Building the Hotline Right (Part 11)

Getting Started

How can a brand get started on the hotline (and bottom line) journey? Here are the first three steps in building hotlines with customers:

  1. AMP: Make every email AMP. Make AMP a mindset and think “Living Email” – how each email can become not just a broadcast or a blast, but interesting and interactive. The good thing about this is that if the mail client does not support AMP, it will simply show the alternative HTML email. So, there is no downside.
  2. Atomic Rewards: Create a time-based rewards program that incentivizes the non-monetary assets customers have: attention, data, network and voice. Gamification must become central to all communications; it is the best way to nudge behaviour and create habits.
  3. Progency: Instead of burdening internal teams with yet another thing to do, work with an external partner who brings in right- and left-brain skills to deliver “Performance Email” which creates a win-win partnership.

Once the Email 2.0 program has delivered on its hotline promise, brands can start expanding the Atomic Rewards to other channels. The Micronbox is an idea which will come – it needs a WhatsApp-like entrepreneur to challenge the status quo of the existing inbox providers.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote in my essay on profit-centric marketing: “The path to exponential forever profitable growth comes down to something as basic as solving the problems of attention and data. In a world of digital and direct relationships, these are the two things that matter most. If a brand’s customers are not listening and if a brand does not have adequate data, it becomes hard to build a hotline to customers. Without the hotline, it becomes difficult to bring customers back to the properties for transactions … Email is not what it once was – 1-way broadcast and semi-spam. Email is now ready in its new avatar: Email 2.0. This email can be interactive, informative, gamified, fun and exciting. It is email like customers and marketers have not seen or imagined. Email 2.0 is a way to convert the delete mindset into delight. It can become a powerful channel for getting customers to volunteer data about themselves. For this, Email 2.0 needs to be combined with Loyalty 2.0. Tokens for attention and data with a new spam-free inbox which delivers surprises and rewards can bring brands and customers closer in a win-win relationship.”

If brands can build their hotlines right, especially with their Best customers, they will find that they no longer need to keep spending big bucks on wasteful and cash-guzzling new customer acquisition. That money freed up can power better relationships with existing customers – and help with the bottom line. Profits don’t come from newly acquired customers; they come from existing customers coming back for more and bringing along their friends. In a world where capital is no longer free and investors are demanding clear paths of (growing) profitably, the hotline can become the marketer’s best friend in delivering customer delight – it not only bridges the chasm between acquisition and retention but is also the crux of the profitable growth challenge CEOs and CMOs must solve for.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 10)

Brands in My Life

Here is a thought exercise with the brands that I engage with. How could they build hotlines to me and how could I engage with them?

Let’s start with the media brands. Most of them send out email newsletters. The goal is to bring us to their website or app so our attention can be monetised with ads. In recent years, they have also started subscriptions but the ads continue to remain a dominant revenue stream. The newsletters today offer a list of headlines to click on. The only change in the past decade or so is some degree of personalisation based on either what I have been reading or the preferences I set when I created my account. Three changes could make the newsletters come alive: a “top headlines” section which fetches the main stories dynamically when I open the email rather than being constructed when the newsletter was created, a “search” box within the email, and a “comments” box which lets me give feedback right inside the email. In fact, some new and interesting comments could even be surfaced with the story headline when I open the email.

The OTT brands could allow me to do a 1-click add right inside the email, and perhaps even edit my watchlist. In fact, some Indian OTT brands don’t even send emails – preferring push notifications. I think that’s a mistake because many of their subscribers may have switched off notifications in which case the brand has no communication channel.

Some brands like Raymond or ASIC where the purchase cycles are less frequent will need to figure out ways to make the hotline alive during the non-engagement zone. They could send out “Ems” (short informative emails which can be consumed in 15 seconds or so) with tips on their category. Or ask customers to share photographs with their products in return for rewards. The goal is to be top-of-mind when the time for the next purchase comes.

Hypercasual games would be fun to add as part of the hotlines to drive engagement. So, instead of me going to the Wordle page daily, could the Wordle play be done inside of the email? Could I create my own Wordle and share it with friends in groups to see who can guess it first?

Book publishers could also set up a hotline with me after I purchase a book. (They have no idea today – having always relied on intermediaries for sales.) They could send suggestions on new books, online events with the author, latest tweets by the author. I could send back some of my favourite passages from the book – in return for rewards or an opportunity to participate in an exclusive interaction with the author.

eGrocery marketplaces could make ordering trivially simple with the use of the hotline – almost as easy as me calling up the kirana store owner. Some of it is just the use of AMP within an email, but the comfort of having a 2-way relationship where someone is actually listening on the other side can be comforting.

