes this gap by providing developers with ready made UI components that are well engineered and tightly integrated with the underlying messaging capabilities provided by the Layer SDK’s, enabling product teams to access the collaborative, iterative phase of development in hours rather than days or weeks.

Layer + Atlas Development Cycle

Introducing Atlas

Atlas is a library of user interface components that provide familiar messaging experiences on top of LayerKit, the iOS SDK for Layer. Atlas is composed of a number of fully-integrated user interface experiences as well as the individual views from which the components are constructed. Since the entire communications stack and UI components were built by Layer, these components are are fully functional out of the box and provide an Apple-esque developer experience.

Although this is an initial release, Atlas is packed full of features including:

  • A searchable, selectable address input bar like found in the most popular messaging apps.
  • A Conversation List that displays all the Conversations in which the user is participating. Changes in the latest message or the unread state of the Conversation are automatically updated in the UI.
  • A scrollable, auto-paginating message display experience that manages unread state, optionally displays delivery & read receipts, and overlays a typing indicator as others are typing.
  • A flexible, auto-sizing message input bar that handles text, images, and location updates.
  • A detail view for managing conversations by adding, removing, or blocking participants and deleting or resigning from a conversation.
  • A library of accessory views such as incoming and outgoing bubble cells and a dynamically rendered placeholder image that displays user initials.

Atlas is available immediately as source code from Github or you can experience Atlas now by creating your own Atlas enabled app via Layer.

API Design & Customization

In designing the Atlas API, we focused on achieving three primary objectives:

  1. Provide good looking, high quality implementations of familiar messaging experiences out of the box. By default Atlas is styled to look much like iMessage, the most familiar messaging experience to iOS users.
  2. Enable quick and easy branding of the user experience via integration with UIAppearance and Interface Builder. All fonts, colors, etc. can be customized via an extensive set of UIAppearance selectors. This enables developers to quickly add messaging to an existing application and match the components with the existing style.
  3. Support full customization of the user interface by enabling developers to plug in their own views in any of the experiences. Developers should be able to implement any design while continuing to leverage the scaffolding that is driving the messaging UIs.

Atlas is designed to be both very easy to get started using and scale with the demands of your application as you work to implement your design. If you choose to do so you can register custom cells and views for all of the visual elements, while continuing to leverage the Atlas scaffolding to retrieve and vend appropriate messaging objects to the user interface for rendering.

Getting Started

Atlas provides a whole new level of engineering leverage to developers and we can’t wait to get it into your hands. To make it easier to see Layer and Atlas in action, we are also releasing a fully featured Atlas example application on Github and have created the Experience Atlas Now flow to streamline build and configuration.

Concurrent with the release of Atlas we are pleased to announce that Layer is now generally available and ready to power native communications in your app.

We are eternally thankful to the apps and passionate developers who participated in our early access program, which officially wraps today as we open up the Layer platform. Many of these apps are live in production, today providing excellent communications experiences to their users around the world.

You can get started with Atlas and Layer immediately by visiting the Experience Atlas Now page. And if you’re local to San Francisco, join us for a Meetup at Layer this Monday, March 2 to learn more.

We can’t wait to see what you build.