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Podcast panel: Understanding the Conversational Support Funnel

We hear about Intercom's new framework for understanding and implementing next generation customer support at scale.

 In today’s very special bonus episode, we’re joined by leaders from our Product and Support teams to hear about the new Conversational Support Funnel – why we built it, how we use it, and our vision for the future. For further information on the Conversational Support Funnel and today’s announcement check out this blog post from our SVP Product Paul Adams.

We’re joined by

Between them our panel offer a 360° view of this important development and allow us to better understand how and why this framework was developed and what it might mean for your business.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

I’m the senior product director for five teams in our London office. I’ve got various product managers reporting into me and we focus primarily in the support space. I’m also co-site lead for the London site where we’ve got five product teams up and running.

I lead Intercom’s global customer support team. We love and use Intercom, of course, to support our customers via the Messenger. So I’m excited to talk about conversational support and what that looks like on our team as well.

I run the product design team based here in Dublin, where I am, and in London, over where Jane is building all of the products that hopefully people know and use in Intercom.

Emmet, I’m going to stay with you for the next question, because I guess the best way to kick off this conversation is probably to start at the beginning. So what actually is the Conversational Support Funnel and how does it work?

“The Conversational Support Funnel is really a framework that we have put together to help you provide the right type of support at the right time and in the right order”

So to start maybe at the very beginning, when  most people think about Intercom and customer support, they think about our Messenger and our approach very much is a messenger first approach to delivering your customer support via this Messenger that’s embedded in your product. When you start from that point, you suddenly have a lot more options and flexibility about the different types of support that you can provide. So when we looked at how our customers were using the Messenger to provide support, we realized there are lots of different flavors, actually. There’s some people leaning into automated support, some people doing things that look more like live chat, and all of this depends on maybe the specific question that’s coming in or the customer type that you’re providing support to. So there’s not really a one size fits all. There’s lots of different approaches. So to answer your question, the Conversational Support Funnel is really a framework that we have put together to help you provide the right type of support at the right time and in the right order.

So to get a bit more specific about that, we notice a lot of support activities falling into a proactive support focus, where people were trying to get ahead of their customers problems and preempt what they were seeing. Then you might have what you might think of more as self serve or automated support, like articles, answers from bots, that type of thing. And then, of course, human support where you’re trying to really one on one resolve an issue with the right team member. And so that this framework that we’ve put together really helps to route a question to the right parts of that funnel at the right time, provide appropriate handoffs and follow backs where needed between them. And so it’s a much more joined up experience from your customer’s point of view.

And I guess the last thing to say about is it’s kind of modular. You can pick and choose the parts of this funnel that work for your business or that work for, again, the customer that you’re dealing specifically with, or you can choose to kind of put it all together into one full system for maximum efficiency.

Okay. Brilliant. That sounds like a really robust framework. And, but I guess the next question is how one would apply this on a practical level. Kaitlin, as global director of customer support, I’m sure that side of things is front of mind for you. So perhaps you could kick us off on this one.

Happy to bring to life what Emmett has described there in terms of how we’re thinking about it in our own support experience with Intercom’s customers. So starting at the bottom up, I suppose, human support. This is our team and we hire really brilliant, great people and we want them focusing on the things that are best suited to their expertise and experience. So with the right tools like inbox automation, inbox and messenger apps, workload management, robust reporting, the list goes on, you can really make human support, more efficient, personable, and at times even more profitable, if you think about sort of that more commercial swing. And so we’re really thinking about how do we empower these brilliant, great people to work efficiently and intelligently so that their time, energy and effort is really focused in the right place.

“How do we prevent questions from arising in the first place by providing customers with the right help at the right moment?”

Then moving through the funnel, we’ve got this self-serve support, or some might call this automated support. So this is really where we’re thinking about how to use smart chatbots and our curated help center or knowledge bases, some would call it, to really scale our support and provide customers with the fast answers that they need without increasing our head count or overstretching the team. We often talk about measuring this as our rate of automated resolution. As much as our customers may like us, they don’t always want to wait for us. And so what can we present to them in an automated way to resolve their query?

And then I guess at the top of the funnel, is that proactive piece. I love the framing I think Emmett touched on here, is right content, right person, right place. How do we prevent questions from arising in the first place by providing customers with the right help at the right moment? So that’s how we’re kind of thinking about bringing it to life. Always a work in progress of course, but we’re pretty excited about it.

Yeah. I can imagine you are. And for my next question, Jane, I’m going to go to you. Now I’d imagine with everything that Kaitlin and Emmett have already said, people are already starting to think about this themselves but what do you see as being the key benefits of the Conversational Support Funnel?

