Apple has partnered with several new brands and contact center vendors -- including market leader Cisco -- as part of the beta release of its business-to-consumer messaging service, Apple Business Chat. The service lets customers converse with businesses through iMessages.
Apple's native access to hundreds of millions of iPhone users makes its messaging service something that all enterprises need to consider supporting at some point in the future, analysts said. So far, however, Apple has restricted access to a small handful of well-known brands.
American Express, Harry & David, Four Seasons, and Dish Network started supporting Apple Business Chat this month. Apple's initial group of partners included The Home Depot, Lowe's, Hilton, Marriott, Discover, Wells Fargo, TD Ameritrade and 1-800-Flowers.
Apple Business Chat is now compatible with software from roughly a dozen customer service vendors, including Genesys, Salesforce and Cisco. Businesses interested in using the service must first seek approval from Apple, which has yet to announce when the platform will become available to all.
Apple is trying to mimic the success in China of the messaging and mobile payment app WeChat, said Michael Finneran, president of the advisory firm DBrn Associates Inc. in Hewlett Neck, N.Y. But it's been a "slow slog" for Apple's platform since its limited release in late March, he said.
"A few heavily consumer-focused companies have toyed with it, but most of those companies (like American Express) have great apps already, so they are just making sure all of their bases are covered," Finneran said. "I haven't seen any of them actively promoting any capability that Business Chat provides them."
Apple has taken steps to increase its presence in the enterprise market in recent years, as consumer device sales have plateaued. Apple Business Chat is free for consumers and businesses, suggesting the company hopes to derive revenue from the service primarily through its inclusion of Apple Pay.
"We've yet to see marketers piling on to this, and frankly, it is a double-edged sword when you analyze the overall business case," Finneran said. Businesses that coddle Apple customers could end up alienating the larger base of Android users, he said.
Apple messaging fits into the omnichannel trend
Cisco was "extremely wise" to join Apple's ecosystem, said Robin Gareiss, president of Nemertes Research based in Mokena, Ill. The vendor now supports Apple Business Chat through its cloud-based Customer Journey Platform.
Three-quarters of businesses recently surveyed by Nemertes said they were looking to transform their customer experiences digitally. Apple Business Chat is one of many tools that could help those businesses achieve that goal, Gareiss said.
"I still see these types of text messaging exchanges as part of omnichannel," Gareiss said. "I do believe they will continue to rise in popularity as one of the top ways to communicate with businesses, but they won't be the only way."
Apple Business Chat's primary competitors include Facebook Business Messenger and WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook. Google, meanwhile, is in the process of developing business-to-consumer text messaging capabilities for Android phones using the Rich Communication Services (RCS) standard.
"It will be tempting for companies to implement these business-to-consumer text services in isolation -- and if they do, that would be a mistake." Gareiss said. Customers want the context from their previous conversations to follow them when they switch channels, she said.