Why sales and support should be friends, not foes

Main illustration: Sarah Robbins

Sales and support teams usually aren’t seen as having much in common. In fact, at most companies a certain amount of tension between these two teams has come to be expected.

When salespeople will say nearly anything a potential customer wants to hear in order to get them to sign up, support teams are left with the mess of having to readjust customers’ expectations post-sale. Salespeople worry that support won’t follow through with their value pitch to customers, which increases the risk of churn. From a management perspective these tensions are exacerbated when sales folks are given a directive to bring in new revenue at all costs, and support is written off as a cost center (a position we don’t share).

Here at Intercom we’ve reevaluated the dynamic between sales and support and created workflows that allow our teams to collaborate in ways that better service our customers. We also acknowledge that our support team spends more time talking to customers than any other team, including sales. Companies regularly squander the knowledge their Customer Support Reps gain from the hundreds of hours of conversations they have in just a single week. We incorporate feedback from our support team not just into our product, but also into our sales process. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way.

Supporting the front lines

Sales and support are the face of your company’s 1:1 communications with current and potential customers. Demand generation drives people to your site, product marketing outlines the jobs your products do, and growth helps these people sign up. But the first human interaction people have with your company is with a member of the sales or support teams. With so much on the line these teams need clear workflows that remove any ambiguity about which team covers what.

Support will own the vast majority of these conversations because their directive is to be on the front lines providing real-time answers to leads and users who reach out via livechat, email, and social media. When the conversation strays out of the realm of a straightforward inquiry, the sales team steps in. Sales teams have to be selective about which conversations they jump into since the number of salespeople sourcing new opportunities (we call them ADRs) is typically a lot smaller than the number of Customer Support Reps. In addition to providing customers with a speedy reply, having the majority of conversations owned by support also preserves the bandwidth of the sales team by restricting conversations to topics where they can provide value.

Sales takes the lead

One of the workflows we’re always trying to optimize and improve is the way we communicate with leads who initiate a conversation with our team. After running a few tests we established that our Sales team is the most appropriate starting point for all conversations with leads.

Our research team found that leads place a huge premium on the speed of a response, but they are also more likely to have questions about which products are best suited to help them achieve their goals, how much the product costs and how to schedule a live demo. However, some of the people that write in as leads have in-depth technical questions about how our integrations work, our API rate limits and other topics that are generally out of the area of expertise of our sales ADRs. At that point our ADRs are relieved to be able to pass the conversation over into the capable hands of a Customer Support Engineer.

Context is key

What does it feel like to be the lead or customer in the middle of this process? Do we risk alienating them by making them feel like they need to explain who they are and what their problem is over and over like a broken record? Nothing is more frustrating than being passed to yet another person who has no more power to help you than the last four people you spoke with. That’s why a key step in this process is to provide context to our colleague to whom we are passing the baton. We do a lot of this through custom attributes we’ve set up in Intercom with fields like “Account Owner”, “Monthly Spend”, and a breakdown of which products and features this account has access to. When sales is passing a conversation over to support this data should be paired with internal notes that help take away the guesswork behind who the customer is and what they need help with, as shown below.

Example of sales-to-support context note

Know when to escalate

Because we don’t believe in sales abandoning customers after they sign up, this workflow also encourages support to pass conversations over to sales when a customer raises questions about their pricing plan, is having a hard time finding value in a product or feature, or explicitly asks to speak to the person assigned to their account. Escalating a conversation to a salesperson allows us to work with the customer over a longer timespan to resolve the problem. This also ensures that our sales team doesn’t have to worry about customers fuming about issues they’re experiencing and these concerns never making their way back to them. Sales reps hate finding out that a customer has been unhappy at a later date (like during an annual renewal) when it’s too late to make a meaningful impact on these issues. When support shares this candid feedback with sales, we can ensure our sales team doesn’t lose touch with the end user.

Collaboration with support improves our sales process

Our support team improves our sales process similar to the way they improve our product, by providing feedback on where customers have expressed frustration or confusion around our product offering, pricing, or the value proposition of our products and services. Our sales team prepares for new product and key feature launches similar to the way our product and marketing teams do.

Sales-Support feedback loop

We spend a lot of time crafting a playbook for how we plan to position and sell this new product or feature and train our sales team so that they can hit the ground running when we launch. However, anyone who works at a startup knows that a launch is just the beginning. This playbook goes through many iterations based on the feedback our team receives. These incremental changes allow our team to land on the most effective strategy for positioning and selling, such as how to tell a compelling story and how we compare to competitors. If our sales team iterated in a silo, it would take us 10x as long to make meaningful progress. The feedback and insights our support team provides allow us to avoid making the same mistakes more than once, and together we learn twice as fast.

The bottom line is this: When your largest customer-facing teams work together closely your customers get more value from your products and your sales team is able to create a more effective sales process. It’s simply better for business.