Well, the exciting thing is that there are lots of benefits, so it’s easy for us to talk about benefits. I’m really excited to share them with you. Ultimately, the Conversational Support Funnel improves customer loyalty, but also it’ll improve the workload and the wellbeing of your support team. So when we think about the benefits, I think about them in three themes.

The first theme is about increasing the customer experience. So we know customers have got really fast and high expectations of when they’ll receive help. And because of the support funnel, we know your customers are going to get a better experience with faster resolutions at the exact moment that they’re needed. And it’s no secret that positive support experiences drive more loyalty. So by helping your customers get more value out of your product, they’ll stay longer with you or engage more deeply or buy more products from you and they’ll start recommending you to everyone else. So the primary benefit we see is that this will really drive an increase in that customer experience, that support experience. The second benefit is in the space of helping our customers deal with unprecedented support volume. So it really helps customers scale their support activities and answer more questions from more customers without increasing their head counts or keeping their costs lower. And then the third benefit is around this morale piece and the team benefit that we see. So it’s no surprise that support teams have got very high turnover, but we see the funnel. One of the benefits of the funnel is that it starts to filter out all the simple, repetitive questions and make sure that teammates are focusing on the questions that are much more interesting for them to answer, so really helping improve job satisfaction for the team and making sure that they stay longer with you as a company and feel more valued.

“I think for support leaders out there that are thinking about scale, this is really helpful because it’s a framework through which you can build your strategy upon”

One thing I would add, maybe this is more of from a product person’s point of view, but I think it’s rare that you get one of these chances where you can provide a product that is beneficial to all the players in the game, if that makes sense. So like what Jane was saying there, it’s a better user experience, getting faster answers and a nice UI for the customers. It’s better for support teams. I think they get to spend more time on the type of work that they’d want to be doing, maybe the deeper type of work, and better for the business as well from an efficiency point of view.

I would add, as a support leader and leading a team who heroically manages thousands and thousands of customers questions a month, it can be a daunting space and it can feel a little like you’re just facing a fire hose and trying to figure out how to stay on top of things. So I think another benefit here is that it really brings structure and clarity and a framework, to build out your support strategy. So often companies are just trying to keep up with volume and hire, hire, hire, but at some point it becomes unsustainable and too expensive to continue hiring. So I think for support leaders out there that are thinking about scale or looking ahead to scale, this is really helpful because it’s a framework through which you can build your strategy upon.

Well, let’s stay with that a minute, thinking about  how businesses can build a strategy on this. What does that adoption of this Conversational Support Funnel look like for businesses?

So I guess the first thing is, and something I’m certainly thinking about in partnership with my support operations team and the advice I would give is, firstly, to take a step back and take time to architect and ensure that you’re going to build something through this funnel and this framework, that’s a durable. As a support leader, you’re not really interested in rebuilding your support model every few months. But you also, of course, want it to be adaptable. I think Emmett use the word modular, which is like what elements are we going to lean into this year? And where are we seeing gaps?

And I think this model will really transform the way that you can support your customers, so it’s just important to give it the proper planning that it deserves. And I guess what I mean by proper planning is really determining upfront what already exists for each segment in the funnel and what needs to be evolved and then what just doesn’t exist yet and needs to be created. So if I were to think of an example here, if we talk about proactive support, for us that’s, okay, what content do we already have? What already exists either in our help center or webinars or helpful guides? And what would be the best way to service that helpful guides, and what would be the best way to surface that content to the right customer at the right time? And then, where are we seeing frequently asked questions, and that content doesn’t exist, so we need to go create the content before we can even think about where and how to surface it. And then I guess another example is on the human support side or your team, what are they currently doing that could and should be automated or at least made to be more efficient?

And this is where you really need to lean into the team for great partnership. As a support director, I’m not in the inbox day in and day out. I don’t see that work that is that sort of manual, repetitive work that Jane referred to. And so this is a great opportunity for your team to feel like they have impact, that they can raise their hand and really help you identify where there’s opportunity to, say, create saved replies, create new articles, etc.

“That’s like Groundhog Day stuff for the support team. It’s time consuming for them, but from a morale point of view, it’s also an energy drainer… and it’s keeping you from the higher value stuff”

Super. So let’s discuss the intelligence layer next, because this sounds fascinating to me. It’s basically what enables the Conversational Support Funnel – in particular, proactive support. Emmet, what is possible right now? And where do we see the technology advancing to in the next while?

