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Visual support is human support

Customer Support Representative, Intercom

Megan Daly


Main illustration: Natalie K Nelson

To GIF or not to GIF? If you’re about to close a support conversation with a cat animation “just because…” stop what you’re doing.

Animated GIFs, memes, emoji, stickers, and other visual media are a growing but definitely misunderstood (and underutilized) part of Internet culture. GIFs in particular have been around for donkey’s years, but it’s only recently companies like Facebook and Twitter have started to support them in their messengers, and they’ve emerged into everyday use.

As a member of the Customer Support team at Intercom, being personal is key. Our customers come to us with their worries, frustrations, jokes, and everything in between. It’s our job to show empathy, make customers feel understood and support them with conversations, not tickets. This requires letting your personality out and interacting on a real level, and using memes, emoticons, and GIFs is an easy way to make that happen. Words are only one part of face-to-face communication – just think back to the last difficult conversation you had with someone and how body language told you so much about how the message was being received.

Visual media is just one small step in adding more humanity to our online communications. We’ve embraced their use in our personal lives, and at Intercom we believe they will enrich business communications as well. The most magical thing is that when you talk like a human, your customers will too.

Lightening the mood

Things occasionally go sideways at every software company. How you respond to customers in these situations is paramount. Simply listening and then shifting the tone with media can turn a potentially angry feature request with a ranting customer into a friendly exchange.

Similarly, giving a customer the incorrect information isn’t ideal – but it happens from time to time. Sending an automated apology (or worse, ignoring the mistake) will diminish the customer’s confidence in your ability. But putting your hands up and admitting you got it wrong tends to diffuse any tension at being misinformed.

Being personal and showing you’re not a robot is the difference between a “meh” support experience and a great one. Admittedly, every support conversation isn’t a barrel of laughs, but when you click with a customer, run with it. You’ll make their day a little brighter, and hopefully they’ll make yours better too. Bonus point: it doesn’t cost you a penny.

Media isn’t the saving grace

Sure, there’s a percentage of customers who expect a more formal interaction (it’s what they’re used to). Saying the right thing at the right time is a learned skill, and picking up the clues customers leave in their conversations is key. Match tone with tone, and respect the customer’s needs. Obviously sending a smiley face emoji in response to someone telling you something is broken isn’t the correct response; however, a GIF that shows someone where to look instead of trying to explain through text is extremely appropriate and informative.

Keep in mind that using media in a support conversation isn’t a Get Out Of Jail Free card. You can’t use it in lieu of actual support; it’s more like a new clothing accessory that brings the look together but is tacky or out of place on its own.

When it comes to GIFs specifically, don’t use just any you find online. Try to find higher quality ones that convey your meaning snappily – and always watch the whole thing through before sending to a customer. The internet is a weird place full of surprises.

Why it pays to show personality

Support conversations don’t always have to be super serious and to the point. They can be informative while still being amiable – like talking through something with a friend.

Loosening up and letting my personality show when chatting with customers has made my day-to-day job infinitely more fun. Plus, leaving the customer with a positive impression of you and your company’s support team has numerous benefits:

  • It builds a healthy relationship with customers. Instead of coming in hot when an issue arises, they’ll temper their questions because they know that you’re on their side.
  • They’ll feel more confident reaching out. They’ve gotten great support before, which automatically creates a more positive conversation. They aren’t embarrassed to ask questions that might trip them up and cause frustrations at a later date.
  • It opens the doors for more personal interactions down the line. Video replies, video chats, voice notes – maybe even selfies. It’s second nature to send a voice note to a friend abroad to update them on your day; why not do the same when you want to explain an issue you’re having with a product to it’s support team?

Turning a frustrated customer into someone who goes away happy is not only great for the Intercom brand – it’s also one of the most satisfying things about my role. Can you say your customers write in just to chat to you about a movie they think you’ll like, or to show you a new meme they found? I can.

So before you send that long winded reply, take a chance and see what happens when you show your personality. Seriously. If you’re not already, why aren’t you?