WhatsApp Business for SME: Preliminary Reactions

WhatsApp Business Logo
WhatsApp Business Logo

The Facebook owned, widely popular messenger app “WhatsApp”, finally rolled out the eagerly awaited WhatsApp Business app, in India on 23rd January 2018, which is primarily focused for SME. This new stand-alone application is intended to be available for free (fingers crossed), and is designed especially for startups and boot-strapped entrepreneurs. MAGE IT decided to become an early adopter, and take it on a test run.

The original WhatsApp Messenger app is extremely popular globally, and entrepreneurs have been using it quite creatively for their business promotion and customer engagement strategies. While there are many interesting use-cases and innovative applications, the WhatsApp company has been planning on develolping two separate apps, apart from the original Messenger app, as early as January 2017. One of them is the free WhatsApp Business for small companies, and the other one is a premium Enterprise Solution for larger organizations. Consequently, after almost a year of testing and beta releases, WhatsApp Business was officially rolled out initially in selected countries in mid-January, and then finally in India this Tuesday. The WhatsApp company clearly indicates that the main reason to create a new app, focused on the business use-case is to leverage the already existing but rudimentary connections between “someone placing an order with a local bakery or looking at new styles from a clothing store” and “shopkeepers who use WhatsApp to stay in touch with hundreds of customers from a single smartphone”, and facilitating small business owners to connect with customers who are important to them, with “an easier way to respond to messages.”

It seems that WhatsApp is keen on joining the ranks of other online giants like Facebook (Facebook Workplace) and Google (Digital Unlocked), offering customised platforms and solutions for SME/MSME/SMB segment. With the two separate applications offering, WhatsApp has already geared up for integrating in-app payments and money transfers using the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), and has got the approvals last year from the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). This could mean that soon entrepreneurs can accept payments from their customers, and make payments to their suppliers, all within a familiar platform. Such a platform is not new, as China already has a mature solution (WeChat), but WhatsApp plans to leverage its English-speaking audience (primarily) through out the world.

At MAGE IT, we eagerly awaited the official Indian rollout this week on Google Play Store (and we are still waiting for our “Verified Business Account” green tick). MAGE IT strives to achieve sustainable and competitive advantage through IT enabled investments to tranform into business value, for Micro, Small, Medium, and Corporate clients. Hence, the business case for the WhatsApp Business App is not only relevant, but also timely. Hence, we decided to give it a spin and get our own initial reactions, thoughts, and opinions about it.

The WhatsApp Business Promises

Free – WhatsApp Business has been announced to be free (free as in free beer), specifically catering to the SME segment, considering a starting point for cash-strapped entrepreneurs who are new to the digital marketplace. While it is definitely the right move, especially since WhatsApp has already planned for a more comprehensive, and probably a paid model of the larger Enterprise Solution, however it remains to be seen how long can it sustain to be a free solution. More so, a market such as India, where the sheer numbers in volume and the Jugaad mentality of the inscrutable Indians, can definitely make or break the concept.

Business profiles – One of the main features is the ability for small companies and business owners to set up custom business profiles on the Business app, with detailed and essential information such as the description of business, official business email, the location or address of the business, and the official business website. With such Business Profiles, it certainly helps to help establish the nature of the business on WhatsApp, and a verified business implies the sense of authenticity. This helps potential and existing customers engaged on WhatsApp to rely on the fact that the business owner is genuine, and not some online cyber-criminal. While this feature is fundamental requirement, however it does call out the necessity to implement certain measures to continually verify such profiles, such as the “Verified Business Accounts”, not just as a pilot program, but as a standard, “out-of-the-box” offering. More on that below.

Automated messages – Getting the first communication out, to any potential or existing customers, has always been a gold standard in the service industry. So much so, that several standards and frameworks have been developed and practised, just to get the Service Level Agreement (SLA) targets met, on turn-around times and resolution times. WhatsApp Business doesn’t offer anything that elaborate, but ensures that automated messages are sent out as “greetings messages” to new customers, “away messages” during off-hours or if the business owner is busy, and even “quick replies” for frequently asked questions (FAQ). The Quick Reply feature does need more configuration, and tweaking as per the business nature and needs, but it definitely promises to be very handy to handle large customer-base, using just a smartphone. However, to be truly effective, this feature should leverage the use of the basic AI or Machine Learning algorithms, to ensure that the business owners are not bogged down with figuring out the logic behind each Quick Reply.