So if you think about all of your conversations, and Kaitlin was talking about answering sometimes repetitive conversations, that’s actually a treasure trove of data to be mined and understood, right? What are all of the conversations that are being had by our customer support team? And once you, if you can build a system, which we have, that can kind of analyze that and understand it, it can suddenly start telling you what stuff is of lower value or more repetitive things that can be automated. And so we have got systems like our Resolution Bot that can look at these repetitive questions that you get again and again.

So people keep asking us, “How do I update my password?” Or, “What’s your cancellation policy” And that’s like Groundhog Day stuff for the support team. It’s time consuming for them, but from a morale point of view, as well as Kaitlin saying, it’s kind of an energy drainer, to be answering that same stuff again and again, and it’s keeping you from the higher value stuff. And so in simple enough terms, our chatbots kind of spot these repetitive questions, and then they make it very easy to set up automatically answering those. And so, again, back to what I was saying earlier, that’s good for your customers. It’s actually a better user experience to not have to wait. Even if your response time is really good, several minutes for an answer to a simple question, if a bot can give the answer straightaway, and of course it’s good for your support team.

“This intelligence layer is really about detecting where those gaps in your knowledge base might be across a variety of spaces or in your automatic answers that you’ve already set to run”

And so this intelligence layer is really about detecting where those gaps in your knowledge base might be across a variety of spaces or in your automatic answers that you’ve already set to run. And to your question as well, Dee, you talked about proactively. This could even be like an outbound messaging type thing, where if someone is in a certain situation or stage or page on your app or whatever it is, you can alert them to known issues, things like bugs and so on.

And so when you really start to dig and inspect what the technology allows you to do, and I think we’re still in the early stages of building very sophisticated bots that are backed by fairly deep machine learning algorithms, there’s a lot more we can and we do plan on doing here, and this is where I’m not sure to your question of what do we see coming in the next while? If we were in the studio, Jane might be kicking me under the table to not say too much here, but I will say that in the fairly near future, we’ve got a whole bunch of things that we’re excited to launch in this particular space about making these systems even more intelligent.

That sounds very intriguing indeed. What a teaser to give in a podcast, Emmet. And so taking a broader view then, Jane, Intercom has been building industry leading support tools for nearly a decade now. How has online Conversational Support via Messenger evolved into what we’re talking about now, the Conversational Support Funnel?

That’s a really good question. So obviously at Intercom, we’ve always been strong believers that the messenger first experience is the best channel for support. And we’ve been building out that support tool kit, like you said, for nearly a decade. We absolutely still believe that messenger first is the best way for customers to support their customers, because it’s where the end user is. You’re not forcing them to move to another channel to contact you. You can give support in context with a whole load of automation and apps that are unlocked to help you deliver faster resolution rates.

“Lots of people think about the Messenger and they only think about the real time elements of it, but there are lots of tools behind the scenes that help you deal with more complex queries asynchronously too”

It can either be real time and therefore really fast or asynchronous. Lots of people think about the Messenger and they only think about the real time elements of it, but there are lots of tools behind the scenes that help you deal with more complex queries asynchronously too. Plus we know the Messenger is fantastic when it comes to targeting, so you can offer different support experiences for different types of customers, different types of audiences. And we know support agents can be super efficient, because they can handle more queries at the same time, whereas if they’re dealing with queries over the phone or an email, it’s much harder to multitask like that.

So, we’ve always strongly believed in that Messenger first approach for support. But more recently, we’ve worked with a lot of support leaders to develop this Conversational Support Funnel. And it’s a blueprint that we’re really excited to share, because we think it’s going to help customers show them how to scale their support activities more effectively in the future whilst also improving the customer experience. That’s that win, win situation that we were talking about earlier. So the funnel is bringing together different types of support for the first time to ensure that most of your customer questions are either absorbed through self serve and proactive support, and making sure that your support team are then freed up to focus on the most important conversations.

So, we believe that this will help our customers be a lot less reactive when it comes to support. And it will show the breadth of support that the funnel offers. So often when people think about messenger support, they think about live chat, but the Conversational Support Funnel is much more than that. It’s a system that works seamlessly for all types of support. And so recently we’ve been building out those areas, whether they’re the proactive support that you can offer, the self serve automated support, or the tools that teammates need to handle queries in the inbox.

It just sounds like such a game changer in terms of how customer support teams can support their customers but also each other by getting rid of a lot of the drudgery of repetitive tasks that you guys have described. It’s kind of hard to have this conversation, I think, in isolation, because there’s a lot going on in the world at the moment in terms of, say, the pandemic that we’re seeing. That has a huge impact. I know, Kaitlin, we’ve talked about this previously on the podcast and in webinars, the effect that that has had directly on customer support teams. In terms of this as a next generational support tool, how do you think the current global situation is going to impact the adoption of it? Do you think it’s good to accelerate it or affect the broader industry transition in different ways?

