Empowering the chat economy

by Lesley Stones
Pieter de Villiers, Clickatell
When Clickatell’s cofounder and CEO Pieter de Villiers tells me that consumers today want to engage with companies via chat, I nod, not entirely convinced.

Two weeks later, his words hit home when I arrive in a foreign country to find my bank has suspended my credit card because I didn’t instantly respond to their SMS checking if some transactions were genuine.

The bank’s website doesn’t have a chat option, and nobody responds to a form I fill in requesting someone to call me. I download the app, hoping for a live chat option, but no. The bank expects me to phone them from overseas, gobbling up my airtime while I sit on hold for five minutes until they accidently cut me off. A WhatsApp-style chat that would put me through to a real person is exactly what my bank needs.

Thankfully, not every company is a slow learner, and Clickatell has become a global player with its technologies that let brands interact and transact with customers on whatever platform they want. It has offices in South Africa, Nigeria, the US and Canada, with 250 employees serving 15 000 customers, including Visa, United Airlines and WhatsApp itself. In 2018, it helped Absa launch the world’s first chat banking, and in 2019, it helped MTN become the first telco to handle airtime purchases and top-ups via WhatsApp.

De Villier’s own story starts, oddly enough, in ophthalmology. But he found himself extremely unhappy there. “I was disillusioned with what ophthalmology really meant – it’s a wonderful convergence of maths, physics, biology and even chemistry, so if you like science, you’re absolutely stimulated and love it. But after you qualify, you end up being a shopkeeper working in a mall, and that’s not what I signed up for.”

He and his twin brother Casper started exploring the internet to find fresh excitement. “Our parents instilled a love of reading, so I read all about internet entrepreneurs and how they were changing the world and we felt this was an exciting space we wanted to be in,” he says. “We did a little research and realised that in the late 1990s, only two things were making money – travel or adult content – and we’d never get our mother’s approval for adult content!”

At that stage, their friends were taking gap-year holidays in Europe, so the brothers started touting unsold last-minute airline tickets. But people only read email occasionally then, as it wasn’t ‘pushed’ to them, so deals often expired before potential customers saw them.

Unknown territory

“We stumbled across this very big problem that the fastest growing ecommerce platform in the world – the internet – wasn’t able to communicate to people in real-time and certainly not to mobile phones,” he says. “We tore up our travel idea and realised if we could build something that made the internet speak to phones in real-time, that would be a business. We didn’t know what we were doing because it didn’t exist. The beautiful thing about trying innovation is that you’re going into unknown territory.”

They recruited their coding friend Patrick Lawson and another founding partner, Danie du Toit, and combined their various phones and laptops. He still gets excited when he describes the first time they managed to send an SMS from a laptop, hearing a radio in the background stutter as static from the connection interfered with its broadcast.

Even now, 21 years later, SMS is still a very common business tool for securing websites and authenticating transactions via onetime passwords.

Yet with technology developing constantly, the team was aware that its pioneering system could soon be outdated. “We made some mistakes along the way,” De Villiers says. “We said these things die soon, so what’s Plan B, and we diversified as a company. But Plan A is still pretty compelling.”

The computer-to-SMS offering hasn’t been replaced, but it’s been massively augmented. Unfortunately, adding new platforms isn’t a simple ‘rinse and repeat’ process, as they all have their technology quirks. “But our company DNA is one of innovation and incredible curiosity and being crazy and innovative, so we have the right foundation,” he says.

As the company grew, De Villiers and his wife moved to the US to push into the American market and to access venture capital that wasn’t available in South Africa. “If you’re in technology, you have this bucket list idea to live in the centre of it, which is Silicon Valley,” he says. “I firmly believe South African companies can go toe-to-toe with the biggest and brightest startups around the world, but we don’t have the venture capital landscape to scale those businesses, and they’re like young children – they need nourishment, stimulation and funds to grow.”

They returned to Cape Town a decade later. Times had changed and it didn’t matter where he was based, especially since Silicon Valley had matured and perhaps lost its creative verve, he says. “We realised that the next billion-dollar companies are not necessarily going to come out of Silicon Valley. The disruption happening outside that corridor is bigger and more significant.” In other words, people in emerging markets are better able to solve their own problems than people who are far removed.

Bubbling under

Today, Clickatell works with whichever platforms are relevant and has critical mass in each territory. WhatsApp is the most active channel in South Africa, Nigeria and Brazil. In Asia, WeChat is predominant, and in the US, it’s Facebook.

Right now, De Villiers believes Clickatell covers everything its clients should be using. But it’s only survived for more than two decades by monitoring trends that are bubbling under. Two platforms the team is watching closely now are Apple Business Messaging in the US and Google Business Messaging. “It’s our business to be plugged into what’s happening,” he says.

Its business proposition suits both First and Third World countries. In South Africa, most people have very little memory space on their phone, and fewer than 22% have installed a mobile banking app.

“Research tells us that app fatigue is setting in – consumers are tired of jumping through hoops,” he says. “Many people are uninstalling apps because they take up space, but 71% of the mobile population uses WhatsApp. We use chat apps to arrange our lives, so it’s inevitable that companies will have to migrate to that communications channel.”

Early adopters of this ‘chat economy’ no longer make their customers call a number, download an app or type in URL. Instead, they can start a conversation instantly in chat and ask to be put through to a human, who can view all the chat so far. “We’ve been trying to explain to brands that you can’t unleash a bot on a customer. It’s like kicking someone when they’re down,” De Villiers says. “There are many chatbot companies out there, but Siri is a pretty terrible experience on your phone.”

For more mature markets, its goal is to help companies deliver a better customer experience. “In the US, the penetration for mobile apps is over 60%, so our proposition there is about more than just reach. We can give you an experience that is light years better than a call centre,” De Villiers says. “You should be able to cancel or order a credit card without having to download another app or without having to wait for an agent to become available. The convenience of just doing it in chat with simple instructions far outweighs having to log into an app.”

I do hope my soon-to-be ex-bank is listening.

Republished with permission from ITWeb Limited
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