Intercom’s Jeff Gardner on keeping customer support personal at scale

Treat your customers poorly or fail to educate them on how to use all the great features your product offers, and they won't stick around for long.

Focus on providing an empathetic, human support experience, however, and you’ll get free word of mouth and be able to funnel user feedback into an even better product.

No one at Intercom knows this better than our Director of Support, Jeff Gardner. Nearly five years ago Jeff was hired as our sole front-line support person. He’s the only person I know who’s scaled a world-class support team and physically scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan six times. Jeff’s based remotely in the Italian Alps, and when he’s not obsessing over our customers, he’s most likely in the mountains.

Jeff joined me on the podcast to share the values that anchor a successful support team, why writing skills are so crucial for his team members, where he thinks customer support is – or isn’t – heading next, and more. If you like what you hear, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, but if you’re short on time, here are five key takeaways:

  1. When customers write in continually with similar questions, it’s paramount to dig deeper, keep asking “why” and discover the root cause. There may be a way to change your product and eliminate the issue completely.
  2. There are two types of empathy: emotional and cognitive. The latter, making an effort to understand someone’s mental state, is the real difference maker in customer support.
  3. Adding a written component to your customer support interview process is a great way to measure how a candidate conveys meaning and emotion.
  4. If your support team opts for global, 24/7 coverage, you’ll have to embrace remote team members. In Jeff’s experience, the challenges of managing these folks is worth giving customers better, faster service.
  5. Self-serve content plays an important role in a sound support strategy. The challenge is learning what experience to serve your customer – human interaction or documentation – depending on the scope of their problem.

Adam Risman: Jeff, welcome to the show. You started nearly five years ago at Intercom and were our first support hire. Now we’re a support team of more than 50. What were you doing before Intercom?

Jeff Gardner: Before Intercom I was actually focused mostly on software engineering and development. I built web apps for clients freelance and after that worked for a very small company building iPhone apps for clients as well. I knew about Intercom because of Des and Eoghan, and I had been following their Contrast Blog for several years. I’m good friends with our VP of Engineering, Darragh Curran, so I heard there was this new thing coming along. The stars aligned and there was an opening, and I jumped at the chance to be able to work with those guys.

Adam: Speaking of development, in your early days here you actually wrote our first iOS app.

Jeff: I did. I don’t know if that was an oversell on my part but it was one of the things that I think got my foot in the door. I remember Eoghan saying, “Well, we need somebody to look after support, but you can build iPhone apps too, right? Okay, cool. Maybe you can do some of that at the beginning as well.” The inbox was actually pretty quiet back in those days. I had quite a lot of free time between answering customers during which I could work on it.


Jeff built Intercom’s very first iOS app, pictured above.

Adam: A lot of our listeners are from very early stage companies where, like in your early days, support is one of their many jobs. As that inbox volume began to build up, how were you able to manage those competing priorities?

Jeff: Customers were always the priority. Yes, I’ll work on these other projects, and yes, I’ll try to get as many bug fixes done as I can. I’ll do whatever I need to do in the time that I have, but that time is limited and our customers are our first priority. As that priority grew and as the load of that priority grew, the other stuff fell off the plate and rightfully so. As we had more customers and they were writing in more frequently it became a full-time job – and then it became more than a full-time job. That’s when we started looking around to hire and started to build out the team.

Building a foundation of core values

Adam: When you started to build out the team, you had a hiring model built around volume of initiated conversations. For every 35 extra conversations a day, you would add a team member. Between supporting our customers and building out the team, how are you able to find time for more foundational things like say, instilling team values and things like that?

Jeff: That’s a slightly simplified version of things. We did have an idea in our mind of what made for a reasonable workload – one that left enough time to actually feel like you could give customers your full undivided attention for the amount of time that they needed. It was in the neighborhood of 30-35 conversations per day. When we were scaling the team, I built a hiring model that tries to take into account a bunch of different factors. It’s fairly accurate, but there are assumptions built into most models and ours is no different. As we started growing, we weren’t always able to grow at the exact pace that we hoped. It has always been very, very busy, and that’s no different for any support team.

The foundational stuff like team values came out of really early conversations I had with one of our co-founders, Des. We had had a few mis-hires and after those couple mis-hires we asked, “What is it that we’re actually trying to do here? Why? What does that mean for how we act day to day? How do we talk to customers? What matters more than other things?” Once we did that, it made hiring a lot easier and it made hiring the right people infinitely easier.