Timely and great question, Dee. So, suffice it to say, I think we can all agree that the world is undergoing an irreversible transformation, but we also believe that customer support is doing the same. And we really think that implementing the Conversational Support Funnel will be key to navigating that transformation and coming through it successfully, I think as the world adapts to our new reality in both online, doing more and more online, and in a rapidly changing economy.  Companies really need lean support teams to successfully answer more and more customer questions. We just don’t have endless budgets to continue hiring more and more staff. Wait times for phone support, in particular, can just be so much longer as they can only be managed one query at a time. Our customers and our own team are really looking for faster ways to support our customers where and when they need help. Again, that’s back to that right content, right place, right time in the proactive support, and then, in the automated and human space, how do we just make things more and more efficient? I guess messenger-based support really allows teams to leverage that automation, that self-serve content, and all of those efficiency tools to increase customer and team satisfaction.

“How can you help them consolidate and reduce costs, streamline and drive efficiencies, and how are you going to successfully enable your customers in this sort of new online space?”

That’s how we’re thinking about adapting and why we’re so excited about it. Looking at the economy, of course, there’s immense damage there, and I think the extent of which remains unseen. Overnight, businesses have changed from focusing on revenue growth to just trying to figure out how to survive.

The number one thing on almost every single business’ mind right now is managing or, in some cases, cutting costs. There’s this urgent desire to consolidate spending, and tools that enable remote collaboration are, of course, on the rise. We’re seeing that all over the place. It’s really important now more than ever, I think, for us, as well as all businesses, to think about how you’re going to show current customers and potential customers how your product is going to help them in both of those spaces. How can you help them consolidate and reduce costs, streamline and drive efficiencies, and how are you going to successfully enable your customers in this sort of new online space?

I guess long-winded answer, but, here at Intercom, we’re really focused on showing our customers how to operate at scale more efficiently in light of this transformation that we’re all seeing. We think that the Conversational Support Funnel brings strategy and structure to that big immense thinking that people are doing, and we’re excited about it, and we think others are going to be, as well.

Well hopefully, they will be! Before we wrap up, I wanted to get all of your thoughts on what the evolution of the Customer Support Funnel means for customer support as a whole? Where is this going to take us in the future?

“We’re making this shift away from support experiences where you feel like you’re just a number in a queue, but instead always making sure that the customer feels personal and at the heart of the interaction”

Where my mind jumps to immediately, we all have our own experiences of being at home and on connecting online and so on. I wonder immediately the degree to which the expectations for support types on the part of customers is evolving here, and it kind of makes me even more confident really to think about something that’s more messenger first or messenger centric. Just the amount of communication that, at least in the last couple of months, has had to move online and has had to move to things like messengers. I think a lot of what’s been going on has accelerated a lot of shifts, and I do wonder if that’s one of those shifts towards even further deeper into these kind of messenger type ways of communicating, if that’s one of the things that’s going to be prompted by all of this.

Plus one, I think, what Emmet and Jane have talked about here really hit the nail on the head, but it’s a big transformation. I think messenger first is something we’ve believed in for almost a decade, as you’ve said, and, really, these beliefs that we’ve had are going to be more widespread and accelerated through this transformation. I think messenger first is certainly the future there in thinking about messenger first in a much bigger, broader way outside of kind of realtime chat that it’s historically been associated with that this is really about centralizing help, whatever help means for your customer base right where they are when they need it most. That would be my thoughts on the future here.

Jane, let’s finish with you on that final question.

For me, there’s a few massive shifts that I think this funnel represents. One of them is this shift from a really reactive way of dealing with customer support queries, so waiting for them to come in. I think we’re going to see a much broader shift towards a proactive approach, so really reaching out before customers even have to ask the question. I think that shift we’ll see, thinking about support as being much more outbound rather than just an inbound experience.

There’s also the shift around targeting. The fact that all the support is done through the Messenger means that it can be super targeted so you can offer different experiences for different customers, and that’s not something we’ve seen that’s been adopted broadly. That’s another really exciting shift.

Then, again, just the fact that it’s in the Messenger and it’s context rich and it’s right content, right time. There’s a phrase we’ve been using that it feels “very personal” so that you’re continually making this shift away from support experiences where you feel like you’re just a number in a queue, but always making sure that the customer feels personal and at the heart of the interaction.

Super. Well, thank you so much, all of you, for coming and joining us on the podcast today and giving what was, I think anyway, from my chair as a layperson, a really amazing 360 view of what is a very, very exciting development in customer support. It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you.