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PREACH – a framework for perfecting your customer support tone

Main illustration: Jean Wei

Often in life, it’s not what you say but how you say it that makes all the difference. This is even more true in a customer support conversation, so getting your company’s tone just right is incredibly important.

Once you’ve figured out how you speak to your customers, the next challenge is getting your team aligned for a consistent customer experience.

At Intercom we strive to maintain a high caliber of excellent customer support, and we do this with a peer review system, where every member of our Support team consistently reviews their teammates’ conversations. During a review, conversations are rated on two main aspects: quality and tone.

Measuring our support

In simple terms, quality covers the correctness and accuracy of the answers provided. While we hold a high bar here, and encourage our team to go beyond simply providing correct answers, it’s a simple metric to break down and can be rated objectively with relative ease.

Tone, on the other hand, presents certain challenges. As soon as you look at the approach your teammates take to provide those answers, objectivity is inevitably replaced by subjectivity.

“The biggest issue with our previous guidelines for tone was their inaccessibility”

We conducted a calibration recently where the entire team rated the same 30 conversations for quality and tone on a three point scale. The resulting pie chart may have strongly resembled the marque of a certain German luxury vehicle, but it certainly didn’t confirm that conversations were rated consistently across teammates.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Our guide for speaking with customers was five years old, and 15 points long – it was written to be comprehensive rather than memorable. Furthermore, it captured what the support team at the time already knew about how they spoke to customers. No one was referring to it, because they had already internalized its most essential principles.

Now, however, we’re a rapidly scaling team, and the challenge for any growing team, whether it’s Support or Sales, is finding a method you can rely on to teach every new team member exactly how you talk to your customers.

How do we do it now?

We realized the biggest issue with our previous guidelines for tone was their inaccessibility. Even if the guide’s content was perfect, it was a little too long to recall every point and not something that could be easily referred to when speaking to customers, or reviewing a teammate’s conversation.

In coming up with a way to make these guidelines easily understood, remembered and shared, we considered alliterative phrases, mnemonics and even rhymes. We eventually settled on an acronym – PREACH.

At Intercom, when speaking to customers we aim to be Proud, Responsible, Empathetic, Articulate, Concise and Human:

  • Proud – In our mission to make internet business personal, we often make bold decisions about which features to build. We own this mission and its impact unapologetically. For instance, we don’t say “Unfortunately we don’t have tickets”, we say “We don’t have tickets, because we believe that having conversations with your customers is a better approach.”
  • Responsible – If a bad feature or bug ships and a customer is disappointed or frustrated, it’s on us. We don’t blame the engineers, or attempt to come up with excuses. We take ownership of our mistakes, and move forward.
  • Empathetic – We acknowledge, and aim to truly understand how our customers feel and handle each conversation accordingly. We match their tone, and the situation wherever we can.
  • Articulate – Gracefully augmenting your conversations with personal language, emojis and GIFs are encouraged, but typos, bad punctuation or poor phrasing make us look less professional. This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s important to keep the fundamentals front and center in order to reinforce our high bar.
  • Concise – No matter how much fun you can have with your customers, never forget they contacted you for a reason. Our job is to fully understand their needs and resolve them as quickly as possible. Also keep the medium in mind here – with a Messenger window, your answers will usually be read in a compact space.
  • Human – With Custom Bots and other automations handling your customers’ simpler questions, you’re left with all the conversations where a human approach is the best one. Take this opportunity to really connect with your customers, and if you wouldn’t say the words in a “normal” spoken interaction, don’t say them during a customer interaction.

Practice your tone

Crafting the PREACH customer care framework is all well and good, but how do we apply it? In our customer support training sessions to introduce new teammates to the Intercom customer support organization as a whole, we include a lesson on PREACH.

Within these sessions, each new employee dives into conversations with our customers. The PREACH framework serves as the life vest while they learn how to swim – providing support while still allowing them the opportunity to learn on their own. We encourage people to embrace their own tone and approach within these guidelines when supporting customers.

“PREACH is a powerful enforcer of our culture and standards when supporting customers”

Lastly, PREACH not only acts as a guideline for our tone, but also as a powerful enforcer of our culture and standards when supporting customers. We’re proud of the product and we keep our conversations personal, whether it be with customers or teammates. This can have a lasting impact on new team members as they get settled at Intercom. It shows what we value, and the standards that we hold.

At the end of the day, it boils down to practicing what we PREACH.

Retention Starter Kit – 2019 updated images