We’ve brought together customer support experts for a discussion on the trends transforming customer support and their plan to tackle them.
Customer support has never been a walk in the park. But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted entire industries, forced many of us into working remotely, and brought about unprecedented digital transformation, the last two years have been particularly demanding.
To keep up with these changes, last year we released our first Intercom Customer Support Trends Report. The report highlighted how support teams were adopting conversational support tools to meet rising customer expectations and a flood of inbound queries.
Last month, we published the second edition. We asked 1200+ customer support leaders about their experiences, and lo and behold, customer expectations are higher than ever, and support teams face even more pressure to meet them.
We wanted to dive even deeper into how support organizations are adapting and figuring out ways to do more with less. So, we decided to host a webinar with three customer support experts and ask them what the biggest trends in customer support are and how they plan to tackle them – from budget cuts to increasingly disconnected tech stacks to employee burnout and turnover. Today’s episode is a roundup of some of those conversations.
You’ll hear from:
- Adrian Swinscoe, CX advisor, author, and speaker
- Ruth O’Brien, Senior Manager of Customer Support here at Intercom
- Shawn Carter, Customer Care Team lead at Aircall
Short on time? Here are a few key takeaways:
- To meet rising customer expectations, offer a mix of self-serve and proactive support, with the option to escalate to human support should the customer want to.
- Support isn’t just a cost center – it’s a value driver. If you help and encourage your team, they can drive retention and expansion, and you’ll see the benefits in your bottom line.
- Almost half of support teams are slowed down because their tools aren’t integrated. Check with your team to know their pain points and use tools that allow for the most integrations.
- Reduced headcount, longer working hours, and a spike in queries have led to burnout. Design processes that work for your team, not the other way around.
- The empathy void isn’t solved by more training. It takes strategy, processes, design, technology, and the right people to build an empathetic mindset that impacts customers and employees.
If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
The customer expectation gap widens
Liam Geraghty: Hello and welcome to Inside Intercom, I’m Liam Geraghty. We have just published the second edition of the Intercom Customer Support Trends Report. On today’s show, we’re going to take a deep dive into the five top trends from that report, with a little help from our panel of guests Adrian Swinscoe, CX consultant and author, Ruth O’Brien, Senior Manager of Customer Support here at Intercom, and Shawn Carter, Customer Care Team Lead at Aircall. You can download the full report at intercom.com, but for now, I’ll give you an overview of our customer support trends research.
“We surveyed over 1,200 global support leaders across a range of sectors like tech, e-commerce, and finance”
We found that the customer support landscape is rapidly evolving, making adapting to change no longer optional for any business. A year ago, as the world grappled with the global pandemic, customer support teams acted quickly to meet the rising expectations of their customers, paired with the increased inbound conversation volume coming their way. To manage these accelerated pressures, forward-thinking businesses adopted conversational support tools like proactive messaging capabilities and chatbots, empowering them to strike the right balance between keeping their teams efficient and their customers happy.
Fast forward one year. We’re now at a critical tipping point where all businesses need to embrace change or risk losing valued customers and talented teammates. We surveyed over 1,200 global support leaders across a range of sectors like tech, e-commerce, and finance. The conclusion was five top trends that are transforming customer support. We’re going to take a deep dive into each of these trends and chat with our panel to get their thoughts and advice.
The first trend: the customer expectation gap has widened. 75% of support leaders said customer expectations are rising. This is a 2% increase from last year’s increase. Adrian, why do you think that’s happening? Why are customer expectations increasing?
“It does nothing for brand loyalty when it’s quite clear a company absolutely does not want to speak to you”
Adrian Swinscoe: Liam, that’s a great question, and if only we knew the minds of customers all of the time and about everything. Sometimes, we’re often kind of guessing, but I think if we deal with what we really know and what we’ve seen happen, there has been a lot of talk earlier in the pandemic about this massive shift to digital that’s taken place. What’s being clear, however, is that this wasn’t a one-time shift. It was like a big step and then it’s continued, so customers are increasingly, and now we could probably argue predominantly, looking for help in digital channels. That’s the first kind of place they’re going. I think that’s possibly a big driver of the increase in expectations. People have made the shift, they’re going deeper within the shift, and the pace of improvement is not keeping up with it. I think that’s where we’re seeing an imbalance in expectations.