On a personal note, as a WordPress blogger, I could add a comments “AMPlet” inside of the email that goes out to all who have subscribed to my updates. This is much better than having to go to my blog and login to control the spam.

These are just some starting ideas. It is up to each brand to creatively think of the possibilities. Listening to customers and readers is a great way to get feedback, engage and co-create new products. The Email 2.0 and omnichannel hotline is an important leap forward to bring that future to life.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 9)

Micronbox

The customer endpoint of the hotline is an inbox – the email or SMS clients on the mobile or desktop, or WhatsApp. That’s where the brand messages come. The hotline is about making the messages interactive and incentivised to enable not just content consumption and conversation but commerce. The email and SMS inboxes are the repository for these messages. It has not changed much through the years when it comes to brand messages; the only innovation has been the creation of multiple folders to route messages algorithmically to reduce spam and clutter.

WhatsApp brought about a big change in our lives some years ago. Instead of texting or emailing each other and each new communication spawning a new message, it threaded conversations together based on individuals or groups. It made for a cleaner interface. Network effects took over and we all moved our person-to-person and communications to WhatsApp. The same has not happened with brands, even though some brands are now trying to shift engagement to WhatsApp. A big barrier is the cost of a WhatsApp session – 25-50 times that of an email and 4 times that of an SMS (in India). This doesn’t scale well. Besides, WhatsApp is the arbiter of what constitutes fair communications so there is always a ‘Big Brother’ fear of being blocked.

What is needed is a new kind of inbox for hotline-type engagement and interaction between brands and customers. This is the idea I call “Micronbox.” Here is what I wrote in a previous essay imagining a future where we are all using micronboxes. (Think of microns in the writing below as Email 2.0 messages – emails with support for AMP and Atomic Rewards.)

Each of us has a micronbox. It is built on email so it doesn’t necessarily need a new app or identity. This new inbox collates all the microns from our Gmail inbox and organises them better. No microns from a brand which we have not subscribed to make it through. Only a single email from a brand is present – older, unread mails get layered together into that single email. Thus, the micronbox only has as many emails as brands we subscribe to.

… Microns are interactive. So, instead of just a static one-way communication, microns become dynamic and engaging. One can buy a book right from the micron itself, expand a new story to read more, provide feedback or answer questions – right from the inbox, without having to click through to the website. (The magic which makes this possible with emails is AMP.)

… An element of gamification makes it fun. Customers/subscribers earn points for opening and engaging with microns. The more the continuing engagement, the better the rewards. (This is similar to what credit card companies offer – the more you spend, the more you earn. Basically, loyalty and discipline is being rewarded.) They also earn points by sharing information about themselves with brands so the communication they get is more personalised creating a mutual win-win. They can control what personal info they share with different brands. All this helps in increasing the signal-to-noise ratio in the inbox.

… The micronbox is clutter-free. Instead of a ‘delete’ mindset when dealing with emails, there is a ‘delight’ feeling as we scan it. Brands have become friends whose messages are never ignored, read promptly and always acted on. Brands provide us useful info which make daily life better. They offer us what we need rather than what they want. They learn from our actions to make the relationship better daily with every interaction.

Sounds familiar?! While I did not recognise it then, what I was really describing was the idea of a hotline between brands and customers.

The Micronbox completes the picture: a hotline is thus a 2-way connection between brands and customers, built using messages with AMP and Atomic Rewards, expanded to supporting omnichannel engagement. The micronbox becomes a repository of all these messages (microns) and conversations – just like WhatsApp today for our 1:1 and small group chats. Together, they can help drive brands to profitability by eliminating the AdWaste and enabling the 4 Rs of retention, repetition, referrals and reactivation.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 8)

Omnichannel

Gone are the days when there was a single channel that brands used to engage with customers. The digital customer of today is omnichannel. While each of us may have our preferred channels, interaction goes across channels. Brand properties now encompass not just websites and apps, but also the social media channels. From Facebook to WhatsApp to Twitter to Instagram to YouTube, all are creating ways to enable commerce. Communications are leading to conversations which in turn shows the way to commerce. The primary push channels are also becoming 2-way: email to Email 2.0 and SMS to RCS. WhatsApp is opening up rapidly for business enablement. Push notifications are being enriched with media. Across all these channels, brands need to create a unified view of each customer by feeding data into a CDP (customer data platform) and then building AI-powered journeys and next best actions for segments (of one).

