Will platforms such as WhatsApp kill off email?

Platforms such as WhatsApp, Slack and now Facebook Workplace offer firms a completely new way to speak to their clients – and they may just kill off email.

Last year, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office revealed, in a review of staff practices, that its diplomats often used the WhatsApp instant-messaging service to communicate with each other. And a Guardian investigation found they weren’t alone; diplomats of a number of nations were using WhatsApp groups to communicate at EU and UN summits.

Tom Fletcher, a UK diplomat and author of the government report, explained: “Most of my day-to-day communication with Lebanese leaders was done in this way. A huge amount of diplomacy can now be handled [like this], and any ambassador who doesn’t have the ability to WhatsApp key ministers will quickly fall behind.”

Indeed, WhatsApp is an ideal tool for exchanging information quickly and privately (the app uses end-to-end encryption, and is allegedly more secure than most email servers). More and more businesses are using it to serve customers, whether booking a restaurant table or buying a diamond ring.

London-based jewellery company Taylor & Hart started using WhatsApp as a sales channel in 2015. According to co-founder Nikola Piriankov, the service is particularly popular with men who are choosing engagement rings – it allows them to discuss their options without arousing suspicion from their partners (there’ll be no pop-up ads, for example).

Chat ’em up

Beyond WhatsApp, platforms such as Slack and the newly launched Facebook Workplace are taking businesses into a golden age of ‘chat’. With more and more accounting firms using live chat messengers, Skype and Facebook, a business-specific ‘chat space’ could be the next logical step.

To see the potential of these platforms as a client portal, you only need look at law firms. Google ‘law firms using Slack’ and you’ll get hundreds of articles on the benefits for both internal communication and client services.

“I’ve found using Slack with clients can pretty much eliminate time in email, and reduces phone time significantly,” wrote lawyer and legal tech entrepreneur Caitlin Moon on the Law Technology Today website. “And, with appear.in and Go To Meeting integration, you can have a face-to-face [meeting] with a client instantly.”

The parallels between law firms and accountancy practices are clear to see. So it might not be long before accountants are chatting with clients in their own Slack or Facebook Workplace threads, before taking the conversation to Skype or FaceTime. Such practices are not ubiquitous yet. But WhatsApp’s increasing business focus and Facebook’s Workplace are reactions to a movement away from email and towards live messaging. Welcome to the chat era.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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