Liam Geraghty: Ruth, what can customer support leaders and companies do to decrease this gap?
Ruth O’Brien: We very much try to practice what we preach about our conversational support funnel. We offer proactive support to get ahead of incoming volume, we provide many self-serve options, but we don’t compromise on allowing customers to get through to a human when they need to. It can be tempting to sway too far in one direction here. I’ve seen companies go all-in on automation and self-serve, thinking it’s the most efficient thing for customers and for the team, and they cut out the human side of things entirely. I’m sure we’ve all been caught in an endless unhelpful bot loop when seeking support from another company, and it does nothing for brand loyalty when it’s quite clear a company absolutely does not want to speak to you.
Others shy away from investing in automation because it is an investment. It takes time to get this all set up, and it costs money. They go big on human support to meet demand, and they end up having to backtrack and cut headcount as costs skyrocket. So, building out a very clear strategy of what a customer support team needs has been key for us striking that balance between human support and technology at Intercom.
Doing more with less
Liam Geraghty: The second trend is that agility is no longer optional. 59% of companies say their incoming support volume has increased over the past 12 months, 52% had to decrease their headcount due to COVID 19, and 48% say the decrease negatively affected the customer experience. Support teams seem to be suffering here. Why do you think companies turn to the support department for budget cuts? Are there any other options companies can look at instead of reducing headcount?
Adrian Swinscoe: It’s really frustrating because it smacks the idea that service and support are still seen by many as a cost center and not a relationship, revenue, and loyalty driver sort of hub, and I thought we’d made that argument; I thought we’d won that argument. Apparently not. I would implore, I would beg, even, for brands to change their mindset and find a way to start investing in the support function. If you add in a complicated picture, i.e., changing data and privacy and cookie laws and all that type of stuff, it’s going to be harder and harder to acquire customers. Therefore, doing your utmost to try and keep customers, which then equals helping them when they need some help, support service, contact center, all that sort of stuff, is going to be absolutely essential to maintaining the health, sustainability, and vitality of your business. So you have to think about the impact that delivering poor service will have on your brand and your growth ambitions.
“Something that really helped us last year, especially as things started to get a little tight, was making sure that our processes still worked for us”
To make that even more complicated, you’ve got to add in this idea about this “Great Resignation” and whether that’s a real thing or it’s just pent-up demand based on this pause and change because of the pandemic. I’d also ask brands to consider how difficult is going to be to replace your talented staff once you’ve let them go. There could be a massive regret cost there. If they absolutely have to reduce headcount, then it’s not acceptable to say that we’re just going to have to accept that we deliver lower service standards. If you’re going to reduce headcount, then think about how to cost-effectively introduce more technology to allow people to do more and achieve more, like self-service, automation, workflow efficiencies, all of that type of stuff, so I can do more with less. But it can’t be less across the board because I don’t think accepting lower service standards is acceptable for both a company and the customers.
Liam Geraghty: Shawn, how can customers support leaders pivot their customer support strategy to be more agile and adapt to these pressures?
Shawn Carter: Honestly, I want to just really quickly plus one everything that Adrian just said because this is literally my thoughts on this whole trend. But I think, to adjust for this, as far as your overall support strategy goes, it’s periodically reviewing everything you’re doing for efficiency. I know that’s one thing we’ve set up with my team and my fellow team leads at Aircall. We regularly go through our stuff to look for areas where things are inefficient. Also, talk to your team. Talking to your team is a huge thing. They notice when things are not efficient. That is something that I think I could apply to every single trend here – have a conversation with your team about this particular trend because they know. If you open that conversation with them, they will talk about it and you can get so much.
“Give people the option to help themselves and get through the process quicker, but also make sure they have the option to talk to a human being”
I oftentimes get called out a little bit for focusing way too much on my team and using them as a resource, but it’s just because they are such an important resource for me. They have great ideas. I hire great people, and I keep them well trained. I make sure they’ve got everything they need to do their job, so when they have those moments of clarity where they’re like, “Hey, this is something that we can improve,” that’s something that, more often than not, I’ve already missed. So, talk to your teams.
