Odds are, you’ve been in this situation before: you buy a product or service, encounter an issue with it, and pick up the phone to dial customer service. After several rings, you’re put through to an automated phone tree. None of the options match the issue you’re facing, so you smash the zero button repeatedly, hoping for a human. A robot tells you there’s a 33-minute wait to speak to someone. You hang up in frustration.

Is it any wonder 85% of consumers prefer texting when it comes to communicating with a business?

Customers have spoken, and texting businesses is clearly in. And that’s good news for companies since texts have a higher open rate and a quicker reply time than emails or phone calls. Getting the results you want, though, requires implementing SMS customer service the right way. 📱 

In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to get a scalable SMS customer service program up and running.

What is SMS customer service?

Short message service (SMS) customer service includes any type of support offered to customers over text message (also known as SMS messages). Many SMS customer service programs involve the use of both automation and human support, and they’re often within a larger customer service operation that includes phone, email, and/or chatbot support.

The use of SMS customer servie is also on the rise. According to a 2019 survey, 63% of customers say they would switch to a company that offers text messaging as a communication option, and from 2020 to 2021, the number of SMS support tickets businesses received increased by 28%.

Below, we’ll walk you through how to seamlessly launch and scale an SMS customer service program, with advice from those who have done it before.

How to build your SMS customer service operations from the ground up

1. Establish OKRs

As with any new program, you’ll want to kick off your SMS customer service program by outlining what you hope to achieve with it — since, as management expert Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

“You should have a clear understanding of your goals, and how the program will help you achieve them,” says Dan Barrett, president of social media management company Social Vantage. “You should also understand what you’re not trying to do with it, as well as any potential problems that could arise if you take on too much at once.”

Objectives and key results (OKRs) are a great way to set up some tangible goals in order to measure your SMS customer service program’s progress and results. An OKR consists of a larger scale objective or goal, followed by one to three key results that are measurable and define success for that goal.

A few examples might include:

Objective: A customer texting our business with any question or issue feels well-supported.

Key result 1: By the end of the month, we’ll be responding to all incoming texts within the same business day.

Key result 2: Develop a resource training customer service agents to support customers over text.

Key result 3: Make it easy for customers to find and use our SMS customer service by adding it to our support page and email marketing.

Objective: Our SMS customer service program increases levels of customer satisfaction.

Key result 1: When prompted at the end of an interaction, customers rate their SMS customer service experience above a 7 on a 1-9 scale.

Key result 2: Customers become repeat users of our SMS customer service program.

Start with just a couple of OKRs to keep your goals targeted and achievable. Once you’ve hit them, you can add in more.

2. Define the SOP for texting

Before you onboard team members to provide SMS support, you’ll need a standard operating procedure (SOP) that covers the ins and outs of providing customer support over text.

An SOP is a documented set of step-by-step instructions that help employees respond to different situations. It should include:

  • The overall purpose, goals, and key results of your SMS customer service program 
  • How specific internal processes work
  • How to operate your text messaging or customer service platform
  • What information can you ask customers through text
  • What information you shouldn’t request over text (generally any sensitive data, like payment information)
  • Common issues and questions that may come up

Notion has a free SOP template that you can use to get started:

Notion SOP template as an internal resource for SMS customer service
Tools, roles, and procedures outlined in SOP document for SMS customer support
Screenshots from Notion template

Treat your SOP as a living document. If you find that customer service reps are frequently asking questions missing from your SOP, or that your SOP doesn’t cover certain scenarios, add them in as you go.

3. Train your team

While your SOP can — and should — work as a manual that employees continually refer to, it shouldn’t be the only guidance they receive. Before you launch an SMS customer service program, train your team on how to best support customers over text.

Your training should cover what’s in the SOP, along with further details, examples, and any exceptions to rules. It should provide clear guidance on:

  • The voice and tone that reps should use when texting customers
  • What kind of information your team needs to log in your customer relationship management tool (CRM) and contact properties
  • How to personalize messages, even when you’re relying on pre-written templates
  • When to escalate conversations to the appropriate manager
  • The OKRs you’re aiming to hit (such as quick response times or high customer satisfaction ratings) and what that means for team members

And, as with any customer service program, make sure that customer reps feel comfortable getting creative in supporting and delighting customers.

