The invention of the telephone revolutionized the way businesses interacted with their customers. With Intercom Phone, we want to take it even further.
We’ve come a long way from the days of clunky desktop computers and electronic hobbyists. With each season, laptops get thinner and phones get smarter. But while computing technology has evolved tremendously in the past few decades, we can’t say the same about phones, or at least about the way we use them in business. Messaging is increasingly ubiquitous in our personal lives, yet we still sometimes have to pick up the phone to talk to support in the same way we did 50 years ago.
Phone calls have been the bread and butter for support teams for decades, but they can’t singlehandedly meet ever-increasing customer expectations for quick and seamless support. Phone support is expensive, time-consuming, and frankly, just not scalable.
That’s why we created Intercom Phone. We didn’t want to eliminate the option of phone support – calling is still one of the best ways to resolve complex issues – but rather to expand our customers’ options. Now, you can set up personalized interactive voice response (IVR) trees to get every call to the right place, instantly go from a live chat to a voice or video call right in the Messenger, and switch back again to messaging mid-call – all in one place. Just like that, no more waiting on hold, no more pesky elevator music, no moving through all these different channels and tools.
And so, to celebrate our most recent launch, we thought we’d take you on a deep dive into the evolution of phone support – from an old recording of Alexander Graham Bell to the science of on-hold music; from the dawn of call centers to digital support at scale.
In this episode, you’ll hear from:
- Des Traynor, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Intercom.
- Ernie Smith, writer, editor, and the internet obsessive who writes the newsletter Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet.
- Cornelia Connolly, lecturer at the School of Education, University of Galway.
- Paul Shuler, percussionist, musician, and composer of “Simplicity”, a song which has been dubbed “the best hold music in the world”.
- Tanner Elvidge, Staff Product Manager at Intercom and one of the people behind Intercom Phone.
Visit our feature page to find out more about Intercom Phone.
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 rise of the telephone
Liam Geraghty: We’ve all been there, waiting to talk to customer service, on hold – it’s a shared human experience that seems to have transcended generations of phone users. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that calling a business now isn’t that much different from how it was 60 or 70 years ago. And while that may be true, it still involves a phone and calling a number. But phone support and the tech behind it have actually been evolving, albeit quietly in the background while you were on hold.
Today on Inside Intercom, we’re dialing in for an episode all about the evolution of phone support, one that Intercom is part of. We just launched Intercom Phone. What is it? Intercom Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Des Traynor explains.
Des Traynor: Intercom Phone is our native solution for phone support. It’s something our customers have been asking for, and really it’s like the final piece of the puzzle that makes us a truly complete customer service platform. Now, our customers don’t have to outsource their phone support software. They do it all in the same places as they do all their other support – on Intercom – and because of that, they can deliver exceptional customer experiences regardless of the channel.
Liam Geraghty: Des says there are two key ways we see support teams using Intercom Phone.
Des Traynor: The first is what you’d guess – phone support. You can make and receive calls directly from within the Intercom Inbox. So if your support agents are there, calls will come in, and if they want to move to a phone call with a customer, they can. And you can set up sophisticated phone trees, all the stuff you’d expect to be a complete solution here. You can set up an IVR tree using our Workflows’ product to make sure that the right calls go to the right team.
The second way is a little different, and this is kind of us meeting the requests of our customers who are often very future-facing. What we’ve built is the idea, this idea we call Messenger calls, which is support teams now have the ability to instantly jump from a live chat messenger conversation to a voice conversation or to a video conversation, or even actually to a screen-sharing call when the customer is using the Intercom Messenger.
“The Messenger has always been our core, so we’re really excited to see it level up yet again”
So for the teammates, they’re still working in the inbox so they don’t have to interrupt the conversation or start a new one or navigate to another tool or change tab. And for the customers, it’s pretty seamless because what was once a messenger just turns seamlessly into an actual fully functional video call complete with screensharing. There’s no kind of “click this link over here” or any of that sort of messing around. And I think we’ve seen screensharing be super popular because oftentimes it’s the quickest way, “Just show me what you’re looking at.” “Oh, that’s what the problem is.” So we see a lot of those benefits too. The Messenger has always been our core, so we’re really excited to see it level up yet again.