Something that really helped us last year, especially as things started to get a little tight, was making sure that our processes still worked for us. If we’re increasing efficiency, those processes are going to change, and not everybody is going to be as on top of those changes. If you’re constantly changing things, you’re going to lose people in the mix. So, constantly reinforcing that.
Then, we’ve already talked about it a little bit: more self-help options. Make sure they’re out there. Make sure they make sense. Give people the option to help themselves and get through the process quicker, but also make sure they have the option to talk to a human being.
Liam Geraghty: Ruth, what are some of the ways Intercom’s customer teamwork in an agile environment?
Ruth O’Brien: I touched on it in my previous answer around practicing what we preach with balancing that automation and human support, but I’d love to just piggyback on Adrian’s point above if that’s okay.
“There’s a space to have customer support and success paired in ensuring that they’re a value driver for the company rather than something that’s a cost and ‘must cut heads’ as soon as budget cuts need to happen”
I just really hope companies stop seeing customer support as only a cost center. Obviously, there is a cost to employing anybody, right? But if your customer support team is amazing with your customers, that drives retention, expansion, and you can actually invest in creating services with your customer support team, customers will potentially pay more, so there is a space to have customer support and success paired in ensuring they’re a value driver for the company rather than something that’s a cost and “must cut heads” as soon as budget cuts need to happen. So, I just wanted to make sure I got that point in there as well.
To come back to your question about agility, it’s very much about embracing change, but like Shawn said, being mindful and thoughtful about how you’re rolling that out to your team because change after change after change, even for people who love to embrace new technologies and ways of doing things, can be overwhelming. Especially in this world with the pandemic where we’ve been working from home for so long. If somebody’s sitting in a room by themselves and it’s just change, change, change, and they can’t have a good conversation with their manager or teammates about it, it can be a lot. So, it’s just about being really, really thoughtful about all of the changes in technology and, I guess, the processes as well.
Similar to Shawn, before I worked for Intercom, thinking about bots actually made me shudder. I was like, “The bots are going to take the customer support people’s jobs,” and they’re so inhuman and impersonal. But again, if done right, if you use them to take care of FAQs and things that customers just want a quick answer to, and you allow the humans to focus on actually dealing with emotional topics or complex troubleshooting, that is the way to stay agile in this world where things are constantly changing and it’s that balance again between automation and human support.
A consolidated customer support tech stack
Liam Geraghty: The third trend: the need for a connected tech stack escalates. Support teams are already limited resources, and their tech stack is another area that is limiting their time, with 47% of support employees personally slowed down, at least weekly, because tools aren’t integrated. Ruth, how does Intercom consolidate its customer support tech stack?
Ruth O’Brien: I’m very lucky to work at a company that built an amazing support solution, not only for our customers but also for my team. We use Intercom to support our customers in supporting their customers, and internally, we call that Interception, a bit of a cheesy joke there. We manage our self-serve material through our own help center within Intercom. Our automation and bot flows are within Intercom, and we use our own reporting functionality as well, so it’s so helpful in the sense that a lot of things are within the one tool already. And Intercom is used by our sales and marketing teams, which is incredibly helpful in understanding a customer’s experience as they interact with teams across the company. Of course, we need to use other tools outside Intercom too, but by using Intercom, we’ve been able to keep that to a minimum.
Liam Geraghty: Shawn, when you can’t have all your tools in one platform, what’s your advice for enhancing support teams’ capabilities with integrations?
“If you’re still building your stack, think of the integration possibilities you might have, and always go with the tools that give you the most integrations”
Shawn Carter: Well, I’m going to sound like a little bit of a broken record, but I’m going to go back to the point I made earlier, which is to talk to your teams. That’s the first place that you should start. They are going to have pain points. They’re going to have areas that, as Adrian mentioned, are going to make their job harder, and you should be focusing on making their job easier. That should be part of your overall strategy. So, talk to them.