“Train customer service representatives to avoid sticking to the script and treat each customer individually,” says Baruch Labunski, founder of Rank Secure. “It’s easy to say something can’t be done because it isn’t in the training materials. However, something can always be done. It may take some creativity or talking to a manager but a customer’s problem can always be fixed somehow.”

4. Add base templates

One of the reasons SMS customer service can be more affordable than phone support is that frequently used text message responses can be documented, stored, and endlessly re-used.

When you launch your SMS customer service program, create an initial set of base templates and responses for frequently asked questions and issues. These will not only save your team time, but they’ll help establish best practices for messaging your customers.

Sharing snippets for SMS customer service

Name your base templates and pre-written responses clearly, so that customer service reps can find them easily in your database. They should also be easy to edit so that reps can personalize the messages and edit them to match situations as needed.
For more templates your team can use, check out our customer service text examples guide.

5. Use automation — but only when it’s appropriate

As your company scales, automation can be your customer service team’s best friend. It allows you to continue servicing customers one-on-one without having to quadruple your headcount.

However, it comes with one big caveat: automation should only be used in specific circumstances — never when a client has complex needs or wants to chat with a human. According to Podium, 74% of consumers say they would only want to text a business if they knew a human would be reading and responding to their messages.

“You don’t want all of your customer service messages to be automated,” says Teo Vanya, CEO of Stealth Agents. “Because text messaging is such a personal method of communication, it’s only natural customers would want the same experience as interacting with one of your customer service representatives. Regardless of how advanced chatbots and machine learning get, technology will never be able to replace the individualized service a human agent can deliver.”

That said, automated texts are perfect when it comes to event or appointment reminders, package tracking, school reminders, overdue notices, refill alerts, and requests for feedback or testimonials.

Automated welcome text from OpenPhone for SMS customer service
An example of OpenPhone’s automated texts for clients.

“For repeat services, send a text reminder for your client or customer to schedule an appointment,” suggests Devin Schumacher, founder and CEO of SERP Co. “For example, if you’re a dog groomer and your client wants her dogs groomed every 6 weeks, send her a reminder a couple of weeks out so she can schedule the appointment. Bonus — she can schedule via text, too, saving you more time.”

6. Centralize your communication

No matter how many different channels customers can reach you on — including email, phone, text, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger — it’s important to have those different conversations feed into the same CRM. This ensures that no matter which customer service rep joins a conversation with a customer, they can pick up right where a colleague left off.

“We like to keep things through text because it acts as a written record,” says Amir Ghorbani, co-founder and CEO of Swoop. “It’s just always harder to go back to listen to a call than just to read a text.”

If you use OpenPhone, you can use existing Zapier integrations to push all of your text messages from OpenPhone into your preferred CRM, giving you a single source of truth for all customer interactions. Or if you use HubSpot, use the OpenPhone HubSpot integration.

7. Encourage texting as a support channel

An SMS customer service program isn’t useful to anyone if customers don’t know it exists. Make it easy for customers to access your text-based support by including an SMS link on your website and social media.

You should also include your SMS number on any prevalent website pages (including Contact Us and Support pages), as well as in any customer service and operational emails.

8. Continually monitor SMS customer service levels

Remember the OKRs you set before launching your SMS customer service program? Now it’s time to make sure you’re hitting them. 

The best business phone systems or apps will give you access to analytics, which will let you track text volume over time, which days of the week are busiest for texts, how much time your team is spending texting customers, and which team members are most productive. This type of data can help you understand where your SMS program is working well and where your gaps are.

Using analytics to analyze SMS customer service levels and team's productivity
OpenPhone analytics

But don’t rely solely on the cold, hard data. Make sure you’re supplementing it the human experience — namely, feedback from customers and employees. As Marissa Mayer, former Yahoo CEO and current Lumi Labs co-founder, said on an episode of Masters of Scale:

“I roll around the data, get to know it and understand it really well … and then make a gut-based call, which is often supported by data and a lot of hard-to-articulate factors as well.”

To get a holistic understanding of your program’s success, chat with customers and employees regularly. This will give you an extra layer of those “hard-to-articulate factors” to round out the information you’ve gained from analytics and deliver the best small customer service possible.