Martech automation platforms have been seen as the key to making omnichannel engagement work. But they only start their work once customers open the app or land up at the website. What gets them there? It is the hotline. That is why hotlines must be seen as upstream of journeys. Because the customer is omnichannel, so must the hotlines.

We have discussed how AMP and Atomic Rewards can transform email into Email 2.0 hotlines. The same idea of Atomic Rewards can also help with the other push channels. Micro-incentives for actions can help continue the hotline across the other channels. The objective is to create habit loops – where messages sent by a brand are not ignored, and the feedback provided by customers helps make the messages more relevant.

I wrote in an essay introducing the Atomic Rewards idea a few months ago: “Purchase moments need to be preceded by persuasion moments. An atomic rewards program is the perfect driver for branding, delighting, positioning and decision-making. This space is a blue ocean as of now – with no competition. In a non-digital world, brands had little direct control on the customer relationship. But now, right from early interest, brands can track and identify individual customers, each of whom has a set of unique attributes (email address, mobile number) that can identify them across sessions and conversations. This enables action earlier in the funnel, which in turn creates the opportunity for atomic rewards. Atomic rewards can be offered to existing customers for their attention and engagement in push messages (emails, SMSes, push notifications), and on a brand’s owned properties (website, app). There is also an opportunity to offer rewards much earlier in the purchase cycle for future customers – in ads that are run, or via the physical product itself … Atomic Rewards…is the answer to the problem of attention recession that confronts every marketer. Attention and engagement need as much focus as marketers are doing with customer journeys, onsite and in-app experiences, and transactions.”

Omnichannel, powered by Atomic Rewards, thus becomes the third pillar for building the hotline. The final pillar is the Micronbox.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 7)

Performance Email

So far, as part of the process of building the hotline, we have discussed how to use email as the channel – enhanced with AMP and Atomic Rewards. For a marketing department juggling multiple activities, how can the hotline buildout not add to the list of activities with its own set of complexities? In fact, the hotline as envisioned here needs not just creative skills but also software and analytical talent. As part of the Email 2.0 construct, I have suggested the need for a Progency (product-led agency). This is what I wrote in Part 10 of my Email 2.0 essay: “Progency is a new type of agency built on top of a product (in this case, a martech platform). It is thus a product-led agency. It combines product, people (professionals), process, and pay-for-performance. It brings to the world of martech and customer retention, growth and cross-sell the ease of outcome-driven marketing that adtech agencies have done for new customer acquisition. Progency extends the brand’s internal marketing team to deliver on specific KPIs. This lets the brand team focus on business as usual. Progency – like IT consulting teams focused on specific tech platforms – brings in the necessary expertise to solve specific problems like reactivation, increasing Hooked Score, driving referrals and collecting zero-party data. Each of these initiatives can be measured, improved and rewarded.”

The Progency can be the brand’s partner for building the hotline, and in doing so, the compensation can be based on outcomes. This is where the idea of Performance Email comes in. It is drawn from the world of adtech – how Performance Marketing accelerated spending by compensating the customer acquisition supply chain on outcomes.

As Spiralytics explains: “Performance marketing is a type of digital marketing where brands only pay marketing service providers once their business goals are met or when specific actions are completed, such as a click, sale, or lead. As the name suggests, it’s marketing based on performance. So, what makes performance marketing special? It gives power to the advertiser, since they only pay after the desired goal is achieved. Because of this, they can be confident that their marketing budget is spent only on successful campaigns. More importantly, the success rate of performance marketing campaigns is generally higher since all campaigns are highly targeted, and marketers make data-backed decisions and optimize their campaigns based on the results. This serves as a win-win for both merchants and affiliates.” BigCommerce adds: “[The] win-win marketing opportunity for a retailer (or “merchant”) and affiliate (or “publisher”) allows both parties to target campaigns in a strategic, high ROI way, all based on performance. By paying the affiliate when a specific action is completed, a merchant can feel confident that their money is being well spent.”

Something similar can be done with the hotline value chain. A progency can be paid based on the actions that are done over the hotline instead of just paying for emails based on the number sent. Performance Email can reward in-mail actions – because there are now many more actions that can be done than just an open or a click. ESPs can become partners in this process where they are compensated not for emails sent but for the outcomes. (As we discussed earlier, in the perfect endgame, a brand will only need to send a handful of emails ever to any single customer.)