Liam Geraghty: Later on, we’re going to come back to Des to hear a little more about why we built Intercom Phone. But we couldn’t do the evolution of phone support without starting with the invention of the telephone. If anyone asked you who invented the telephone, you’d say Alexander Graham Bell, right? Here’s a recording of Bell from 1885 from a disc in the Smithsonian. “Hear my voice,” he says.
“Even though the telephone’s origin story isn’t exactly clear, its impact on the world has been immeasurable, transforming all sorts of lines of communication”
Alexander Graham Bell: Hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.
Liam Geraghty: In the 1870s, Bell and a man named Elisha Gray both independently designed inventions that allowed people to transmit speech electrically. Both even submitted their designs to the patent office within hours of each other. But Bell’s was the first to be patented, and a famous legal battle ensued over who was the rightful inventor of the telephone, with Bell being the eventual winner. But even to this day, some people have their doubts. And it wasn’t just those two laying claims – an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci filed an announcement of his similar invention in 1871.
He was totally overlooked until the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2002 honoring his contributions and work to the telephone. And even though the telephone’s origin story isn’t exactly clear, its impact on the world has been immeasurable, transforming all sorts of lines of communication – one of them being how businesses can help their customers.
The first example of the telephone being used as a marketing tool is in the early 1900s. Companies would use phone directories to compile and sell client lists. By 1915, the first coast-to-coast telephone call was placed. And by 1930, it was possible to phone across the Atlantic by radio.
“Suddenly, it became possible for telephone customers to operate this complex communication system by themselves”
Phone technology slowly crept across America, creating a communications infrastructure. But it required people manning switchboards at high cost, and as such, it was only available to a small portion of the population. That is, until the introduction of consumer long-distance dialing in 1951.
Suddenly, it became possible for telephone customers to operate this complex communication system by themselves without the assistance of others. What you might call the first call center agents were housewives in the ’50s. They’d call up friends and neighbors and try to sell baked goods to bring extra money into the household. Businesses began to get phone-wise and trained their employees on how to be courteous on the line.
Vintage training video: But no matter whose phone you’re answering, your own or anybody else’s, always make your customer feel that you’re interested in his call. Be obliging and polite. Then when you’re sure he’s finished, bring the conversation to a definite courteous close like this. “Yes, that’s fine. Thanks for calling Mr. Frisbee. Goodbye.”
From toll-free numbers to mobile technology
Liam Geraghty: By the 1960s, more sophisticated dialing technology had arrived and would start to shape phone support as we know it today.
Ernie Smith: Touch-tone dialing was a really big one.
Liam Geraghty: That’s Ernie Smith.
Ernie Smith: I’m a writer and editor. I write a newsletter called Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet.
Liam Geraghty: Even though the first touch-tone dialing came about in the ’60s, Ernie says rotary dialing was still pretty common into the 1980s.
Ernie Smith: It took a couple of decades to become common. Things that we don’t even think about becoming common over time, that seemed like they just appeared one day. A good example is the credit card. The magnetic strip did not appear until the ’80s. Before that, everything was done manually. Rotary phones are very much the same thing.
Liam Geraghty: More and more of the things we just take for granted when it comes to phones began to develop and advance. Ernie says there were five key technologies that made phone-based customer support possible. The first was, as we heard, touch-tone dialing. It made it possible to communicate through the telephone line without speaking. The second was 1-800 numbers.
Ernie Smith: Which were actually invented by AT&T. Roy Weber developed them in 1967 as a way to route collect calls. And it turned out as a happy accident that it was actually a really great way to market products.
“By the mid-’80s, people were making three billion toll-free calls per year”
Liam Geraghty: The charge of a 1-800 number went to the owner of the number. So now, customers didn’t have to pay to call a business for support.
Ernie Smith: This actually turned out to be a pretty big cash cow for AT&T. By the mid-’80s, people were making three billion toll-free calls per year, which is a lot.
Liam Geraghty: The next key tech in the evolution of phone support was something called private branch exchanges. They were essentially mini switchboards that allowed businesses to route phone calls.
Ernie Smith: One of the interesting things to consider is that the phone system basically grew from being this big monolith operated by effective monopolies like AT&T in the US.
Liam Geraghty: So businesses having these miniature switchboards democratized the whole process.
Ernie Smith: You were running your own little system where you could route where the calls go. This is obviously a great thing in the case of a call center when you have hundreds of people on the floor trying to serve customers. And this would basically route whatever call came to a customer support person. It enabled call centers by allowing a more automated system and keeping it something that didn’t require phone companies to manage.
