absa chat banking
Absa's chat-banking in action.
  • In 2000, South African company Clickatell was the first in the world to succeed in sending messages from the internet to cellphones. 
  • It has since achieved global success, and helped WhatsApp to create its SMS sign-up process.
  • Clickatell is now helping companies to start "chatting" to their customers via WhatsApp. 
  • For more stories, go to www.businessinsider.co.za.


Key to WhatsApp’s success in conquering 1.5 billion smartphone users is its easy sign-up process – it doesn’t require the usual lengthy email authentication others use. Instead a simple four-number code is simply SMSed to your cellphone, and you’re in.

Few people know that South African company Clickatell, founded in Cape Town in 2000, was instrumental in helping WhatsApp deploy this sign-up process.

Almost twenty years ago, Clickatell was the first company in the world to succeed in sending messages from the internet to cellphones – a revolutionary technology at the time.

Read: The incredible story of how a South African company sparked a global tech revolution – with four lines of code

So when WhatsApp was started by two former Yahoo employees a decade ago, it turned to the South African experts in SMS technology to help it set up its “friction-less” onboarding.

Eventually, Facebook bought WhatsApp for more than $19 billion in 2014, as it became clear that the message platform was changing the way the world communicated.

Clickatell itself emerged as a global success story, and it now helps clients across the world – including IBM, Ikea, and Ericsson – to communicate with their clients via SMS and WhatsApp.

Recently it enabled a new MTN service that allows clients to buy airtime and data via WhatsApp, and it is also helped Absa to launch its “chat-banking” via WhatsApp – a world first that enables the bank’s customers to do remote banking as well as get a credit report.

Read: You can turn your teller into a pirate, and other cool hacks on Absa’s new WhatsApp banking

This is called “conversational commerce”, and Clickatell CEO Pieter de Villiers believes in five years’ time you will interact with to your favourite brands in the same way you are currently chatting with your friends.

Increasingly, we will stop using company apps – and start interacting with companies via WhatsApp and other communication platforms.

Clickatell CEO Pieter de Villiers
Clickatell CEO Pieter de Villiers

So, for example, if you want to transfer money to your mother, you’ll send a WhatsApp instruction (“Pay mom R300”) to your bank – instead of going through the long process of opening your bank’s app, finding the correct beneficiary, authenticating the transaction, and waiting for confirmation.

Also, instead of having to call your service provider to sort out account queries, you will also be able to “chat” via WhatsApp.

“Nobody enjoys the call-centre experience,” says De Villiers. “When you finally get through to an operator, you first you have to authenticate yourself, then spell your name… It’s frustrating.”

Straightforward queries (getting a balance or updating an address, for example) will be handled by so-called automated chatbots.

“You don’t need human intellect to address these simple queries, which is also not fulfilling work for employees in call centres.”

De Villiers believes automated assistance will allow companies to redirect their employees to focus on services that really add value.

All large consumer brands that care about customer engagement and making it easier for their customers to reach and interact with them should consider consider launching chat channels, says De Villiers. It is especially well suited to industries like travel, transportation, banking, financial services and telecoms.

"We can confirm we are already working with some of the world’s leading brands in these areas," says De Villiers.

WhatsApp won’t be the only “conversational commerce” platform – Clickatell is also developing chat solutions for working on other communication channels even contemplating Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa.

And the reliable, ubiquitous and "always on" SMS won’t go away anytime soon. De Villiers says it will remain important to businesses which have to send important information to clients, which can’t necessarily connect to the internet of all have smartphones.

So, for example airlines, like American carrier and Clickatell client United Airlines, will continue to rely on SMS to make sure their customers receive flight details.

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