Performance Email which powers the hotline is an idea whose time has come. It is the breakthrough that can drive increased spending on existing customers because the outcomes (in terms of revenues and profits) can be measured – and therefore rewarded.

Once the Email 2.0 hotline has been established, brands can then take the same principles and extend them to other engagement channels – because the customer is omnichannel.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 6)

Atomic Rewards and Loyalty 2.0

Brand loyalty programs have so far been linked to money and transactions. I have proposed a new idea – Loyalty 2.0 which can be linked to time, attention and sharing personal data. Time can be thought of as a non-monetary resource. It is valuable, and is as I have argued previously, upstream of transactions. If brands can get us to spend more time with their content (solving for attention recession) and collect more data volunteered by us (solving for data poverty), they can build a better relationship with us – right messages, right time, right channel.

The problem has been there is no reason for us to spend more time with the brand other than when we are planning a purchase. In that period, we are searching and asking around. What if brands had hotlines with us so they were top-of-mind? What if brands got our 10-15 seconds daily which helped strengthen their relationship with us – a sort-of mental billboard? What if brands can nudge us to share our experiences with our network or voice our opinion publicly? Each of these actions ‘costs’ us time. If brands are ready to reward us for our money, can they consider doing the same for our time?

This is where the ideas of Atomic Rewards and Loyalty 2.0 come in. Emails can be excellent carriers for these incentives. This is what I wrote in my Email 2.0 essay (Part 9): “Atomic Rewards bring gamification to emails. They are micro-incentives to help marketers get attention, drive engagement, nudge behaviour and create habits. Think of Atomic Rewards as a loyalty program – linked with attention (time) rather than transactions (money). Atomic Rewards offer the perfect solution to Attention Recession; these rewards can be embedded in AMP-enabled emails or in Ems to reward streaks. Atomic Rewards will work best when they are offered across brands because no single brand can offer enough to make it exciting. Rewards filling the email inbox is when we will get a mindset change from “delete” to “delight”. Atomic Rewards make perfect economic sense for brands – for a small cost, they can ensure the hotline to the customers stays active because if the customer becomes inactive or churns, the cost for the same attention will be many times higher via the adtech platforms.”

I wrote about Loyalty 2.0:

The starting point needs to be at the top of the funnel in the brand-customer relationship: with a customer’s attention and data. Attention is critical for everything else that follows. In a world of too much information, individuals can be lost; messages find it hard to get through; connections cannot be easily established. To instil loyalty, brands must solve the attention problem. This means building a pipe, a hotline to their customers. This is where the loyalty app comes in – an app which, crucially, rewards them for their time and data. As I have written earlier: to get customers to pay for their attention, pay them for their attention – else the brand will end up paying Google and Facebook (Meta) 100 times more for the same customer’s attention. There is no loyalty program anywhere in the world for attention.

After attention comes data. Brands need to understand their customers better. While they can decode actions of individual customers on the website and app, the better approach is to simply ask customers and incentivise their actions (in this case, the data being provided voluntarily). How many brands ask us? How many brands offer us incentives for giving information about ourselves? In this case, the additional benefit is that we will also benefit from the personalisation in the offers that we receive. We want to be shown opportunities that interest us, that speak to us. Revealing ourselves is both an opportunity to earn points and to ensure future communications are targeted for our particular tastes.

What better mechanism to get attention and collect data than an AMP email? Gamify it with Atomic Rewards and there is the foundation for a hotline! Into this mix let’s bring in the idea of “Performance Email.”

Building the Hotline Right (Part 5)

Living Email

For too long, emails have been static and lifeless. Brands create the email, send it and it stays that way forever in the inbox. At best, there is some dynamic image that can be pulled in when the email is opened. As such, the email becomes a single-use message – never to be opened again. What if this could change? Let’s consider the possibilities of an idea I call “All in Email” – search, browse, chat, cart, rate, review – many of the verbs we associate with actions on websites or apps can now be done in emails. Instead of a customer going to the brand property (website or app), what if the property came to the customer?! That is the promise of AMP – combined with the power of our imagination.