Because we were forced to do that early on, we benefited from that investment many, many times over. We’ve hired the right people who have been extremely focused on giving a great customer experience and that’s meant that we’ve had to do a lot less work on other things.

Adam: Speaking of values, your team has seven of them. I’m going to toss a few out, and you can explain what they and why they’re so important to the way the team functions. Let’s start with, “Focus on fundamentals.”

Jeff: This one is maybe my favorite, but is also maybe the most contested among the team. This value is all about the basics of communicating, the basics of human psychology and behavior and the basics of how you give someone help, personally, as a human. How do you avoid being what a lot of support teams get boxed into, which is being hooked to a fire hose and trying to deflect customers as fast as possible?

It really comes back to that ability to write well, the ability to communicate well, the ability to distill complex situations and complex bits of the product into simple language that people understand and move forward with. It’s not about any fundamental thing of customer support. It’s about, fundamentally, can you communicate as a human to another human being?

Adam: One that I really admire and that I’ve seen in action when I’ve worked with your team through customer days (where employees from all different parts of the company get to sit down and actually work the inbox for a day) is “Treat the problem, not the symptom.”

Is there a way we could change our product to make this type of question
go away completely?

Jeff: In the beginning Intercom was a much more complex and difficult product to get started using. The growth team has done a fantastic job of making every step of the process a lot, lot easier than it used to be. We tried to do the five why’s and ask ourselves, why is this customer asking this question? Why are they having that problem? Why are they running into this? What does it come back to? It comes back to the Jobs-to-be-Done framework that we use for a lot of things at Intercom.

“Treating the problem, not the system” means we’re not just telling the user how to get the thing done and moving on to the next user. We’re actually taking the extra second to ask ourselves, “Is there a way we could change our product to make this type of question go away completely?”

Adam: You hear virtually every support team through around the word “empathy”, but it’s hard to tell if they’re using it genuinely or not. What do you mean with the value of “Connect personally, with empathy”?

Jeff: You’re right, empathy is thrown around quite a lot. To me there’s two big types of empathy. There’s the type of empathy where you feel bad for someone that’s in a bad situation. You’re thinking, that person got in a car accident, I feel bad for them, that must suck.

Then there’s a different type of empathy which is cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is where you’re actually putting yourself in that position. Putting yourself in their shoes, thinking hard about the challenges they’re facing. Why are the asking this question right now? You connect that with connecting personally with the person themselves and thinking about their day and what their challenge is and what they’re trying to get done. Why are they writing into you? They’re obviously having a problem or they’re confused about something that’s slowing their job down. It takes the teeth out of angry customers. It gives you a better sense that there’s another person on the other end of this line. They are not in a great place at the moment. You’re here to help get them out of that bad place, understand what they’re going through and figure out how to fix it for them.

Why writing skills matter

Adam: You mentioned writing there earlier and there’s an old Signal Vs. Noise blog post that basically says, for any position, all things created equal, you should always hire the better writer. Writing skills have really been an area of emphasis for you as you’ve grown the team at Intercom. What is it specifically that you’re looking for there and what other attributes stand out with successful customer support hires?

Jeff: I love that post. It really does come back to that focus on fundamentals value. Being a good writer means you are a good communicator. It means you can structure information in a way that conveys meaning to another person.

Being a good writer means you are a good communicator.

Being a really great writer versus being an okay writer, it seems like once you get the basics down you’re fine. We’ve all written papers in school and we can all put our point down, back it up with three different things and write a conclusion.

To me, writing skill is all about, how few words can you use? How short of a sentence can you write? How clear of a message can you give to someone? How much can you convey meaning and emotion in there? One of the steps in our interview process is to have people complete a written take home test. This comes before we do any of the other interviews. We ask a lot of questions, which are aimed toward the person’s thought process around customers, giving people great experiences and the types of things they’re gonna be faced with in their day to day job. More than half of that test is really about how quickly and clearly you can convey those ideas.

Adam: How does voice and tone play into writing skill? Obviously they’ve got to adjust to a whole range of situations on the job?

Jeff: We’ve got a very clear tone at Intercom. We speak in a very recognizable way. In the support team we have a whole doc in our wiki that goes over how we talk to customers. It basically outlines what that tone is and what that voice is. It’s not to say that we want people to all sound exactly the same. We want everyone to add their own flavor to it. Like that value, connect personally with empathy. You’ve got to use some of yourself in there to actually make that type of empathy work.