Liam Geraghty: The 1970s came with bell-bottoms, tie-dye shirts, and new tech that we still use today in phone support – interactive voice responses.
Ernie Smith: This was first used by banks to verify customer balances. You didn’t have to go to the bank or wait in the mail for a sign of, “Okay, here’s what’s in your account.” It became much more intelligent over time. In its most sophisticated forms, it can even analyze the journey the customer is making in real time.
Liam Geraghty: It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.
“In the best versions of that, it can be a very solid experience. But in the worst versions, it feels like the game’s broken”
Ernie Smith: Choose your own adventure is a great way to put it. I’m just thinking about how, in many ways, dialing a call center is like playing an old tech space adventure game or a game like Myst, where you’re given a set of options, and you have to hit one. In the best versions of that, it can be a very solid experience. But in the worst versions, it feels like the game’s broken.
Liam Geraghty: Arguably, the biggest advance for the telephone was to cut the cord and go mobile. The technology development for that to happen started out quite early.
Cornelia Connolly: In 1946, Motorola had the first car radio-telephone service. But it was very limited, and it wasn’t available to the commercial market. It really wasn’t until the ’80s that car phones became popular.
Liam Geraghty: That’s Cornelia Connolly, a lecturer in the School of Education at the National University of Ireland, Galway (now University of Galway).
Cornelia Connolly: My background is in computer engineering and telecommunications. I studied that as part of my Master’s.
Liam Geraghty: And you might be wondering, if we had mobile car phones in the ’40s, even with their limited capacity, what took so long for that tech to advance?
Cornelia Connolly: Bell Laboratories proposed cellular mobile technology to the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission in the US. But it wasn’t granted then – that was in 1947 – because of the influence of the television industry, which is really interesting.
“In the ’60s, Captain Kirk used a cordless communicator. And it was maybe 10 years later that we, the public, got to use mobile phones”
Liam Geraghty: The TV bigwigs didn’t want any interference with or to share their allocation of frequency.
Cornelia Connolly: It wasn’t until 1970 that the FCC actually granted parts of the spectrum for mobile telephones. It’s interesting, too, because in the ’60s, for any Star Trek fans, Captain Kirk used a cordless communicator. And it was maybe 10 years later that we, the public, got to use mobile phones.
Vintage newsreel: Right now, businessmen and women are major users of radio telephones, where cellular is in service. But more people will take advantage of cellular as its benefits become apparent. Eventually, seeing people using cellular phones may seem as commonplace as someone checking the time on an electronic watch, figuring on an electronic calculator, or programming on an electronic computer.
Liam Geraghty: By the 1980s, there were around one million subscribers to mobile phones.
Cornelia Connolly: Now, there are up to four billion smartphone users.
Liam Geraghty: This brings us to Ernie’s fifth key technology that made phone-based customer support possible, the humble SMS.
Ernie Smith: This is the most recent of the primary phone-based technologies. It dates back to the ’90s. SMS started out as a broadcast technology for the customer support experience. In the case of political campaigns, if you’re trying to reach a broad audience and you have your list, you send out messages like, “Hey, support your candidate fundraising” and such. But that’s one of the areas that’s obviously gotten more sophisticated over time. Now you can have more direct one-to-one customer support conversations with people completely over text. It’s pretty cool.
Filling the void
Liam Geraghty: We certainly know all about helping customers via messaging here at Intercom. One thing we all associate with phone support that hasn’t seemed to have evolved a huge amount is the dreaded on-hold music. Ah, make it stop. One person, though, has upped on-hold music’s game.
Paul Shuler: Well, I’m so glad you reached out.
Liam Geraghty: Paul Shuler is a musician and an IT professional in the Seattle area of Washington state. A while back, a piece of music he created was hailed the greatest on-hold music in the world.
Paul Shuler: I was actually in phone support at that time – I’m not any longer. So yes, it’s been an interesting progression.
Liam Geraghty: Early on, Paul got interested in music and uploading music to the Internet Archive.
Paul Shuler: I was doing this as a hobby at the time. I had started as a drummer in high school, playing in rock bands and punk bands. Then, I went to a vocational school and started to learn about electrical engineering and computers. This was 1997, 1998. I got a job right out of there in an electrical engineering facility. I started learning about computers and signal flow and got really interested in building my own computers. Then I found, “Wow, I can really combine my love for music and recording and start to experiment with sound on a computer.” It was a new thing at the time.
