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Intercom aims to make online business personal - even with chatbots

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 7, 2020
A survey from fast-growing online chat provider Intercom shows businesses embracing chatbots for customer interactions - but must still keep it human

AI chatbot customer experience smartphone in hand urban © panuwat phimpha - shutterstock

Some of the fastest-growing tech companies right now are reinventing web functions that have been with us since before the turn of the century. Web conferencing — Zoom. Chat rooms — Slack. Web chat — Intercom. Not as famous as the first two, San Francisco-based Intercom has found favor as an online messaging platform that helps businesses engage and support their customers and prospects.

The boom in online messaging among consumers and the rise of conversational computing in business has helped Intercom thrive since its foundation in 2011. It now has more than 30,000 paying customers globally and is backed by $241 million in venture funding. People increasingly expect to find a chat option for customer support when they visit a website or use an app, says Intercom's SVP of Marketing, Shane Murphy-Reuter:

Given that every single company in the world has customer support — typically by email, maybe calls for larger companies — I do not see a world in the future where a messenger isn't on every single website and in every app.

The question will be, to what degree it's used. Does it trigger for everyone? Is it just pure automation? Is it talking to a human? It is, logically and objectively, a better experience than having somebody leave the site or leave the app to go and email you.

With a mission of making online business interactions as personal as dropping into your local coffee shop, Intercom has built functionality around the core messaging app to help companies personalize the online chat experience. Murphy-Reuter explains:

It's the ability to do automation, to be able to connect you to a human, it's the ability to recommend different articles. And then on the company end, it's the ability to log into the inbox and manage all those conversations, know who are the customers that you should be chatting to, all that sort of thing.

Meeting midmarket demand

Over the past year or two, Intercom has been adding new capabilities in response to rising demand from midmarket and larger companies — Murphy-Reuter cites as examples Irish airline Aer Lingus and software companies New Relic and Shopify. There are three components to these new features.

The first is that these companies typically want to connect Intercom into other best-of-breed solutions. Last year it launched an app ecosystem to help companies plug it into the other applications they're using, whether that's Salesforce or Zendesk for ticketing, or Stripe to be able to take payments within a messaging conversation. Other third-party apps add extra functions such as the ability to do NPS surveys. This was a big move, says Murphy-Reuter:

It was a significant level of investment for us as a business and really set us up now, to be able to plug in to whatever stack those larger companies are using.

The second component is filtering technology that helps companies manage their interactions with customers, based on segmentation, status and where each is in their lifecycle. For established customers, this capability connects into existing CRM records, while for new enquiries it taps data from Clearbit to evaluate and categorize the lead.

Chatbots and the customer experience

The final component is its automated bot technology. This takes care of routine enquiries while passing more complex cases on to a human. Chatbots are becoming a regular part of the consumer experience when visiting business websites, as confirmed in an independent survey commissioned and published this week by Intercom on trends in how companies are using chatbots.

The vast majority of chatbots are used either for sales and marketing or customer service, with the top four use cases (ranging from 17-23% adoption) being to route website visitors, collect information, qualify leads or help with a purchase. Survey respondents from businesses said that chatbots had increased sales by two-thirds on average, sped up response times by a 3x factor, and increased customer support satisfaction scores by a quarter.

From the consumer perspective, almost three quarters of respondents expect to encounter chatbots on a website. One in four are equally happy whether their enquiry is handled by a human or a bot — though almost nine out of ten prefer dealing with a human if given the choice.

When human interactions matter

Murphy-Reuter likens the use of chatbots to visiting a bank, where you'll go to an ATM if you just want some cash but you'll speak to an advisor if you want to ask about a mortgage. A chatbot should deal with routine enquiries but quickly hand off to a human when more engagement is needed:

What we're able to do is allow the bot to triage basic questions, and if required, then pass the person on to a human for the really tough things to answer. Or it may be that, if you know that this is your tier-one customer, you might just direct them straight to human, if you think that that's valuable.

One customer has reported solving 60% of enquiries using this bot technology, he adds. This frees up customer support resources to provide a better experience:

It's not only savings from a cost perspective, but it also frees up those people to be trained to be great representatives for your company, rather than having to handle basic, day-to-day questions.

Intercom finding its place

Despite these extra features, isn't there a danger that website chat is just a commodity feature that sooner or later gets swallowed up into CRM and customer experience suites? Murphy-Reuter argues that Intercom is insulated by its ability to integrate easily to other applications, along with continued innovation within the platform:

It's all integrated very well. Now, the question is, is there enough space left in innovation within the category of the messenger, such that you keep it ahead of companies that are just tagging it on? ...

Our view and our product roadmap would suggest that it's by no means anywhere close to commoditization. So for example, today, the messenger can answer the question, 'How do I change my flight?' And it will say, 'Oh, this is how you change your flight, go here.' It doesn't take much to imagine a world where the messenger changes your flight there and then. Suddenly, essentially, the messenger is now replicating all of the capability of the actual website itself.

Intercom will find its place alongside Slack as an internal communications channel and consumer messaging platforms, he believes.

The way we see it is that Slack will become the norm for communicating with people within a business. There's WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, which is becoming the norm for people outside a business to communicate to each other. And then Intercom will become the norm between businesses and consumers.

Product tours in support

Meanwhile, Intercom continues to add functionality designed to help personalize and improve the online experience. Another capability that's proving popular are product tours — interactive guides that walk customers through new features or unfamiliar processes. First conceived to help product teams onboard new customers, they've proven equally popular with support teams, says Murphy-Reuter.

What they're trying to do is, solve the problem before it even becomes a problem. If you know that you're going to get a 30% spike in the number of customers asking you questions on their bill date, because they don't understand it, go to the product tour and proactively show them how to use it.

One of the most powerful things that our customer support buyers are finding about Intercom is that it's not just inbound, it's not just like the messenger is sitting there waiting to be asked a question. The messenger is proactively, based upon your behavior in the product, engaging with you and proactively saying, 'Hey, we think that this might be a problem for you,' and helps you before it even gets to the point where it's an issue.

My take

One of the secrets of Intercom's success to date has been its mission of making sure online interactions remain personal. We live in a world where customers expect businesses to engage with their needs and improve their experience. The goal of automation shouldn't be to remove the human element, it should be to enhance it.

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