Like many people, at the age of 39, Jonathan Williams had what he called a mid-life reflection. With a 22-year career as Chief Information Officer in the IT sector behind him, Williams had grown weary of chasing money and selling time. He wanted to create a different route for his career, and was also ready to study further. He embarked on a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Inclusive Innovation at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).
Williams chose digital inclusion in the affordable housing sector as the topic for his thesis. His research gave him an insight into how people in lower income brackets consume data. It also opened up a path that enabled him to disrupt traditionally labour-intensive and unreliable business processes.
"Only 30% of South Africans can afford to consume data extensively," he explains. "Data costs are high, and consumers flick between applications in an attempt to minimise their costs. They try to find the cheapest way of communicating because of the high data charges." Williams' research revealed that South Africans use WhatsApp more extensively than many other countries. Approximately 20 million actively use the platform in South Africa. WhatsApp uses minimal data and costs very little to communicate. The platform has also become a viable substitute for email in low resource countries.
With such extensive penetration, WhatsApp and other similar chat messenger apps also presented as-yet untapped potential for brands to engage directly with their customer. The technology can short-circuit traditional convoluted contact centre models.
On average, at least one of the major South African clothing retailers receives 30 000 credit applications every day, but the closure rate is very low — as little as 30% in some cases. A majority of applications cannot be finalised because of missing or incorrect documentation. This discrepancy could be attributed to the time-consuming process of scanning and sending identification and compliance documents to the company. Low digital literacy adds friction to the process of completing transactions. Customer drop off rates increase when they were asked to do take additional action beyond submitting the application form. Access to scanners, unreliable human memory and customer indecision all affect the closure rate.
The cost of dealing with a call centre was also an obstacle. "Cost-sensitive consumers are also wary of increasing cellphone charges in general," explains Williams. "Dealing with call centres can be expensive, so people tend not to interact with companies if they can't get through to an operator quickly. This means companies lose the opportunity of engaging with customers, and the revenue that goes with that. I realised that the technology could be used to streamline the credit application procedures." The technology also has application in processing loan and insurance applications.
"We started to look at the friction in this process. We thought: what if customers could talk to the brand directly through WhatsApp or other chat messenger apps, eliminating call-centre waiting time, but more importantly capturing customer information on the spot?" says Williams.
Chat2Brand was born.
Chat2Brand enables a company to engage directly and immediately with their customer on WhatsApp. The customer uses their cellphone's camera to photograph the relevant document and sends it directly to the company's representative. The operator is immediately on hand to spot any missing documents, or to ensure the documents are of sufficient quality to pass the compliance checks. For the customer, the concept provides a quick, low-cost, easy way to submit the required documentation.
Williams explains the technology's relevance to the unique South African context: "The conversational/chat commerce sector is ideal for use in low-resource markets such as our own country, India and Brazil. We understand the needs of our market very well and so have deliberately not tried to apply westernised thinking or technology."
The Chat2Brand team tested the concept with a leading retailer who immediately reported a 36% increase in its ability to conclude new account applications, and an 18% increase in debt recovery. The proof of concept and the positive results also opened up other sector opportunities for the application. "We're also trialling the platform with the motor vehicle sales industry. We're able to fast-track the application process, which is a win for both customer and brand. It's a real time-saver for both parties." Chat2Brand was initially applied to managing motor vehicle service requests. Clients in that sector have reported an increase in customer service index scores which can be directly attributed to the closer conversational relationships between customers and service advisors.
Williams and his business partners are part of the summer cohort in the Solution Space Venture Incubation Programme this year. "I wanted to put the idea through its paces to give it the best shot I could," explains Williams. His business partners were new to the design thinking process, and their involvement in the programme helped them to align their approach to new product development and testing. The programme has already given rise to new opportunities in different sectors, says Williams: "In just one weekend we'd found at least one other application in the financial services sector." The incubation process also allowed the team to be more strategic about how they spent their time and focus.
For Williams, the road to entrepreneurship started some years ago, but he only took the leap away from full-time employment to being a full-blown startup late last year. But with such a strong start, the journey is likely to continue for years to come. The Chat2Brand team is also working on starting the first deaf contact centre in South Africa. WhatsApp's strong visual capabilities have a distinct advantage over traditional audio-based platforms. This has a clear social impact in South Africa, where 70% of the 1.6 million deaf and hearing-impaired people are unemployed.
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