A small but growing number of companies are encouraging customers to pick up their phones the next time they need assistance. But to send an SMS text, not to make a phone call.

As detailed by Bloomberg’s Justin Bachman, despite its ubiquity, SMS text messaging — “arguably the world’s most favored form of communication” — has largely been ignored as a customer service channel by businesses, particularly large corporations. Instead, SMS has historically been used as a one-way channel to deliver notifications and marketing communications to customers. 

But that is changing.

Case in point: while airlines have long used SMS to deliver information such as flight status updates to their customers, two airlines, Hawaiian and JetBlue, are or will be experimenting with SMS-based customer service.  

Hawaiian Airlines began testing SMS-based customer service in April and recently decided to make the channel permanent. Currently, it handles about 200 texts a day, a tiny number for the eighth-largest commercial carrier in the United States, and interestingly, says that 70% of the SMS inquiries ”don’t involve itineraries or the carrier’s HawaiianMiles program.”

JetBlue has invested in a startup called Gladly, which offers a customer service platform that supports SMS. According to the company, once JetBlue integrates Gladly’s platform into its call center operations, “JetBlue customers will be able to have continuous, real-time conversations through whichever channel they prefer at the moment. They’ll be able to switch communication channels mid-conversation, and JetBlue will be able to pick up where they left off by accessing the full history of conversations with the customer from both current and previous flights.”

The problem with SMS

While there are logical reasons to believe that SMS-based customer service has a future, in large part due to texting’s popularity, it’s not certain that customers will embrace it. There are a number of reasons for this.

For starters, one of texting’s benefits – its asynchronous nature – can also be a drawback under certain circumstances. While many consumers avoid phone customer service like the plague, for urgent or complicated matters customers might very well prefer to speak with a person who can respond to them in real-time. This raises the question as to whether SMS-based customer service will become anything more than an email alternative.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that when it comes to text-based customer service inquiries, it’s possible that many individuals will turn to social media channels like Twitter before they use SMS. As some observed in a discussion thread about SMS-based customer service on Hacker News, companies have an incentive to respond promptly to inquiries that are posted in social channels. After all, those inquiries are public and a failure to address them adequately and in a reasonable period of time could result in negative press or even a full-on backlash.

In other words, the appeal of social media customer service is that consumers feel it gives them more leverage to get companies to take their inquiries seriously and respond. That leverage doesn’t exist when texting because the communications are private.

The bot factor

Even if SMS proves to be a marginal customer service channel for industries like air travel, Bloomberg’s Bachman noted that there are other markets, such as banking and telecommunications, that might be better-suited. According to Rurik Bradbury, the head of global communications and research at LivePerson, up to 70% of the inquiries in these markets could one day be responded to in an automated fashion “because you have 60-80 very common questions.”

The predictable nature of inquiries, coupled with the relative simplicity of addressing many of them, lends itself to the use of bots, which in some cases might totally change the viability of using SMS for customer service. While companies need to be careful about buying into the idea that AI-powered bots can automate customer service completely, bots backed by humans could be an effective combination.

As customer service platforms add support for SMS, making it possible for companies to offer SMS-based customer service, expect more and more companies to give it a look, especially if they’re already investing in human and bot text-based customer service for other messaging channels such as social.