(That test) is not necessarily about having everybody sound exactly the same or have somebody give you the answer the way you would write the answer. It’s about seeing a bit of their personality in the answer but also having a lot of meaning and depth conveyed as well. Some of the best answers I’ve ever seen on these questions are ones that have two or three different layers to them. When you read them the first time you can glance through and think, “Okay, that was a good answer.” Then you read it again and say, “That’s actually a really, really good answer.”

When is it time to go global?

Adam: As you’ve scaled the team, we now have a lot more remote CS teammates in places like APAC. A lot of our listeners are probably asking themselves, “When do we need to offer 24/7 support? Do we need to move or have people in a lot more of the places where our customers are?” How did we come to the conclusion that it was time to expand this way?

Jeff: This is going to vary massively for every company depending on their customer base and where their customers are, what type of product they are, and how mission-critical their product is. Are customers willing to wait a little longer, or not? We decided early on that we wanted to start aiming toward 24/7 coverage. Our mission is to make business personal, so to us a big part of that was having a person ready to talk to customers at most hours of the day, most days of the week.

As we got closer to 24/7 a lot of things had to change. We didn’t have an office in the Australia Pacific region. We had to do what we had to do, which was hire remote people. To be honest, this makes sense coming from me, because I am remote myself. We had a lot of success with hiring remote people. There’s a certain type of person that if they’ve worked remote for a certain period of time, they understand the challenges, they understand limitations, but they’re also doing it out of choice. They already think, “I’ve got a good deal going here. I get to work from home and that suits me.” That’s what they’re going for.

There are obviously trade offs. It’s much harder to manage a team that’s global. It’s much harder to be a manager of somebody that is nine time zones away from you. You certainly aren’t going to do as good of a job managing that person as if you were sitting in the same room as them. The trade off for us was worth it in the sense that we could give our customers much better and much faster service.

Adam: As you mentioned, you’re remote, based in Italy out near the Alps. We just opened a new office in Chicago this past fall, which for now is home primarily to customer support folks. As you spread the team further and further, is it harder to get new hires to buy into the values and culture you’ve established? How do you keep everyone connected with that as the team spreads?

beats strategy, culture beats everything.

Jeff: It’s definitely harder. Anybody that says otherwise is lying. Even something as simple as trying to get a customer support all hands meeting scheduled, you have to accept the fact that not everybody is going to be there. Every single hour of the day, some of the team is asleep. It’s one of those things you have to really focus on. This is where those values and having those values entwined with everything we do from hiring to onboarding to the regular performance reviews that people do comes in. It’s really important because that’s the only way that people are going to understand what that culture is.

Seth Godin once said that culture beats everything. Culture beats strategy, culture beats everything. You’re going to have a culture whether you want to or not. Whatever that culture is, it’s going to trump whatever you say you want done. It’s important to double down on making sure that everybody understands it, everybody actually celebrates it when people do a good job, and call out when people fail or fall short of the culture.

Adam: Onboarding these hires, what lessons have you learned as you went through the first couple rounds of this?

Jeff: Onboarding for us is now a highly refined process. We’ve gone through a couple of versions of it. We’ve got a couple people on the team who have done an incredible job of codifying everything about our onboarding and making it as succinct as possible while still keeping a lot of the depth there. For people in an office, their first two weeks are primarily onboarding, nothing else.

For all the remote people we hire, we bring them to one of our offices to do two weeks of onboarding with part of the team. That helps instill that company culture. It helps the remote hire feel like a part of something bigger than just themselves in their attic or bedroom working. And helps really to kickstart their product knowledge.

Without customers, there’s no business

Adam: As someone who’s made a career out of it I’m sure you notice a few things other companies do that bothers the hell out of you. Maybe it’s not empathetic or not personal, etc. For example, I hosted Basecamp’s Chase Clemons on the podcast fall and he gave a very passionate speech against no reply email addresses. What common pitfalls do you think startups should absolutely avoid?

Jeff: This is a very rich topic. I landed reluctantly in customer support in a certain sense. I really enjoyed building software. It’s great fun. There’s a ton of learning there. I was never fantastically good at it, but I did enjoy it a lot. Looking back with that 20/20 hindsight I realized there are so many things that so many companies and businesses do that really bother me. The customer support set of things was always buried there deep inside.