SMS customer service texting best practices

Once you have your SMS customer service program up and running, use the best practices below to continue improving it.

Manage text response time expectations

When responding to text messages, customer service reps have a little less pressure to respond immediately than they do on social media messaging apps. However, you still want to let customers know when they can expect a response, which you can do with a simple auto-reply that shares average wait times.

auto-reply example for SMS customer service

Auto-reply: Thanks for reaching out! A member of our support team will respond to your message within 2-3 hours. We appreciate your patience. 
Copy to Clipboard

Keep in mind after you send an initial (human) response to a customer, though, there’s no longer room for two-hour gaps between replies. “Once you start a conversation, you want to make sure you’re getting back to them in a timely manner,” says Ty Hill, OpenPhone’s Head of Support. Be available to quickly wrap up a conversation when you’ve written a customer back so no one’s left waiting.

Ask for feedback

One great way to use pre-existing templates in your SMS customer service program is to ask customers for testimonials after they’ve shared positive feedback about a product or service. You can allow them to either text the feedback back directly or send them a link to a short form or survey.

Make sure that you let them provide feedback in a way that’s convenient for them. For instance, if you want to learn your Net Promoter Score, you could simply text customers who have had a positive experience: “How likely, on a scale of 0-10, are you to recommend our company to a friend or colleague?”

Use a Zap, API, or integration to make it easy to pull feedback into a centralized place. “With today’s highly advanced messaging systems, you can easily collect testimonials you’ll use to build social proof,” says Schumacher. Bank them continuously and then plug them into your marketing as needed.

Get creative with your communication

Of course, just because it’s a text message doesn’t mean it should only contain text. Using more emojis is actually correlated with happier social interactions 🥳 — so don’t be shy to use some emojis and GIFs to liven up your responses. 

“Get creative with your responses,” encourages Kate Zhang, founder of Kate Backdrop. “SMS customer service is an excellent opportunity to show off your brand’s personality. Have some fun with your replies, and make sure they align with your overall tone and voice.”

Sending a GIF as part of an SMS customer service exchange

You also can — and should! — use images, videos, and links to help troubleshoot customers’ problems. If you’re walking someone through a complex issue, you can use a personalized screen recording to walk the customer through the fix or link them to an FAQ article that lays the solution out step by step. This helps you resolve the issue faster, while also lowering the number of back-and-forth texts needed to solve the problem.

Know when it’s time to hop on a call instead

Not every channel is appropriate for every problem — and if you try to fit a round peg in a square hole, you might end up annoying customers or creating more work for yourself.

Set some guidelines that help customer service reps understand when you should call over texting. Generally, it’s a good idea to pick up the phone if:

  • An answer to a question is convoluted or involves several steps
  • The customer is getting agitated or emotional
  • You need an immediate response

Remember, SMS customer service should exist as part of a larger approach to supporting your customers. The trick is knowing when to use each channel.

Use a dedicated number for your SMS customer service program

Using multiple business numbers to support different inquiries

If you serve multiple customer types, it can be helpful to use targeted numbers to direct their inquiries. For example, Swoop — a two-sided marketplace that services both ride providers and end customers — provides customers with different numbers to text and call depending on their needs.

“We really can enhance the customer experience by having targeted phone lines that are based on if there’s a ride today or ride in the future,” says Ghorbani, CEO of Swoop. “We’re able to then delegate and have more tailored and targeted lines of communication for our end customers.”

By using dedicated phone numbers, you can triage text requests, prioritize responses, and keep your messages organized by type.

Get your teams texting today

OpenPhone mobile and desktop apps

With all the flexibility that texting provides, it’s no wonder it’s quickly beating out other channels as consumers’ preferred mode of communicating. Meet your customers where they’re at by launching your SMS customer service program today.
With a business phone provider like OpenPhone, you can receive calls and texts to multiple business numbers directly from your desktop. You can also integrate with your preferred CRM, send free unlimited texts to the United States and Canada, and collaborate with teammates on texts. Start your free trial of OpenPhone today.

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Author

Kenza is a freelance writer who covers B2B SaaS, the future of work, and psychology. Away from her keyboard, you can find her running, biking, and enjoying live music.

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