Talk to the reps for the companies whose platforms you are already using. I’m going to use Intercom as a perfect example. We started a monthly meeting with our support team talking to our Intercom CSM to look at ways Intercom can help us that we didn’t know existed. There are a lot of great things in Intercom that, as a former power user of Intercom, who then had to take a break because we didn’t use it at my last company to now being back to using Intercom, I came back to it to a whole load of new tools, and I’ve found, since realizing this, that when you talk to your reps at these companies, your point of contact, they can usually help you out with the stuff that you’re struggling with. There are people out there to help you. That’s what they’re there for. That’s what they want to do. So, talk to your reps. Talk to the people who are trying to help you use their product the best you possibly can.
And for smaller companies out there, if you’re still building your stack, think of the integration possibilities you might have, and always go with the tools that give you the most integrations. I have made this recommendation to so many people over the years. I’ve been lucky to work for a couple of different companies who really prioritize integrations, and when you find companies that do that, they tend to also work really well with other companies who do that. So, if you’re using all of these tools, you can use very few tools to accomplish a lot of things because there’s such a focus on integrations. Aircall is a great company for that. We really pride ourselves on having a lot of fantastic integrations with different tools in order to make the employee experience so much better. When you have happy employees, you have happy customers. It’s the way it goes.
“The more you talk to your people, your reps, your employees, the people on the front dealing with that demand, the better insight you’re going to get”
Adrian Swinscoe: Shawn, you absolutely nailed it in terms of speaking to your reps and your team. And Ruth, that’s kind of what happens internally with Intercom as well. It’s a very kind of democratic approach. Research from PWC a few years ago called Tech At Work shows that about 75% of leaders don’t consult their employees when they buy technological solutions. And then, they wonder why there are onboarding problems and use problems and all these sorts of things. And then, they also discount the fact that there are people who may be privy to solutions because they’re plugged into communities that they’re not part of that might actually have better recommendations about better tools or better technology.
They know about the problems that customers are facing and what would be the best thing for them. So, Shawn, you’re absolutely spot on. The more you talk to your people, your reps, your employees, the people on the front dealing with that demand, the better insight you’re going to get in terms of what they need and what they know. And that’ll help with the whole onboarding and utilization and adoption and all these sorts of things. The whole change management thing doesn’t get talked about enough, but it’s an absolutely essential part of success in this space.
Fighting employee burnout
Liam Geraghty: The fourth trend seems to be a natural outcome from the other trends – support leaders fight against team burnout and attrition. The research found 64% of customer support leaders say members of their teams have felt burned out in the past 12 months. Furthermore, 55% of support leaders have personally felt burned in the past year, too. Adrian, why are more employees and leaders experiencing burnout, and why do you think there’s been this “Great Resignation”?
Adrian Swinscoe: Well, I think it’s a natural consequence of where we’re at because, on the back of this big shift to digital, they’ve just seen demand volumes across all channels go up, and it’s been consistently high. People are also working longer hours, and that’s taking a toll. So, demand is going up, people are working longer hours. They’re not really saving as much as we think they might be saving on the commute and all that type of stuff.
“Demand has gone up, longer hours, less emotional support. Burnout is, I think, understandable as a manifestation of all these conditions”
But the other thing I think we need to add, which is different for support, is that remote working can be challenging for many people. It’s both isolating and sometimes emotionally wearisome, particularly if you’re in support. We forget the social support dynamic that happens when people are operating in a room together and how that can help. For example, if a call comes in and it’s a hard interaction or somebody’s being abusive or it’s just heavy or complicated, if you’re in a room together, people just notice and can maybe tap you on the shoulder and go, “Shawn, Ruth, I know that was a hard one. I got your back. Why don’t you take five minutes? Get some fresh air, refresh, gather your thoughts, and then come back.” It’s harder to facilitate and support and to make that happen.
Demand has gone up, longer hours, less emotional support. Burnout is, I think, understandable as a manifestation of all these conditions, which makes it incumbent on leaders to understand that and think about what they can do to try and to help manage it.
Liam Geraghty: Ruth, how do you ensure your team has room to grow, and what are some of the initiatives Intercom provides its team to prevent burnout and attrition?
