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Human Services

8 Best Practices for Sending Text Messages in the Social Services Industry

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This could be a long and very tedious article. It could be. After all, any communication sent via text message (also called “SMS” or short message service) may fall under a whole slew of rules and regulations, depending on the context of the message.

In the U.S., there’s the TCPA (or Telephone Consumer Protection Act), there’s HIPAA – designed to protect sensitive client data – and there are even regulations imposed by the CTIA, which is a trade association representing the wireless communications industry.

A thorough discussion of any of the above would have most folks drifting off to sleep or giving up on text messaging in no time. Luckily, this isn’t necessary.

By adopting a series of simple, common sense tactics, your organization can use text messaging to connect with your clients without inadvertently breaking the law and exposing yourself to class action suits and fines from regulatory agencies.

Here are 8 tips to get you started…

1. Send messages only to people who provide you with the permission to do so.

While communicating via text message is the way to ensure your contacts see your messages (99% of text messages are opened and read), it can also be a pretty good way to infuriate them, should they not be expecting such messages from you.

Why?

People have an intimate connection with their cell phones and mobile devices and are very sensitive as to what they perceive as spam on them.

So a good rule of thumb is to only text people who have provided you with permission. Our clients have found that more and more people are happy to do so since text messaging is fast becoming the preferred communication channel for a growing number of people.

2. Have contacts sign a simple permission form.

Although it is unlikely that you will be challenged on this (after all, you’re going to be sending helpful, personal communications related to your agency and not commercial messages selling ringtones or Viagra), it’s always a smart idea to have clients sign a simple form that you can keep on file to prove that you have received the necessary permission to contact them.

An example of the wording used on such a form might look like this…

3. Personalize your messages & introduce yourself!

This is even more important if you communicate only sporadically, since your client may forget who’s on the “other end” of messages originating from your number (if your client adds you as a “contact” on her phone, then all incoming messages will be attributed to you and this is no longer a concern, but there’s no guarantee s/he will do so).

Not only does this virtually eliminate the chance that any such message be mistakenly identified as spam, but it strengthens relationships and builds goodwill.

For example, a message like this…

“Reminder: Job fair at community center this weekend, 10 am – 5 pm.”

Is extremely generic, appears automated, and does nothing to build and foster relationships. On the other hand, this message…

“Hi Mark. Sarah from the Employment Agency here. We talked last week. Just wanted to remind you about the job fair at the community center this weekend.”

… Is highly personal, and not only ensures the client is never going to mistake the identity or intention of the sender, it also boosts goodwill and emphasizes the sender’s commitment to the recipient.

4. Only send messages of value.

Don’t bombard clients with messages that aren’t of critical importance to them. Only contact them when necessary – when you have something important to say.

Sometimes this requires a little “thinking outside the box,” since it isn’t always evident that what’s important to you isn’t what is important to your client.

5. Do not include sensitive client information in your text messages.

Standard text messages are not HIPAA compliant.

Just like you’d never send confidential information in a standard email or leave it on a client’s voicemail, you should never send sensitive, confidential or private client information via text message.

The power of text messaging lies with its simplicity, widespread adoption, and extremely low cost. The fact that’s it’s a low-tech solution that works on phones long considered obsolete and doesn’t require the installation of 3rd party apps or software is a huge bonus too.

Implementing a texting solution that allows the transmission of secure client data to your clients would invariably require a smartphone, internet access, the installation of an app and possibly access to a secure portal to retrieve encrypted messages.

In other words, such a solution would require significant input from your client, restrict access only to those people who can afford smartphones and data, and as a result eliminate almost all of the benefits associated with simple text message communications.

As a result, your text messaging should be used for simple, non-specific communications and for making contact.

Today, if you can’t reach your contacts with voicemails and emails, you will be able to reach them with text messages, even if your intention is only to request that they get back to you on a different, secure communication channel, where such information can be exchanged.

6. Send Your Messages over a Long Code.

Text messages are sent over two mediums…

  1. Shortcodes: A 5-6 digit number used primarily for commercial purposes and bulk texting.
  2. Long codes: A standard 10 digit number which appears for all intents and purposes to be a “regular” phone number.

To ensure your messages are not perceived as commercial or are blocked by your contacts, send your messages over a long code. To the recipient, it appears for all intents and purposes like the message originates from a personal device, which helps emphasize the personal element of proper SMS communication.

7. Update Your Client Data When Required

When a client has a new phone number, it’s important to update your records immediately. Messages sent to numbers that have been retired and then re-assigned to a new customer (who hasn’t provided you with consent to contact them) are considered to be spam.

Don’t panic though; you are allowed a single communication with the owner of a newly assigned number and most numbers are retired for up to 3 months before being assigned to a new customer.

8. Use Complaint Messaging Templates

When using bulk texting, ensure your outgoing messages automatically include the required options for compliance (i.e., opt-out instructions like “reply STOP to end” should be appended to all messages). Most bulk messaging services include compliant templates.

In Summary…

Capitalizing on the power of text messaging for your organization doesn’t need to be a frightening or intimidating process. Simple common sense and adhering to the aforementioned points will allow you to reach your audience in a way that’s convenient, easy, and accessible, and you’ll never have to worry about your messages being missed or ignored again.

Legal disclaimer: I’m not an attorney, nor do I play one on T.V. This article should serve as an introduction to text messaging and should not be considered an alternative for professional legal advice. Please conduct your own due diligence before adopting any text messaging program for your organization.

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Paul Crane is the CEO of Local Text Marketers, the makers of CONNECT, an affordable, easy to use service that allows social services and employment agencies to reach their clients via text message through an online platform. For more, visit…Text Messaging for Social Service Agencies.

          
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