Liam Geraghty: After lots of what Paul calls sound experiments that turn into music, he grew more empowered to just record himself.
Paul Shuler: So that’s basically the concept that led me to record an electric piano called Wurlitzer 200A, which I had really been into. And that was basically the formation of this song that I created called Simplicity.
Liam Geraghty: At the time, one of the few places you could upload audio was the Internet Archive. So, that’s where he uploaded this track.
“My brother, I think, contacted me several times. He was like, ‘Hey bro, I was on hold and I think I heard one of your songs’”
Paul Shuler: At the time, I was very non-attached to the technical elements of intellectual property. I didn’t even understand it. I just had the mechanism to publish audio for free and create it myself, and I was just doing that for fun.
Liam Geraghty: So, people were just using your music for videos or projects and whatnot. When did you discover it had been used as on-hold music?
Paul Shuler: That’s such a funny question. My brother, I think, contacted me several times. He was like, “Hey bro, I was on hold and I think I heard one of your songs.”
Liam Geraghty: That song is called Simplicity. Just imagine you’re on hold. You’ve been waiting and waiting, but this track comes on. Seriously, how chill is this?
Paul Shuler: So he texted me about it, and then I started digging a little deeper. And lo and behold, I found out it was being used by an open source software called Asterisk. They basically threw in a couple of my songs that they had got from the Internet Archive.
Liam Geraghty: Why do you think it works so well as on-hold music?
Paul Shuler: I think it’s because it’s repetitive. As I said, it’s a loop-based on the keyboard elements. And then, I’m just improvising on the drum set. And it’s not like I did a high-quality recording – it’s just one microphone placed over the drum set. I think it’s got an authentic and organic vibe to it. And people just realize, “Okay, this isn’t canned music, this isn’t something fake, it’s something that somebody actually created.”
Liam Geraghty: You used to work in tech support over the phone?
Paul Shuler: I did. So I’ve spent many an hour on hold listening to my on-hold music while trying to help someone.
Liam Geraghty: Were you ever tempted to tell them, “Hey, I made this music you’re listening to?”
Paul Shuler: No. Generally, they were already pissed off, so I didn’t. I basically just tried to help them with their issue.
Enter Intercom Phone
Liam Geraghty: That brings us right up to now and to the latest innovation in phone support. It’s a new product from Intercom called Intercom Phone. Why did we build it? Here’s Intercom Co-founder Des Traynor.
Des Traynor: Well, even with what Forrester or Gartner would call the “digitization of customer experiences”, phone support is still something people expect and still something that’s appropriate in certain circumstances. And still, regardless of those two, it’s something just people want. A majority of customers still prefer having their issue resolved over the phone. They want to talk to somebody, they feel it’s urgent. They want to be able to communicate their emotions, stress their anxiety or fear. So it’s just really an important solution as part of a complete customer support platform. Phone is probably the most personal human channel available, or phone maybe plus video. It’s synchronous, it’s one-to-one, between two people. You know they’re not jumping around serving 500 people at the same time.
“By consolidating calling into a single tool, support reps can stay in one place. They only need to learn a single interface”
Liam Geraghty: Tanner Elvidge is Staff Product Manager working on Intercom Phone and as far as what it’s going to mean for support reps to have this at their disposal, Tanner says there’ll probably be two impacts felt on different time horizons.
Tanner Elvidge: The immediate benefit is the efficiency gains. By consolidating calling into a single tool, support reps can stay in one place. They only need to learn a single interface. They won’t have to jump between tools throughout their day.
That is important not only for the frontline reps answering the phone but also for their managers and team leads. They need visibility into what’s happening across all of the support interactions that are happening. By consolidating it into one tool, they’ll have a lot of visibility built in because we’ve invested a lot to update our real-time dashboard and historical reports to make sure they have great access to data.
The second impact is longer-term. Over time, we want to enable teams to be more intentional about when they call on the phone versus when they use other channels. We very much see a world where we can give teams flexibility to be more precise. Sure, they can set up an inbound phone tree and answer inbound calls, which they can probably do today, and that’s really critical to maintain. But we’ve heard that not all inbound calls need to be answered by a person – only the complex ones should be.
Liam Geraghty: That’s why we built Intercom Phone – to give teams more options.
