Use Text Messaging in Your Business

This week I bought something from B & H Photo, which sells digital photography and video equipment. I was impressed to find it offers a cool text messaging feature. You can text your order number to a special short code (“BANDH”), and it will send you a message with your order’s tracking details. Banks and phone companies have been using text messaging for a while, letting you get your balance or minutes used via texting. Certainly, companies that exist only via text messaging and offer 411-like functionality exist as well. And Europe is ahead of the text-messaging curve, where the SMS (define) market is more advanced.

Today we’ll talk about ways your company can use text messaging.

Texting as Dialogue, Not Separate Commands

Before you start using text messaging, you must realize it has to be treated as a singular conversation with a customer. In other words, text messages need to retain information they learned from previous text messages. If I inquire about a specific product in my first message, then request user reviews in the second message, your system should understand that I’m still talking about the same product, so I don’t have to keep retyping the product information.

Any of the commands below could include a product name or SKU. For example “review iPhone” would return a review of an iPhone. All successive commands, however, should assume “iPhone” is the product in question, until another product is specifically mentioned. “Avail” should return the availability of the iPhone, because the system knows what product we’re talking about. The user wouldn’t have to type “avail iPhone.”

Seven Ways to Use Text Messaging

  • Order status. This is the easy one, as B & H is already doing it. I can’t vouch for the actual messages it sends back, as the service didn’t work when I tried it. To use its service, you text the word “order,” followed by your order number, to short code BANDH. This is less than ideal, because I have to know my order number, then have to type it into an SMS. For instance, such a text message might read “order 34324322839374444444.” That’s a lot to type and leaves a lot of room for error. A better approach would be to let users add their cell phone number to their account. That way, simply texting “order” to BANDH would be just as effective and would be easier for users to type. They also wouldn’t have to know their order number to use the feature. They’re obviously interested in the most recent undelivered order on the account. The existing method could be used as a backup in case users don’t have an account.
  • Product availability and purchasing. If you know the product you’re looking for, texting its name or SKU to a company could return its availability and price. The system would also respond with a purchase option, such as “Respond with ‘buy’ to purchase this product.” Obviously, default shipping and payment options would be pulled from the user’s account (which is tied to the cell phone).
  • Ratings and reviews. If I want to read user reviews of a product, texting “ratings” would return the product’s average rating or the number of good/bad reviews, such as “Avg: 3 out of 5 stars (25 bad/50 good).” Texting “reviews good” or “reviews bad” would return the first positive or negative review, with the option to request more reviews.
  • Similar items. Texting “cheaper” could return a less expensive alternative to the product, whereas “better” could return a better (and more expensive) product. “Alt” could return a list of alternative products. “Acc” might return accessories for the product.
  • Multimedia messages. One could easily imagine wanting to receive a photo of a product. In this case, texting “photo” would return a product photo. If you hadn’t mentioned the product before in previous texts, you could specify a product name after “photo.”
  • Policies and store hours/locations. If I’m out shopping at a store, one piece of information that might persuade me to shop at your store instead of the one I am in is your return policy. Text “return,” “shipping,” “warranty,” or “guarantee” should return the high-level important parts of these policies. Similarly, type “hours” or “location” (probably followed by a Zip Code) would return store information.
  • In-store customer service. Some stores, such as coffee shops, are experimenting with allowing users to text their orders in. Other ideas for the in-store experience include getting a salesperson to come and help you while you are in the store. For instance, texting “help 3” or “help menswear” would send an assistant to aisle three of the store or the menswear section. Typing “promo” might give a list of this week’s promotions or sales. “Coupon” might tell you whether the current product has any coupons available.


The ways texting could be used in retail are endless. This column should get you thinking of some generic ways to use texting in e-commerce and start you thinking of unique opportunities within your business in which texting might come in handy.

Questions, thoughts, comments? Let me know!

Until next time…


Today’s column originally ran on December 12, 2008.

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