Apple beta-launched its highly anticipated B2C messaging platform this week and their timing couldn’t have been better.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Facebook is in full damage control mode, temporarily suspending new apps and bots from connecting to Messenger.

Facebook’s data woes have left an opening for encrypted chat apps like Wickr, Signal and Telegram — which has been in the news lately for its $1.7 billion pre-ICO rounds and for ticking off authoritarian governments — not to mention Facebook’s own insurance policy, WhatsApp.

But it’s Apple’s new messaging capabilities that savvy businesses and software makers should keep an eye on.

The discovery channel 🔎

Apple’s advantage is that it pretty much controls the mobile experience for more than 700 million iPhone users, who tend to be just the sort of customers businesses covet.

With Business Chat, iPhone users searching on Safari or browsing through Apple maps will be able to click “message” within a business’ profile and start a conversation through iMessage, much like how they would initiate a phone call.

A handful of brands in the U.S. and Canada have launched the channel as part of the early access program, including Home Depot, Hilton, Lowes, Marriott, Wells Fargo and 1-800-Flowers. Some brands are going it alone, while others are connecting through customer engagement platforms like Genesys, LivePerson, Salesforce and Zendesk.

Once it comes out of beta businesses will need to figure out how Business Chat fits into their mobile customer experience, and how to support the channel alongside RCS business messaging, the Android equivalent. For businesses who care about being wherever customers are, the answer is clear: you need both.

Messaging with Marriott 🏩

Curious about what the Business Chat experience feels like for users, I pulled out my trusty iPhone and started searching for businesses who were part of the program.

After Safari searches for 1-800-Flowers and my local Home Depot failed to produce that exclusive “message” button, I switched to Maps and eventually found a Marriott property in Florida inviting me to initiate a conversation.

When I clicked the button, I was taken to a lightly-branded iMessage chat, where my messages were distinguished by a darker shade of grey instead of the customary blue. My initial “hi there” was met by a canned response but another message quickly followed from a (presumably) human agent named Stephanie, asking me to identify myself.

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Ignoring her authentication question, I asked Stephanie if I could book a room. I was curious to see if she would present some sort of date picker tool. But her response made it clear she didn’t even know which hotel I was interested in, even though I’d clicked on a specific property within Maps.

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🤔 Hadn’t that context make its way to the agent through whatever platform she was using?

Apparently not. Stephanie explained she didn’t have access to any of my information. After a few more messages it became clear I’d be better off booking a room online.

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She even suggested calling me to collect my credit card information. ☎️

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Learning the lingo

It’s early days and the opportunity to create truly awesome conversational experiences is clear. But despite Stephanie’s best efforts, something about the interaction felt off, like a new coworker who shows up to a backyard barbecue in a double-breasted suit.

From the initial “An agent will be with you shortly” to the final “Thank you for choosing Marriott,” the exchange felt a lot like the phone-based customer experiences I’m used to — and not in a good way.

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Messaging is an inherently casual medium, with its own tones, textures and rhythms. As the technology improves and more businesses jump on the bandwagon, it will be fascinating to see how brands adapt to this new paradigm.