October 30, 2013 in Business

New app facilitates texting between firms, customers

Spokane startup creates email boost for businesses
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

David Johnston and Aaron Rollins are behind Business Texter, a startup that offers a low-cost way to text with customers.
(Full-size photo)

A Spokane startup has developed a mobile app that helps companies exchange batches of texts with customers.

Aaron Rollins, the CEO of Business Texter, said the app gives companies a more interactive and responsive way to communicate than through email or social media.

“Customers today don’t like email because they feel the company is just talking at them,” Rollins said. “They know most companies don’t even want customers to send back replies to those emails.” Launched in the spring, the app cuts the cost of sending numerous texts, he said.

Fewer than half of U.S. businesses using the Internet for sales have developed a campaign using texts, according to online research firm Chief Marketer.

What stops them are worries that texts and mobile advertising will make customers feel they’re being bombarded by text spam.

Business Texter’s app can help, Rollins said. He said he knows of no other app like Business Texter, which relies on using a single phone as the source and receiver of business text messages.

When a chain restaurant or a big-box retailer sends out 200,000 texts, for example, it can pay between two cents and four cents per text, according to Rollins. A third party is often used to send the messages.

The Business Texter plan, by contrast, costs less because it uses a business customer’s unlimited texting option on a standard wireless plan, Rollins said.

Using the “freemium” pricing model, Business Texter tells businesses they can use the app for free if they send fewer than 1,000 texts per month. What the texts say and how often they’re sent are left to the customer to decide.

The price per month increases based on total messages sent. For $9.95 per month the customer can send up to 2,000 messages per month; at $30 per month, 6,000 texts.

David Johnston, the chief technology officer who developed the app, said making it work right was a tall task.

Using the Android software platform, Johnston had to deal with frequent bugs and crashes that occurred when the app imported thousands of contacts. For now the app is only available for Android devices; versions for iPhone and Windows Mobile will be released later, Johnston said.

Improvements in phone hardware also made a difference. Until last year, cellphones lacked processing power to send and receive thousands of texts per hour, Rollins said.

To avoid problems with text restrictions for some personal cell accounts, Rollins and Johnston encourage customers to use a business phone account for Business Texter messaging.

Johnston added a self-training keyword system to improve the speed and accuracy of responding to customer questions. The app has a massive database of keywords and phrases to identify how to respond to customer questions.

If a customer texts “What are your hours?” the app establishes a confidence score based on whether it’s dealt with that question before. If another text says: “Your company stinks,” the app uses a confidence-analysis to decide if it knows the meaning of that question, Johnston said. As soon as the app finds a preset confidence threshold for each question, it sends back a text to the questioner, such as: “Our address is such and such” or “We’re sorry you feel that way. Do you want to be removed from future messages?”

Business Texter developed a lengthy system involving several thousand keywords just to identify all the different ways someone might ask to be removed from future texts, he added.

The app can take the business communication process a step further, Rollins said. Businesses can run polls with texts like: “Which new dish should we add to our menu: a shrimp stir-fry or a Cantonese chicken?” and use the answers in planning new offerings.

Earlier this year Business Texter landed more than $250,000 from a number of regional venture capital firms. Frontier Angels, of Kalispell, led the investment round.

One of its members, Diane Smith, is now on the company board. She said the investment made sense because she believes business texting is bound to become a huge growth sector in the next five years.

Business Texter has three Spokane-based workers, with another 10 developers, marketing and sales reps spread across the world, Rollins said.

Most customers are outside Spokane. Rollins said the company has about 1,000 customers, most of whom are using the free version of the app.

The largest customer group is fitness and health and beauty providers.

The second-largest category includes entertainment and event promoters, including DJs. Third would be networking-based businesses, such as Mary Kay cosmetics or the Pampered Chef.

One local test user of Business Texter has been the city of Spokane. Last year, when the city needed to inform Browne’s Addition residents when snowplows would be in their neighborhood, it used Business Texter to reach people, Johnston said.

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