Statistics – Data, especially about customers, can be argued to be the most valuable commodity in business nowadays. No wonder, that the big corporates are pumping in huge investments in emerging technologies such as AI and Machine Learning. When it comes to the SME perspective, any data about the customers can definitely assist the small business owners to better understand their customers’ demand patterns, and then customise and tweak their services better, and essentially sustain and expand the business, in the long run. The Messaging Statistics feature intends to provide simple yet intuitive metrics, regarding messaging volumes, so that content strategy of automated messaging can be tweaked accordingly.

Labels – We accidentally stumbled upon this hidden gem. Just like Gmail, the Business app offers the option to “label” a chat with pre-configured and colour-coded list. This list is intended to essentially indicate the status of a typical sale cycle, such as “New Customer”, “New Order”, “Pending payment”, “Paid”, etc. It also allows selection of multiple labels for a single chat, and also the ability to create new labels on-the-fly. This feature certainly will help business owners to not only sort random chats into a manageable system, but also filter out and focus on specific chats for specific business requirements. However, given the ability to create new labels, may lead to “over-labelling” tendencies.

Verified Business Accounts  – Verified accounts signify trusted online avatars, and hence many online social media platforms, most notably Twitter and YouTube, have implemented this feature long back. WhatsApp Business has taken the cue, and seems to be offering similar feature. This would not only imply prestige for the business owners, especially in the SME segment, but also imbibe the sense of authenticity and trust for the customers of such business owners. It might further serve as a mean to visually filter out potential “spammers” or “scammers”, in such business platforms. However, it is definitely worth mentioning that the feature seems to have been a pilot program, and now has been ceased (temporarily?).  At the time of writing this article, we did try to fill up a form on another related FAQ page that might have not been pulled off yet. We are hoping that we might be considered for the program, and get lucky. Who knows?

UPI Integration – The “option” of making and receiving payments seems to the missing link in the current line of messaging apps (with the exception of WeChat and other similar Asian-centric apps). Specific to the Indian context, the time is just right with the Demonetisation Drive, Cashless India, the hugely debated GST scheme, and other such initiatives, which has slowly but surely re-trained the mentalities of Indian business owners, to trust and engage online payment platforms. Though there are few obvious initial hiccups in the huge and diverse population, however over time, these issues would definitely be ironed out, for a more uniform, robust, and stable system. Hence, the initial integration of UPI, with the WhatsApp Business platform, seems to be the next logical step forward. But a quick word of caution – this feature isn’t available yet, and there’s no update or rumour about its expected rollout.

The Frowns

Back-up issues – Early adopters have noted that using a single phone number for both the personal WhatsApp Messenger app and the WhatsApp Business app, has created issues. Since the Messenger and Business are two separate stand-alone apps, ideally WhatsApp Business appreciates if separate phone numbers used for both the apps. This may be attributed to the convenience of the verification processes, since using separate phone numbers help segragate and speed up the verification process. However, if a user chooses to use a single phone number for the both the apps, then there are several complicated steps involving creating online backup and “moving” to only a single app (i.e. using Business app only, and completely letting go off the Messenger app), and then restoring the chat backup on the Business app. Regrettably, it is a one-way process, so chat backups once “migrated” from the Messenger app to the Business app, cannot be restored back on the Messenger app, should the user ever change their mind. In short, if a user decides to use a single phone number and single device, and choose the Business app, they are stuck with it, unless they don’t want their chat archive back. Ever.

Customer permissions – As it is with the original Messenger app, WhatsApp Business (currently?) also does not support or allow searching/mining for unlisted contacts, or “businesses”. This essentially means the that business owners need to actually be in possession of their customers’ contact number first, in order to begin an interaction, or add them to a group. Alternatively, the business owners’ profile need to be contacted by a user first, before the business owner can respond. That’s not a bad thing really, as it strictly and clearly enforces privacy, and effectively controls spam, wherein “Businesses will only be able to contact people who have provided their phone number and agreed to be contacted by the business over WhatsApp.” This also means that “cold-messaging” ads are essentially not allowed, quite similar to the Facebook Messenger’s strategy. However, this severely restricts a business owners’ fundamental need to reach untapped potential leads. Enter the “solution” by Facebook/WhatsApp for businesses to buy “tap-to-message” ads, such as on Facebook’s News Feed, to get the users to initiate conversations, so that the businesses can then follow up with sponsored messages. This leads up to the next point.

