Building a Customer Service Chat App with Rails 5 Action Cable and SMS

Published July 14, 2016 by Phil Leggetter
This is a guest post by Cristiano Betta
Cristiano Betta

Rails 5 shipped with some amazing new features like Turbolinks 5 and API mode, but the feature that caught our eye is the new built in WebSocket integration with Action Cable. This new abstraction around WebSocket is baked straight into Rails and it’s perfect for real-time events and two way communication. Today we’re going to have a look at building a customer service experience on top of it and the Nexmo SMS API.

A Customer Service Chat in Ruby on Rails 5

For this tutorial we’ll create a two way customer support chat system for a company that wants to directly communicate with their customer not only via their site but also via SMS. The web app will be the interface for the “customer support agent” and powered by Action Cable, while the customers can use their phone to send text messages straight to the support agent.

Customer Service Chat with Rails 5 Action Cable and SMS

To make things easy we build a starting point for our application and put it on Github. It’s a basic Rails 5 app with a MessagesController for creating new messages in a thread. We provided some fake data via the seed file and a pretty UI with the help of Semantic UI.

Make sure you’ve got Ruby 2.2.2 installed or higher. You can then download the starting point of this tutorial from GitHub if you want to code along.

Then visit localhost:3000 in your browser and you should be able to comment on the existing threads but nothing will be sent via SMS just yet.

All the code for this starting point can be found on the before branch on Github. All the code we will be adding below can be found on the after branch. For your convenience you can see all the changes between our start and end point on Github as well.

Nexmo SMS and Rails 5 Action Cable

The Nexmo SMS API provides you with low latency and high deliverable messaging which is a perfect fit for real-time customer service chat. We’ll be looking at two core elements: sending and receiving text messages and displaying them live in the web app using Action Cable.

To do this we are going to make the following changes to our app:

  • Listen to incoming text messages
  • Show new message in our UI with Action Cable
  • Add Nexmo to our app
  • Broadcast new messages via SMS from the service agent (via Nexmo)

Showing Incoming SMS Messages with Action Cable

Our first step will be to add inbound SMS messages to our application. To do this we will need to get our hands on a Nexmo phone number capable of sending and receiving SMS messages.

Incoming Messages

You can buy a number from the Nexmo Dashboard, or you can use the nexmo-cli library and buy one straight from the command line. You can find your API credentials on the settings page of your Nexmo account

For example to buy a UK phone number starting with 07:

When an SMS is received by this new number Nexmo will call the webhook URL we specify. We’ll create a dummy webhook for now that just returns a simple JSON response.

Let’s also add this to our routes.rb.

If you now load localhost:3000/text_messages you should see a JSON response.

To make your app publicly reachable by the Nexmo webhooks you have a few options. If you are lucky enough to have a public IP on your machine you should be ready to go, for the rest of us we could either deploy the app, use an SSH tunnel, or my favorite solution: use the amazing ngrok tool.

Once installed you can get a public URL using:

Once your app is publicly available we can link our number to a webhook URL. Now every time an SMS is received a call will be made to this URL. For this we are again using the nexmo-cli.

If you get any errors at this state please make sure you are using the Nexmo phone number on your account, and that the webhook URL is publicly accessible.

The next step is to expand our action to take the incoming message, parse the response and save it to our database.

Give it a try! Start your server (and ngrok if necessary) and send a message to your Nexmo number. Within a few seconds the message should be parsed by your app. Refresh the website to see you new message.

Showing messages with Action Cable

Obviously we don’t want to have to refresh our page every time a new message arrives and this is exactly where Action Cable comes in.

Action Cable uses channels to communicate between publishers and subscribers. In our case we’re going to send the number and the html of our new message on the messages channel.

We’ll start by adding a new line to our TextMessagesController:

As you can see we extracted our publishing into a helper method as we will want to reuse this later on.

Our helper is pretty straightforward – it renders the HTML and then passes the HTML and the number to the ActionCable.server.broadcast method.

In order to receive the message on the front-end we’ll want to connect to our server over a new WebSocket and listen to the messages channel for new messages coming in.

We start this off by mounting ActionCable in our routes.

This will expose a WebSocket endpoint on http://localhost:3000/cable that we can connect to using our Javascript as followed.

So how does Rails know that the MessagesChannel maps to the messages stream? It doesn’t. We need to specify this ourselves.

In more complicated examples you could dynamically create the name of the channel based on the authenticated user, extra parameters, and much more. In our example we’re keeping it simple and just hard-coding a subscription to the messages stream.

Finally, we need to update our JS to insert the HTML we received over the cable into our UI.

This code does a few things. First off it finds the .thread and .numbers elements within the DOM. The, if we’re viewing messages (in the views/messages/show.html.erb view) for the number that the incoming message has been received from we prepend the message. If we’re on the index view (views/messages/index.html.erb), showing the latest message from all the numbers, we replace the existing message details with the new HTML.

To make all of this work we do need to add a data-number attribute to the .thread element and each .message element so that we know what number they are related to.

That’s it for Action Cable! Start your server (and ngrok if necessary) and send a message to your Nexmo number. Within a few seconds the message should be parsed by your app and this time you do not need to refresh the website to see you new message. Instead it will show up as soon as Action Cable publishes it to the messages stream.

Replying to messages

So now that we have incoming SMS working let’s update our existing code to send new messages from the service agent directly to the phone number of the customer.

Incoming Messages

In order to send an SMS message via Nexmo we’re going to have to add the nexmo gem to the project.

As you can see we also added the dotenv-rails gem. This is just to make things easier as it will allow the app to load our API credentials from a .env file. The nexmo gem automatically picks up those environment variables and uses them to initialize the client. You can find your credentials on the settings page of your Nexmo account.

We also added our NEXMO_NUMBER to the .env file here as well.

Next let’s turn our new message form into a remote form and use ActionCable to show the customer new submissions instead of redirecting the page.

In our controller we will replace the redirect with something familiar.

The send_cable is our Action Cable publisher from before, and the send_sms will be implemented next.

Before we continue though let’s create a create.js.erb so that our action doesn’t complain about a missing view. We’ll use this view to also clear our textarea when the form is submitted.

Finally let’s send the SMS to the right number with the message from the customer support agent.

That’s it, you should now have full 2-way SMS to Rails messaging in place with the help of Nexmo and Rails 5’s Action Cable. Restart your server if needed and send yourself some messages to see it all in action.

Next steps

Obviously we skipped a lot of cool things both in Action Cable and the Nexmo SMS API. We haven’t authenticated the customer service agent, and we didn’t provide a web UI for the customer – which would be interesting to build on top of the Nexmo Verify API as we did with the post on Two Factor Authentication (2FA) in Ruby on Rails with Devise and Nexmo Verify.

I’ll be playing with Turbolinks 5 next to see if I can build this into a native mobile experience. I’d love to know what you’d add next? Please drop me a tweet (I’m @cbetta) with your thoughts and ideas.

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