Ruth O’Brien: Firstly, yes to everything Adrian just said. On top of that, I’ll come back again to investing in our internal processes and tools – it’s all about making the job of a customer support rep more interesting and challenging. That’s going to hold onto them for longer. When automation and self-serve deal with the easier and transactional topics, support roles become more interesting and challenging. At Intercom, I’ve seen the best retention levels of any customer support team I’ve ever worked with because we don’t work on this repetitive, long wait time, constant stream of angry customers. We try and have the humans deal with human issues, and automation and self-serve deal with the kind of quick things that can get very boring, very quickly for our team.
“We’ve actually ripped up our KPI systems multiple times to match the needs of the team and the needs of our customers”
We’ve also invested greatly in leveling and tiering within our own organization, within customer support, but also on mentorship programs with other teams to ensure that we offer a long career path, both inside the support team, to hold onto our great people, and also to the rest of the company. It’s better to have someone move somewhere else in the business than leave the actual company entirely if they’re a great teammate.
Finally, this is similar to what Adrian mentioned. We treat humans like humans and not numbers. We’ve actually ripped up our KPI systems multiple times to match the needs of the team and the needs of our customers. We don’t hold onto these stressful targets just because they’re industry standards. They just increase stress levels. I mean, you obviously have to have something to use as a measurement for your team, but try and have those be something that helps the team understand what success looks like rather than be something they’re running and running towards that’s just arbitrary. To anyone out there who feels like they’re getting bad feedback from their team about their KPI systems, don’t be afraid to tear it up and do something different. You don’t have to do what everybody else does. I’m glad we’ve done that over the last couple of years because it has really helped with this burnout situation.
A rising demand for empathy
Liam Geraghty: Our final trend: Customer empathy is more important than ever. Some 73% of customer support teams say that empathizing with customers is a top priority, but 21% don’t feel they have the tools to enable appropriate empathy. Adrian, why do you think empathy has become so important?
“This demand is not new. I think the pandemic just exacerbated it”
Adrian Swinscoe: If we step back and reflect on what’s happened, the last years have been kind of quite strange, and initially, many people were fearful. They were anxious. It was all very strange. And that surge came out in their interactions with companies. There was research that came out in 2020 that said there was this surging demand for more empathy in customer interactions. You think about it and go, “Yeah, that’s kind of understandable.”
If we step back even further, we also have to recognize this demand is not new. I think the pandemic just exacerbated it. It accelerated it, it magnified it, it compressed it. Some people said that, with the rate of digital transformation over the initial part of the pandemic, they achieved in five months what would have normally taken them five or six years. But if you go further back, there’s the demand for greater empathy in customer interactions. I think it’s been here for at least six years. I remember seeing global Accenture research from back in 2016 that said the majority of customers around the world were complaining about this big move to digital, that customer service had become “human-less,” which I think we can say is a proxy for lacking in empathy.
So, we’re here. It’s there now. It’s looming large. People are looking for it. And the people that can deliver it are going to stand out because people want to connect with people that understand them. The problem is that if I go back to that whole Einstein “how do I solve a problem” sort of quote, what could happen is that people go like, “Oh, more empathy requires more training,” and we get this scourge of reductive thinking of “Ah, problem. Solve it with that. The job’s done.”
“It’s going to take strategy, systems, processes, design, technology, leadership training, and the right sort of people if we are to build this empathetic muscle around our organization”
The problem is that’s not enough. Empathy training is part of the problem, but it’s going to take strategy, systems, processes, design, technology, leadership training, and the right sort of people if we are to build what I think is going to be required as this empathetic muscle around our organization. We have to understand it’s like a muscle. It’s a habit. It’s a behavior that we have to build and support and nurture and sustain if we’re going to be able to sustainably be more empathetic to our customers and to our employees. The imperative is that we need to think about this holistically if we’re going to be able to do it sustainably.
Liam Geraghty: So there you have it, the five top trends. If you’d like to learn more about our customer support trends, you can download the full report here. My thanks to Adrian Swinscoe, CX Consultant and author, Ruth O’Brien, Senior Manager of Customer Support here at Intercom, and Shawn Carter, Customer Care Team lead at Aircall. That’s it for today. Join me next week for another great episode of Inside Intercom.