A Living Email could have a search box embedded in it. I could then search in the email itself and see the results right there. Popular categories could be listed for me to browse inside the email itself. In both cases, even the addition to the cart could be done within the AMP email. Since an AMP email does not retain its “AMP nature” when forwarded, the checkout process too can be done right inside the email. No click throughs, no landing pages! A Living Email could lead to the initiation of a chat session from inside the email. I see a product I like in the email, and I could initiate a conversation with a chatbot or a human for resolving my queries. The context-specificity of the chat could lead to faster closures. Features like search, browse and chat could be standard components in every AMP email – so all I have to do is to go to my inbox and open any email from a brand and get started.

A Living Email can show news and stock quotes in real-time – every time I open the email, I would get the latest info. In fact, take this idea to its logical extreme, and all a media brand would need to do is to just have a single email ever in the inbox. Think WhatsApp – we have a single conversation thread with an individual or a brand. A Living Email would be the only email a media entity would need to send. When a breaking news or a daily update needs to be communicated, the email would just rise to the top of the inbox. (More on this when we discuss the Micronbox idea.)

A Living Email could have changing questions for collecting zero-party data. Depending on what the brand knows about me, it could throw up a different question each time I opened the same email. A Living Email therefore is just a placeholder in the inbox – with each side (brand or customer) having the ability to initiate a conversation.

AMP is what makes the Living Email possible. Atomic Rewards is what provides the micro-incentives needed to nudge the customer to the desired actions.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 4)

AMP and Email 2.0

AMP is one of the biggest innovations in email in recent times. The underlying tech has been proposed by Google. AMP works in Gmail and Yahoo mail clients but is not supported by Apple. So,  if one has a gmail ID but is viewing the email in Apple’s mail client, the AMP features will be lost and the standard non-AMP version of the email will be shown. Because Apple mail clients account for almost half of the consumption of email in the US, marketers and ESPs (email service providers) have largely ignored AMP. Matters have been compounded because creating AMP emails takes some effort – while AMP editors are now coming to market, it is still not as easy as drag-and-drop to create the emails. Finally, there is also the issue of capturing the data entered in the AMP email – that needs a data storage service to be integrated. For all of these reasons, AMP has been a non-starter since its introduction over 3 years ago by Google. This is what I had written in an essay on AMP a year ago: “AMP for email is new and exciting; it offers marketers many innovative ideas to strengthen the brand-customer relationship; there are still significant challenges in mass adoption; it remains a “technology for the future” (much as it was 2 years ago when it was announced).”

The situation in markets like India is very different. Gmail and Android accounts for 90% or so of the market. As such, most emails are viewed in the Gmail client and is thus AMP-ready. We at Netcore are already rolling out AMP campaigns for many of our customers and seeing big increases in email engagement. The lead time creatives is being reduced by our recently launched AMP Editor and ready templates. The underlying theme of “no landing pages and no click throughs” is too powerful a proposition for brands to ignore.

This is what I had written on AMP in my recent Email 2.0 series (part 7): “[AMP] enables the creation of microsites in emails. Think of AMP as enabling email apps. AMP is a big leap forward. It eliminates a click to the website or app for a wide range of use cases: filling a form, gathering feedback, scheduling appointments, showing live content, creating interactive games and collecting zero-party data. AMP makes email a two-way channel … AMPlets which can be easily inserted into emails are another innovative solution. In fact, brands should consider creating an AMP-based interactive footer with multiple AMPlets … Whether it is 50% or 90% of their base, brands should make use of it because the benefits in terms of attention and engagement are big.”

AMP creates what I think of as the “Living Email.”

Building the Hotline Right (Part 3)

The Chasm

Marketing budgets of brands have been focused on three categories. With the rise of digital-first customers, the bulk of the spending is for new customer acquisition via the likes of Google, Meta (Facebook) and Amazon who together account for $360 billion of the $450 billion annual digital spend, which is about 60% of the global $750 billion spend on advertising. The second spending category is on sending push messages (primarily email and SMS) to their database with the hope that these push messages get opened and acted on. And then finally, there is the spending on the martech platforms which focus on the engagement, journey orchestration and personalisation on the brand’s properties (website and app). The first is focused on new customers, while the other two categories are focused on existing customers. As I have written previously, half of the spends on new acquisition are being wasted because of reacquisition and wrong acquisition – both an outcome of not building better relationships and gathering the right data from existing customers.

