Automated customer service: how to support your customers at scale

Main illustration: Molly Egan

Much has changed in the last few weeks. And for many support teams using conversational support, automation has helped them meet changing customer expectations in these unprecedented circumstances.

As the head of our Support Ops team, I work daily with my teammates to develop automated solutions that don’t frustrate customers, but empower them. Our goal is to personalize every experience through automation – to deliver exactly what each specific customer needs, when they need it, and without anyone yelling in frustration for a human.

If you’re experiencing a heightened volume of support requests right now, you may be looking to implement more automation. I hope that this inside look at how we’ve implemented personalized, automated customer service at Intercom can help you support your own team in this uncertain and challenging time.

What is automated customer service?

Automated customer service is a type of customer support which is provided by automated technology such as AI-powered chatbots, not humans. Automated customer support works best when customers need answers to recurring straightforward questions, status updates, or help to find a specific resource.

Voice recognition technology has improved, AI solutions can interpret customer feedback, and chatbots have started to answer the questions they receive, not just pass them off to a human. With this increase in functionality comes a change in how customers actually view automation: less as a nuisance, and more as a bona fide, personalized option for getting help with their issues.

One of the most popular automated support options here at Intercom is chatbots. Our bots use machine learning to provide customers with links to existing resources, like knowledge base articles and FAQs. They can also route customer conversations to the team best equipped to handle their questions and can even provide answers to simple customer questions like, “How can I add more users?”

How to support your customers with automation

Over the last decade, live chat has become the de facto standard for companies wanting to offer top-tier conversational support. Chat is faster than email, more personal than knowledge bases, and way less frustrating than shouting into an automated phone system.

But I get it – live chat isn’t always the most convenient option for customers. Some customers might be multi-tasking, in the middle of their work day, or on the go. For people who don’t have time to have an in-depth conversation with a support rep, automated support options – like chatbots – become just as important as real-time support.

These are the benefits of automated support that we’ve found particularly impactful here at Intercom.

1. Some people prefer multi-tasking

Customers can ask your chatbot a question and read the answer between meetings, or get a link to a helpful article and read it when they have time. There’s no pressure to take action immediately.

2. Customers can choose the option that fits their needs

To us, automated support doesn’t mean directing customers to an endless loop of scripted responses. Some customers love rolling up their sleeves and and digging into help center articles, while some customers aren’t interested in more than a quick scan. Serving both types is key. And if they need more help, your customers can still follow up with a support rep. With both live chat and automation in your arsenal, you can truly meet your customers anywhere and at any time they need you.

“For people who don’t have time to have an in-depth conversation with a support rep, automated support options – like chatbots – become just as important as real-time support”

3. Reduce labor costs

Automation helps both your customers and your company. It lets you employ a smaller support team, reduce your labor costs, and save money.

4. Less room for human error

Automation rules allow customer questions that can’t be answered by a chatbot to instantly be routed to the right person and team, ensuring there’s no confusion over who handles what or which questions have already been answered.

5. Improved efficiency

When implemented well, automated customer service allows businesses to help more customers at scale without drastically growing headcount. The speed and savings can be game changers for your business… but only if you implement those solutions thoughtfully.

Implementing automated customer service that feels personal

A recent study by Nextiva stated that 33% of customers who abandoned a business relationship last year did so because personalization was lacking, which means you can’t just automate service.

You have to make sure automation still feels personal. That takes time and thoughtfulness. You have to make sure to strike the right balance to avoid having your personalization come across as creepy. It’s great when websites suggest support articles before you reach out to support and chatbots offer resources based on the page you’re viewing. But a chatbot using data enrichment tools to address a customer by name is probably not a good idea if this is their first visit to your site.

At Intercom, we work hard to balance automation and personalization in two critical areas of customer support: issue resolution and customer routing.

Solve customer issues proactively

When a customer writes in, the most personal thing we can do is respect their time and get them to an answer as quickly as possible. The great news is that our support chatbot Resolution Bot can answer their question immediately – and in some cases, before they even finish typing.

This allows the customer to resolve their own issues by selecting the suggestion that most closely resembles their concern. Or if customers can’t find the answer they need, they can choose to get routed to a support specialist.

We also use a Task Bot that can look at keywords in the customer’s message and suggest matching articles – but only if it detects that the user hasn’t visited the Help Center in the previous 15 minutes. If they had, the articles likely didn’t address the person’s question. In that case, redirecting them back to a resource they’ve already seen is probably more frustrating than helpful.

“When customers write in, the most personal thing we can do is respect their time and get them to an answer as quickly as possible”

Of course, there will be questions that our chatbots aren’t set up to address and we direct those conversations to our support reps. We could have designed our bots to always direct users to the Help Center, a forum, or some other form of self-service. But while that would have been the most efficient workflow for our support team, it would have been a prime example of impersonal automation, one that doesn’t treat the user’s time with consideration.

Even when Resolution Bot can answer a customer’s question, it’ll always check if they got what they needed. If not, the customer can talk to a human.

Offering access to a human is how we stay personalized while avoiding the dreaded “I can’t answer that” chatbot loop, where a customer gets stuck asking questions to an unhelpful chatbot and can’t find an “escape hatch” with which to talk to a real person.

Pro tip: add multilingual support

Can you imagine having to translate advice from a customer support team on top of dealing with an already frustrating situation? If your product is in multiple languages, you should consider adding multilingual support to keep the entire experience personal.