No-reply email addresses is a minor one that is very annoying. The worst thing is when companies treat customer support as if it’s simply something to be outsourced or something that doesn’t matter to their overall business. Their selling widgets and they’re saying, “Somebody is going to buy these widgets no matter what; we don’t really care about them but they’re gonna pay our price for the widgets.” Thankfully a lot of this is changing, but business depends on customers. Without customers there is no business. It’s impossible for businesses – and certainly SaaS businesses that rely on repeat business every single month – to ignore your customers and impossible to treat them badly and think you’re going to be around for very long.

There’s a whole host of things that companies do very poorly when they don’t focus on the customer experience and they don’t remember that building a great, beautiful product, well designed product is only half the battle. You still have to get that product into the hands of your customers and make sure they actually understand it. You can build the nicest, most beautiful thing in the world and if no one buys it, you’re sunk. It doesn’t matter what you’ve built because no one’s going to use it.

Supplementing with self-serve

Adam: One positive trend that we’re seeing a lot, something that popped up quite a bit in all of the recent year-end articles about where customer support is headed in 2017, is the concept of self-serve support as a supplement to human support. We just released Educate, our knowledge base product, back in December, so obviously we’re believers in that. What role should self-serve content play in a sound support approach?

Jeff: This is a really interesting one because it’s not that self-serve content or knowledge bases are a new thing. They’re not a new concept at all, but he implementation has been really poor for a long time. Where there’s a lot of room to grow and where I know we’re hoping to take things is in smartly serving content when that’s what the customer wants, and smartly serving a human when that’s what the customer wants. That is actually really, really difficult. It sounds super simple but it’s actually terribly hard to understand the intent of a customer and understand what exactly they’ll be best served by in any situation.

I speak for a lot of other people out there when I say that I would always rather get a docs article and get my problem fixed in 10 seconds of reading, rather than trying to talk to a human. As much as I like talking to humans and as much as I love when I get great support from someone, it’s still just easier to read for 10 seconds and then have the problem solved and move on with my life. That smart serving of the right type of content or the right type of support interaction, whether it’s served by a knowledge-base site or by a human is the crux to unlocking a bunch of this stuff. Hopefully this is the year where we see a lot more of that stuff happen.

Adam: In addition to self serve are there any other trends you’re seeing that startups should be sure to watch?

Jeff: One thing that I think is super, super hyped is bots. Hugh Durkin, one of our PMs, wrote about it very recently on the blog. Bots are super hyped in the sense that it’s almost never easier to use a small keyboard or even a big keyboard to back and forth with a bot that only understands a certain number of commands. Hugh likened it to a command line interface. Command line interfaces have been around as long as computers have been around. It’s nothing new, it’s not novel, and it’s not helpful for the most part.

1800 flowers facebook bot

Do command-line-style chatbot experiences make it any easier to get help?

I’m actually really interested in voice interfaces. I recently got an Echo and it’s been amazing. One of those supernatural human things we do is we just talk to each other. If we could talk to computers and have them actually understand us well, that would be a pretty game changing thing.

What an airline can teach us about software support

Adam: This could be inside or outside of the software industry, but is there any company that you’ve looked at as you’ve built the team at Intercom or been using their product and said, “This is a really smart or surprising way to do support”? Are there examples we could learn from that are a bit unconventional?

Jeff: Talking about the companies that treat support like a call center versus companies that really make an investment in their customers, KLM is one that I’ve been super impressed with recently. As you can imagine, living in the Alps, I do fly to our offices really regularly. Every time I fly KLM I’m almost compelled to write into their support team because you can get them through Twitter or Facebook or their site or their app or email, whatever you want, and they’ll get back to you in 20-30 minutes.

You can do so many things that used to be really difficult with airlines, like changing or canceling a flight or other things. You can do it through Facebook Messenger with them. It really shows they have thought about it and then said, “Okay, we’re going make a huge investment in this,” because obviously they get hundreds of thousands of support requests a week. They’ve got to have an army of people behind that in order to answer those well.

They’re not using bots, they’re not like, “Do you want to change your flight? Please respond Y or N.” They have a human that responds back. They have a great personal tone, and they seem to have fun with it. They seem to be really relaxed. Generally, they can get your stuff done really quickly with that great tone. They’re one that I’m always impressed with.

Adam: All of those things are still difficult with my airline of choice so you may have me reevaluating things. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jeff: It’s been a blast, Adam. Thank you.

Want to learn more about how to start and scale a great customer support team? Download our latest book, Intercom on Customer Support, today.