There is a chasm: marketers spend to acquire new customers, and then spend on the properties where the customers transact by either spending money or time. Very little attention has been paid to bridging the chasm other than blasting out lots of messages to every email address or mobile number they have. Yes, there have been improvements in segmentation and personalisation over the years, but the limitation has come from the capabilities of the channels. The only big innovation in email in the past 20 years has been the shift from text to HTML. SMS has largely remained the same. In India, we have gone backward ever since TRAI banned 2-way SMS interactions for brands almost a decade ago. Apps have enabled push notifications but these are being increasingly blocked by consumers. WhatsApp is working to bridge the chasm with its popularity and interactivity but it can be quite expensive for sustained usage and the risk of a centralised intermediary changing the rules is ever present.

For marketers to cross this chasm means converting the 1-way broadcast relationship with their customers into a 2-way conversation. This is what has been missing in the relationship. With brands firing away their messages, customers have become trained to largely switch off leading to open rates in single digits – meaning that 9 of 10 brand messages are ignored. This is therefore the crux of the challenge: how to make brand messages 2-way, engaging, exciting and something that customers look forward to.

Until now, brands had no easy way to bring interactivity to their push messages. AMP in email changes this. With interactivity can now come incentives for actions that marketers wish to drive. Atomic Rewards via a pan-brand loyalty program focused on the customer’s time (rather than money) is the way forward. The same idea of micro-rewards can be extended to other push channels for an omnichannel hotline. In the future, a WhatsApp-like inbox exclusively for brands (what I have termed as Micronbox) can further improve the hotline experience. Taken together, AMP, Atomic Rewards, Omnichannel and Micronbox thus become the pillars for bridging the chasm and building the hotline.

Building the Hotline Right (Part 2)

History

One of the things that struck me when I went to the US for further studies in the late 1980s were toll-free numbers. The 1-800 numbers were everywhere. These toll-free numbers were the way brands interacted with customers. You could call almost any brand and speak to a human agent. The enabler for the toll-free call was the concept of the “collect call” or reverse charging. Instead of the calling party paying, it was the called party that bore the cost.

RingCentral has the early story on toll-free numbers: “The 1-800 number got its start in 1967…The idea was to cut down on collect calls, which could be labor-intensive since they often required a live operator. The early adopters of toll-free numbers were primarily hotels and car rental companies, which took lots of reservations from across the country over the phone. Because of this, the story of toll-free numbers is also the story of the modern call center.”

The 1-800 toll-free numbers were the early versions of hotlines. Companies had vanity numbers (like URLs of the Internet age) so customers could easily remember them. An example: 1-800-FLOWERS, where the letters translated to digits on the phone keypad. From BeBusinessed: “By the late 90s, most businesses had a secret formula for this that still holds true today. If customers were more likely to get the number from a business card or website, i.e., the phone number was right in front of them, memorableness is not as important. If the average customer is finding you through a billboard, TV or radio ad, it’s important for the number to stick in their memory easily, so vanity numbers work better.”

Any customer could call a brand representative and ask for assistance, report a problem or give feedback. It was only one-way: there was no way for a brand to get in touch with a customer. In fact, unless customers were part of a loyalty program, it was almost impossible for brands to have a 1:1 relationship with customers. At times, the wait times were long. I remember once waiting an hour to speak to an airline representative when my baggage did not arrive after a flight.

From a FastCompany article in 1997: “The 1-800 number, staffed by a customer-service rep who debugs your computer or orders flowers on Valentine’s Day, has become such an institution that it’s hard to believe toll-free dialing has been available only since 1967, and that toll-free service as we know it today has been in place only since 1980. Americans dialed toll-free numbers 20.6 billion times last year. That’s more than 56 million calls a day. Today 40% of all calls on AT&T’s nationwide network are toll-free. The volume has tripled in the last five years.”

With the rise of the Internet starting in the mid-1990s, email addresses and web forms started replacing the 1-800 numbers. Now we have the chat windows (at times powered by bots) that are taking over. The future is probably a hybrid – combining AI (machine intelligence) with human intelligence. Lisa Morgan writes at TechTarget: “Hybrid chatbots not only help to close the gap between human knowledge and the kinds of queries a chatbot can answer, but also help ensure that queries involving an emergency or another emotional issue are dealt with empathetically. This requires adjustments to the words the chatbot uses and a quick handoff to a human agent who understands the customer’s dilemma and the best way to address it.”

From toll-free numbers to “contact us” web pages to chatbots – businesses have always wanted the customer connect. But in the past decade or so, focus and marketing budgets have shifted from existing customers to new customers.