We know that 70% of customers are more loyal to companies that support them in their native language, so this functionality will go a long way with your customers. Our Resolution Bot can speak in 7 different languages in order to provide an experience that’s truly tailored to them.

Contextual customer routing

The other area where we heavily apply automation is customer routing. For conversations not addressed by a bot, our assignment rules take care of routing nearly half of conversations to the right place, with the rest routed to an escalation inbox to be examined by a human.

What this “right place” looks like varies, so our assignment rules consider the customer’s history with us (if there is one) and decide where they should go to get the help they need. This is how we keep routing personal: we take into account multiple factors – not just account spend – to determine where our customer should go. These factors include:

  • Message keywords
  • Products in use
  • Company type
  • Page URL
  • Customer tenure

For instance, if someone starts a conversation from our Developer Hub or their message contains technical words like “python” that clearly indicate a technical topic, we know they will likely benefit most from talking to our Customer Support Engineers. Not only does this save our team time by automating the number of manual escalations up to technical CSEs, but it inherently respects the customers’ time, removing an unnecessary touch from a non-technical resource and getting the customer in front of the person that is best equipped to handle their question, shortening resolution time.

How automated customer service is paying off

Using instant resolution and contextual routing has led to some pretty big wins for our support team. Here are some specifics:

  • Our rate of automated resolution (ROAR) is about 4.5%. This means 4.5% of all customer issues are resolved without a human being involved.
  • Every 1% of ROAR roughly equates to a savings of $100,000 per year, so that 4.5% resolution rate translates to $450,000 saved annually.
  • 75% of our automated resolutions come from Resolution Bot, while the remaining 25% come from suggested articles.
  • 60% of our routed conversations land in the right inbox on the first try. This is something we’re constantly working to improve, both for our support team and our customers.

While a 4.5% ROAR might sound low, it’s actually a pretty huge number for us, as you might guess from those annual cost savings. 4.5% is also on par with B2B companies like ours that tend to see more complex questions from customers.

B2C companies can get their ROAR up to 10-20%, since many of their questions are far more transactional in nature and thus are more easily resolved by automation. We’ve seen customers for whom Resolution Bot resolves 33% of the queries it gets involved in and improves customer response time by 44%.

Ultimately, we think this 4.5% ROAR and 60% routing success rate are just the start. We’re confident that we can continue to improve these KPIs and route even more customers to the correct place on the first try, all without ever involving a human.

When automated customer service isn’t the right solution

Ultimately, there are some situations where automation isn’t useful. This is usually when you’re in a situation where you can’t personalize the kind of support you’re offering. This might be because you don’t have the necessary context on your customer to treat them individually.

Or it could be because your current chatbot can’t interpret that information to make the appropriate routing decisions, like sending customers knowledge base links or automatically routing them to a member of your support team. In these situations – when it’s not personalized – automation becomes a blocker instead of a valid support method.

Here’s what I mean by a blocker: think back to the hours-long phone calls with your cable provider or bank. Have you ever yelled “customer service” into a phone five times, trying to get to a human being? By the time the phone menu gives up on trying to resolve your issue, you were probably too frustrated to properly articulate what your problem was.

“When it’s not personalized – automation becomes a blocker instead of a valid support method. What you needed in that situation was an ‘escape hatch’”

What you needed in that situation was an “escape hatch.” Therein lies the danger of poorly implemented automation. If your customers get blocked by a chatbot or gets routed to the wrong team, they’ll be just as frustrated as they were when you yelled at that phone menu. But this time, the risk is even greater, since it’s so much easier to cancel, tell friends about your unhelpful support, or both.

Poor personalization can turn satisfied customers sour, to the point that they cancel their account and take their business to your competitors. Or they may instead flock to your real-time support options, increasing the need for staff and raising your associated costs. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Customers who shouldn’t be subjected to automation:

  • Customers with sensitive issues: Requests for upgrades or cancellations should be answered by a human. When a customer is trying to give you money, you can’t allow a chatbot to jeopardize the relationship before it even begins. If they’re thinking about canceling, poor automation might make any negative feelings even worse, or ruin any chance at saving the relationship.
  • High-touch customers: Customers with lots of questions, and those who need hand-holding through difficult processes or explanations, would benefit from working with a human. Most of the time, these folks are more than willing to wait for a person to talk to if they know they’ll get the help they need.
  • New customers or trials: Your newest converts might end your relationship early if they find themselves continually blocked by chatbots, no matter how “helpful.”

To prevent issues with these three types of customers, my team maintains a list of questions that we don’t allow to be answered by automation. Customers who ask about pricing, who are identified as at-risk or “high-touch,” or our trial users, are automatically routed to a team member for assistance. Though AI is learning to handle complex problems, for the time being, these customers will get the best service possible if you send them to a human, not a bot.

Use automation to meet increased demand

On its own, automation won’t solve the problems of your customers – it needs to be supported by a strong knowledge base and answers from your support team. But, it can seriously aid both your team and your customers, especially during trying and urgent situations. You’ll be able to reach more customers and solve their issues proactively, so they don’t have to wait until your team has the bandwidth to speak with them directly.

If you’d like to learn more about using automation and bots in Intercom, read more about how Resolution Bot, our Task Bots, and Custom Bots work. And if you need our help to create or refine your automation strategy so you can manage increased inbound queries, we’re always here for you.