Tanner Elvidge: If there’s a complicated technical issue, you can use Messenger calling to screen-share with the customer. And coming soon, we’ll have the ability to seamlessly move less complex calls to more scalable channels where that question could be automated without ever involving a support rep.
Ultimately, we want to ensure that every support request has the fastest, most effective resolution. And we’re building the tools for support teams to be precise about how they get there.
“It’s really just a proper wow moment”
Liam Geraghty: How does it feel to use Intercom Phone? Here’s Des again.
Des Traynor: It’s really just a proper wow moment. When we show support teams a transition from live chat to a video call to screen sharing, genuinely jaws drop. They’re like, “Holy shit. This is going to save me so much time, so much pain, it’s going to be so great from our customers.” They instantly see how it will impact everyday workflows.
And then separately, the traditional phone calls part of it, couldn’t be more intuitive. It’s just there in the inbox. No plugins, just calls can be answered or dealt with or even converted into a ticket all from the same place. And if you need to follow up, you can just jump onto a call from the inbox too. Outbound calls are an easy way to close out an ongoing issue to give a real personal touch when something’s finally dealt with. You can call the customer and say, “Hey, it’s me from xyz.com, and just confirming that we’ve fully closed out your issue.” It’s the kind of thing that really makes a difference to the customer.
“It’s an old technology – 50, 60 plus years old – and it’s still an incredibly powerful tool”
Liam Geraghty: Tanner, what do you think the early inventors involved with the phone and phone support would make of its evolution?
Tanner Elvidge: As an inventor of phone and phone support, looking at where the phone is now, I would be really impressed and inspired by how important it still is to the industry. It’s an old technology – 50, 60 plus years old – and it’s still an incredibly powerful tool.
But I would also potentially be surprised about the direction it’s been innovated in. When I look at other technologies like computing, the phone hasn’t quite kept the same technological pace and evolution other technologies have. The most interesting thing is that other technologies like computing have gotten more precise and targeted for their use case over time, whereas the phone is a bit more the first port of call for every issue.
For example, we went through multiple evolutions of computers, from desktops to laptops to mobile devices, and with every successive iteration, we started to use the prior generation for what it’s important for. Desktops are better for compute power, for things like gaming or large data processing. We don’t really use those in our day-to-day unless we’re doing one of those two things.
Similarly, with laptops, we do a lot of our work there, but you and I probably spend most of our time on our phones and on our mobile technology. The phone hasn’t kept that same trajectory in the support industry. The phone has very much been, “Hey, here’s our 1-800 number. You can call it for every issue. We’ll answer every call.” Even though we’ve seen things like email and messaging come in, we still pick up a phone and call a business for every issue we have.
The wait time from hell
Liam Geraghty: Stay with us. In just a moment, Tanner is going to reveal his worst customer phone support moment. But first, my thanks to Intercom Co-founder Des Traynor – you’ll find him on LinkedIn. Ernie Smith. His internet history newsletter is called Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet, but believe me, it is anything but. You’ll find that at tedium.co.
Also, thanks to lecturer Cornelia Connolly. You’ll find her on Twitter @CorneliaThinks. If that chill on-hold music is still in your brain, you can check out more of Paul Shuler’s great music at his site, macroformmusic.com. The link is in the show notes. And finally, thanks to Intercom Staff Product Manager Tanner Elvidge, who shared a recent phone support horror story with me.
“I carved out some time on a Sunday just to call them. And three hours into hold time, the call dropped”
Tanner Elvidge: I actually had a flight booked to go home and visit some family over the holidays. Travel is still not back up to speed – there are still tons of disruptions and changes happening all the time. I got this cryptic email from them that said, “Hey, your itinerary has been changed, give us a call to fix it.” I was like, “Oh man.” So I called. And the wait time was three hours and 45 minutes. I hung up. I was like, “No way.” There’s got to be a way to resolve this on the website or in their app. I’m intentionally not naming names here, by the way. But eventually, I was like, “Okay, there’s no other way to do this.” So I carved out some time on a Sunday just to call them. And three hours into hold time, the call dropped.
Liam Geraghty: Oh no.
Tanner Elvidge: It was brutal. So I ended up just being like, “You know what, I’m just going to show up to the airport early and do it in person because that’s the only way I’m going to get through,” which was a gamble. And it was kinda stressful. On top of all of the travel that I had to do, it was like, “Okay, great. Now I have to figure out if I even have the itinerary that I need.”
Liam Geraghty: That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening.