Texting, online chats get a ‘like’ at more small businesses

NEW YORK (AP) — Clients can text their lawyers to double-check hearing times. Potential customers may message a dog breeder to find out the due date of the next litter. More and more, people who want to get in touch with small businesses are using texts or online chats rather than emails or phone calls.

Company owners are responding in kind, communicating more on the fly and in short bursts. They’re finding that texting, online chatting and messaging help them get and give information faster and run their businesses more efficiently.

It’s a shift that began in the past year, several business owners say. And Facebook says the number of messages sent between people and businesses on its Messenger service has doubled to 1 billion a month in the past year. Many companies rely on Facebook to complement or replace their websites because customers like to connect with them through Facebook pages or ads.

Attorney Rick Davis spends less time talking on the phone because many clients now text with brief questions. He can dash off a reply rather than engage in the small talk that business phone etiquette often calls for, and says composing a text is faster than writing a wordier email.

Davis has followed the lead of clients who preferred to communicate using texts and chat.

“This has been surprising to me, as law is traditionally a more formal industry,” says Davis, who has a solo practice in Leawood, Kansas.

There are some downsides: Clients may expect an immediate answer, which isn’t possible if Davis is in a meeting or in court.

He doesn’t bill clients for any time he spends texting with them about their cases, similar to his policy of not charging for very short phone calls. Since the nature of texting is to be brief, most clients don’t require much time. He uses his personal cellphone and assumes that a number he doesn’t recognize belongs to a client or prospective client.

Although calls and emails have been the standard methods of business communication, companies need to use the media that customers prefer or risk losing them to other businesses, says Christina Shaw, an owner of tangible, a marketing company based in Newburgh, New York.

“They have to move into the digital age,” Shaw says. She also finds that representatives for many of her own clients, which are companies, want to communicate through texts.

The change can also ease the burden of a small business’ overflowing email inbox. Wolf Stuntworks owner Steve Wolf estimates that texting and chatting on Facebook with customers has cut his Austin, Texas-based company’s email volume by 70 percent. That makes the business, which creates stunts for the entertainment industry, easier to run.

“We spend a lot of time away from the computer, and handling emails through the phone is cumbersome,” Wolf says.

Many customers make their first connection with Wolf Stuntworks, which also hosts classes and corporate meetings, through Facebook. They may see photos that a friend has posted of an event, visit its Facebook page and message from there. Wolf and his staff can answer messages or do chats on their phones. Customers seem to prefer the Facebook page over the company’s website.

“It has a much more personal feel, and the information is parsed out in much more bite-sized bits,” Wolf says.

At Collage.com, which creates photo books, blankets, calendars and other items using people’s photos, many customers want to use online chat rather than the phone — and that helps the company serve more clients, says marketing director Graham Davis.

“We can do five or six chats at once,” Davis says, whereas staffers can talk to only one customer at a time on the phone and calls can last up to 30 minutes. Collage.com’s live chat volume rose 28 percent from 2014’s fourth quarter, the company’s busiest time of year, to the same period of 2015.

Some companies are incorporating texting or chatting into their operations — texting ads or announcements, or allowing customers to order using texts. Great Lakes, a Minneapolis-based clothing company, handles much of its customer service including order confirmation through Facebook. That’s partly because it’s linked to the e-commerce system the business uses, but also because it gives Great Lakes a friendlier image, owner Spencer Barrett says.

“It feels more like you’re talking to a friend than a company where you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” he says.

Josh Brown, who owns Far North Kennel, a breeder of German Shepherd puppies in Anchorage, Alaska, estimates that he and his wife Theresa get 10 times more texts than emails. But the Browns don’t rely only on digital communications in deciding to whom they’ll sell their puppies.

“I would rather be on the phone, listening to the nuances,” Brown says.

Texting does offer an easy way to stay in touch with past customers. A woman in New Orleans who bought a puppy from Far North in April keeps the Browns informed about the dog’s progress.

“She texts a photo or a video every morning like clockwork,” Brown says. “I respond every day. I love it.”

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