9 lessons of growth and customer experience from Intercom

A story of how a startup nailed customer relationships since day one.

Many startups think that customer experience management equals unnecessary work and financial costs. However, more and more startups that emphasize the uniqueness of customer relationships are growing faster than ever. Some of the familiar names include the two fastest growing companies in the world, Slack and Intercom.

What unites these two amazing companies?

You might already have guessed that customer is in the heart of all their operations.

To understand that better, I talked to Jeff Gardner, Head of Platform Partnerships, former Director of Support and Customer Success at Intercom. Jeff joined Intercom as the 4th employee, customer support engineer, in 2012 and since then has built a large customer support and customer success team. Worth mentioning, that Intercom has been investing in building customer relationships from day 1 and believes that customer-centric strategy is what every company should follow.

I wanted to learn what stands behind Intercom’s mission "making business personal” and how other tech startups could use their experience.

Lesson #1 Bring value to your customers

Often, many early-stage startups totally miss out with their product, as they go way off too deep to "delight and impress". In reality, they end up having a product that doesn’t bring much value. That means that the company spends tons of time and money on a product that people don’t necessarily need.

You have to work together with your customers to build a product that answers their needs. Let it be functional rather than have an advanced visual design.

Lesson #2 - Everything is going to change. All the time.

"I used to tell my team - if you don’t like what we’re doing right now, it’s fine. Just wait for 6 months and we’ll be forced to change it anyways."

Intercom used to reorganize, redefine, redo everything they do about every 6 months. In the early days, it was even faster than that. If you’re comfortable with that level of change and you are ready for “imperfection”, it’ll be a great journey for both you mentally and for your business. Jeff shared that providing 80% of solutions is often already enough for most startups most of the time.

Lesson #3 Measure customer experience. Constantly.

You should constantly measure customer experience. Constantly ask if you’re doing a good job for your customers. Are you not only deliver a value and a good product but also looking after your customers properly? Do you treat them as humans, building relationships? Are you proud of how of how you dealing with them?

"Use all the metrics you want, but in the end, it comes down to “How many customers would you be terrified to run into someday in public? Would you be afraid that they attack you after you said something in support message last week? Would they give you a hug?”- Jeff jokes.

Lesson #4 Don’t be afraid to make radical decisions

Perfection comes hard way in a startup and everything that you do, not excluding customer care could relate to that. "You need to know that you will have to let some customers go every now and then. You need to know that you will let down some customers, over time. And that’s going to be ok." Pricing raises another discussion. Customers often get angry if you change prices, but these changes are necessary parts of growing a business. "If you’re going to take more perspective, it will be a lot easier."

Lesson #5 Metrics help to understand the bigger picture. Feedback will let you dive deeper into it.

“At Intercom, we use NPS to measure customer loyalty and CSAT for customer support. Those are two important numerical drivers for us. We also think a lot about churn and retention. If customers are sticking with us, it’s a good sign that they are happy and are getting something out of our product."

Metrics are used to see the bigger picture, to understand generically how things are going. Very quickly those metrics lead you to start asking deeper questions, so you have to start digging into the NPS and CSAT text feedback. Jeff mentions, that they also actually talk to their customers to understand better what drives customer experience.

"I think NPS is a very helpful number. If you have a system in place when you frequently ask your customers, you will have an idea of how valuable your product is. At the same time, I do think that the most important and, at the same time, the hardest is to analyze all the comments that come together. It is not enough just to answer to the comments, you need to categorize them and then deeply understand what’s going on with every category. Is there a variance within it or does every person say the same thing? Only then NPS becomes much more interesting, as it becomes much more qualitative. Now you can start a conversation “Should we do that to improve this?” instead of just looking at the number and asking “should we just turn this feature off?” You understand the motives better”

Lesson #6 Everyone is responsible for customer experience

People are giving or not giving value to your product when they have a good or bad experience with it for whatever reason.

It could be a bad customer support, or the product didn't work properly, it could be buggy, or fundamentally they were not getting enough value for the price they were paying - all these things are part of customer experience. "It’s a false myth that customer support, customer success or customer experience teams are the only ones responsible for customer experience. The product team, for example, is also very responsible for customer experience. If the product team builds something which is crap - obviously, people will have a bad experience with it.

It’s important to remember that it’s not only the customer-facing teams are responsible for customer experience, it’s the entire company."

Lesson #7 Scale sustainably

Intercom has been growing extremely fast and their challenge is how to scale. "In any business where you’re growing quickly, it is hard to grow at a pace which is sustainable and good for the people within the team. It could be easy to outsource and hire a support team of 500 people, but it will never result in great customer support or in people that feel a real connection to the product. You will lose the core of support - caring."

Intercom has spent a lot of time on hiring, especially in the early periods. Now there are a lot of people on the team (20-30 out of 100) who are able to interview and hire. That makes hiring a lot easier and faster. They also put a lot of time to onboard new employees. People who join customer support team get almost 2 months to understand how it all works. The onboarding starts from baseline training like reading and learning and goes to pairing up with the most experienced employees. "We know that after 2 months, they’ll be ready to do a really great job."

Lesson #8 Build omnichannel solid experience

Over the last 18 months, Intercom is testing a new approach to support and sales teams. They have basically been united into one large customer-facing team. "The real benefit is that we see all customer journeys, all customer experiences as one thing. Usually, support and sales don’t talk to each other. Now we’re actually one team, so it’s easier to get in one room and say “this type of customers should skip support, and go directly to our relationship manager, so let’s make sure that happens smoothly” or “this type of customers should never ever see sales, because they’re too small and sales gets in their way.” It’s nice to think holistically and decide which kind of experience we want to build for this type of customer and how to put that into place.

It worked really well for us because of how customer-centric our sales leader turned out to be. Sales are still very sales-focused, and Support is still very support-focused but we now share lots of the stuff that overlaps, like a great ops team to help to forecast demand, planning headcount, etc."

Lesson #9 Customer support is not a cost

Jeff also shared a recent case of how customer support helped to significantly boost business metrics: "We have known for a while that most of the conversations that a customer will have with us happen within the first 24-48 hours. Almost all the conversations happen within the first 3 months. Then we looked up what were these conversations about and the main topic turned out to be onboarding, understanding the product, understanding the features, and really a lot of questions on how to get make the setup properly with all the installations and integrations.

Our support has been fairly fast - we answered in under an hour 24/7 for years. Now we decided to give instantaneous live chat support to brand new intercom users just for that early period in order to get them through that setup phase and help them see value in our product faster.

What we did is that we set up A/B test for all the sign-ups that were coming in: one half of the group had under 1-hour standard email support, the other half of the group - the new live chat support for the first 3 months.

The results have been amazing. both the business metrics like conversion rate improved, and CSAT and NPS of those people also largely improved. It was clear that those customers enjoyed our product more, went through setup and saw value in our product much faster, they became happier customers, stick around longer and paid us more.

A lot of other companies think of live chat style interactions as a very expensive thing. This time we could say that it helped us to earn extra money, we couldn’t have gotten otherwise."  Check this article from Intercom to find more about how real-life support drives higher conversion.