Possible ads – There is no such thing as a free lunch. As with the above point, such designs potentially create opportunities for ad revenues for Facebook/WhatsApp, either as ad impressions within the Business app, or as ad space intended to be sold/auctioned to the Business app users. Additionally, since the business name is what appears to the end-users/customers, this could further allow Facebook/WhatsApp to develop a business-oriented search engine, with “sponsored” results, or let businesses “cold-message” users for a possible fee. Despite all earlier lofty announcements to stay away from ads, it is but obvious that the next logical step would be to introduce display ads and sponsored messages on the WhatsApp’s platform, thereby going back on the company’s earlier stance.

Just another gimmick – Apart from some handful new features, there are several major similarities with the original Messenger and the Business apps. Both apps allow businesses to set privacy for their profile photo, about information, and status as well as let them block any of their contacts and enable read receipts. Both apps have a live location feature, and allow to make voice and video calls, with end-to-end encryption. Entrepreneurs and business owners have already been using the original Messenger app as tool to establish personal rapport with customers, to get instant feedback, to manage internal team communication, to handle customer service and support, to execute marketing and promotional activities, or to even offer exclusive live or special access. So, the question that really begs to be asked is, “Is it just another gimmick, or does it really offer any value to the SME, the entreprenuers, or the small business owners?”

Android-only – The current WhatsApp Business app is only available for download via Google Play Store, and supports devices running Android OS 4.0.3 and above. However, there are no iOS or Windows versions available yet, which may be a big drawback for iPhone and iPad users. A version for  the iOS devices can be expected to be available in the coming future, with similar features. But then again, how many cash-strapped start-ups and entrepreneurs run around, wielding snazzy iPhones in the first place? Surprising, a lot of them do!

The Googlies?

Googly #1 – The WhatsApp Business app, by definition, was supposedly designed ground-up for businesses. If it was truly so, then isn’t it hard to imagine that WhatsApp hasn’t considered the use-case of multiple devices concurrently connecting to the same official business account, actively used by different staff, in a real life scenario?  And no, the combination of one mobile device, one WhatsApp Web page, and one WhatsApp desktop app does not count. It would simply be a hack, or a jugaad, not a proper solution.

Googly #2 –  The official site, the official blog, and the FAQ (even the Google Play Store page), all seem to imply that a Business Profile can be created via WhatsApp Web, or WhatsApp Desktop app, without the mobile app, that too just using a landline phone number. We haven’t tested this yet, but does it really mean that a business owner can use the WhatsApp Business services online, without ever requiring a mobile device? Where would the data be stored then? Strange, because the both the Web page and the Desktop app are just extensions of the mobile app, and have to be actively connected/synced with the mobile device at all times.

Initial impressions

The WhatsApp Business shows a lot of promise, especially as it is provided free for the small business or SME segment. It definitely tries to close a gap, by offering a platform for small business owners to interact better with their customers, and allowing them to run their business just with their their mobile phones, without the need of hefty investments in website development, infrastructure related to customer support. Additionally, WhatsApp Business presumably reduces the need for a small or personal business to pay for and run an app itself, thereby strengthening and streamlining the operating costs of small businesses.

Despite being a fantastic concept, there are several areas that need to be addressed, especially the potential ad-ecosystem that seems to lurk just beneath the hidden surface. Also, the presumably fundamental design flaw or oversight of ignoring multi-device connection to a single business account, may also prove to be a dampner in adoption of the app with actual business environment. Hence, the WhatsApp Business app is probably best suited for one-person operation or a sole proprietor, only for limited use-cases, such as marketing and customer engagement management, only after the initial contact. The missing UPI integration for payments, also doesn’t help at all, but might be addressed in the future.

Keeping the above points in mind, without expecting it to be a lead generating or a “customer-mining” tool, the WhatsApp Business can truly be beneficial for the SME segment.