The simple SMS message could be the next business tool to revolutionise customer and employee interaction?and not a moment too soon, says Peter Tanner, founder of Boomcomms.

The potential of the humble text message has been largely lost on the business world?until now. Yes, companies have used one-way SMS to confirm appointments or delivery times, or have experimented with the medium for advertising. The critical challenge they have failed to overcome, however, has been how to enable the recipient to respond in such a way that closes the loop and completes an automated database transaction.

Solve this problem and the business possibilities are endless. Credit card transaction verification could be confirmed in an instant, without requiring the customer to call a helpline and wait endlessly in a queue. Engineers could sign themselves off site for health and safety purposes (and be prompted if they forget), or provide regular updates on the status of a job, automatically triggering the scheduling of new work.

Better than BlackBerry, timelier than Twitter

Fortuitously, a facility has just been introduced to enable just such transactions to be completed by SMS without intermediary human intervention. The timing of this development is very pertinent, given the fragile state of the economy and the imperative for organisations to be able to do more with less.

While some of the above transactions could be completed using a BlackBerry and e-mail or a special application, this requires a big investment, rendering the opportunity impractical for a majority. It also requires that the recipient is carrying the right device, and is tuned in to the right messaging medium when the interaction is initiated. Such limitations are overcome using SMS, which is supported by all mobile devices, used by the masses, and offers more immediacy and greater simplicity than mobile e-mail or a specialist software application and requires no added investment or training.

As the frenzy over Twitter continues to gather pace, the realisation of just what can be achieved in a targeted 160-character message is beginning to dawn on businesses. Requiring no special membership or opt-in clause, SMS offers such broad coverage for no extra investment that not exploiting the medium seems a waste. This is a tool any organisation (private or public), of any size, could harness, in just about any way they choose.

Curbing call centre queues

Simply add the two-way SMS facility onto an existing business process, and the automated workflow is successfully extended, boosting the customer/employee experience, without increasing costs. On the contrary, organisations stand to save many thousands of pounds by reducing the burden on call centres and redeploying staff.

The significant development making all of this possible is the introduction of a solution that couples an incoming text message with the original outgoing message. This means the content of that reply can be fed back directly into the organisation’s database so that the next step in the process can be taken?all without any intervention by a human processor.

So when a patient responds from the SMS reminder that they are going to miss a hospital appointment, a new appointment can be automatically issued and confirmed without the need for a series of phone calls. The patient has a much less stressful experience, and the health service avoids a wasted appointment and valuable administration time being diverted to complex rescheduling.

More compliant than voice exchanges

Even where the consumer is happy to make the follow-up phone call, voice-based transactions are much harder to capture for auditing purposes. SMS messaging offers a valuable advantage here, too, meeting compliance requirements by providing complete traceability of the interaction, including sequence and time information.

The real potential of closed-loop text messaging will be seen when the big software vendors and their development and integration partners begin rolling out applications with the two-way SMS facility already built in. It is no coincidence that a major deal has already been signed with Microsoft, to exploit the technology with its partner community, with many other leading software publishers and developers showing a keen interest.

Applications already exist, too, which allow businesses to embed an SMS option into Microsoft Outlook, so that individual users can send and receive linked text messages via their PCs. This is achieved without the need for individual inbound numbers (which would be prohibitively expensive).

Bypassing voice-mail

Given the relatively immediacy of a text-based interaction over e-mail or even a voice call (less than 50% of phone calls get straight through to the recipient today, thanks to voice-mail and routine call screening), the ability to exploit the SMS option more readily as a business tool will be extremely useful in a work context. This applies equally to sales, customer service, distribution, and accounting or legal admin.

Once interwoven by a message thread, SMSs take on a similar power to that enjoyed by e-mail when first introduced?if not greater, because the population with a mobile phone is much broader demographically than that with access to e-mail. Options exist to protect the anonymity of the sender and recipient, too, paving the way for online dating applications, discrete charity donations and so on.

Productivity progress

In this day and age, where immediate, live communications are considered at the centre of many critical business challenges?honed productivity, sharper efficiency, and superior customer service?it is a wonder that SMS has remained untapped for so long. Existing applications have rendered the mobile handset little more than a dumb terminal, leaving customers frustrated rather than delighted because of the inability to reply with equal efficiency.

With the ‘reply’ conundrum addressed, SMS promises to be a small but significant revolution in the business-customer/business-employee relationship – breaking down boundaries, enabling direct interaction and bringing greater speed and efficiency into the equation.

Embedded into either existing or new business processes, this simple, two-way, closed-loop SMS-based database communication mechanism offers a unique means of extending automated workflow?and, happily, without breaking the bank. In the current climate, who can argue with that?