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Intercom Outlines Opportunities and Risks in the Personalized Chat Space

“There are conversations that are valuable to business, and not valuable to business. There are conversations that are valuable to the customer, and not valuable to the customer. When you’re asking how to re-set your password, that’s not valuable to either. It’s not a brand-building opportunity.”

That’s Des Traynor, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Intercom, setting the scene for our conversation at Inbound 2019.  “We’ve basically built a messenger for businesses and customers to talk. Slack is a tool for people inside a company to talk, and WhatsApp is a tool for people outside a company to talk. Intercom is the connective tissue between people outside a company and people inside. It usually sits on your website; conversations can be between humans, or there can be a chatbot on one side.” The solution can redirect calls to sales reps or the support team as appropriate.

Computers should help when they can

The bot/human balance is important to Traynor. “People talk about artificial intelligence. I like the idea of augmented intelligence; computers help when they can. We have a product called Answer Bot, that looks at the entire history of conversations with customers, and if it knows the answer, it jumps in. If it doesn’t, it shuts up.”

There’s a bit of a backlash against chatbots which don’t add value, Traynor admitted. “Whenever you see our bot, it’s coming with a good answer for you. Some questions can be answered automatically, other questions the chatbots won’t do a good job with.”

Although Intercom’s market has been primarily B2B, there’s increasing interest from the B2C space, where the automation and scalability of the bots is of interest. “The reason is obvious. In B2B it’s profitable to talk to customers, because they’re worth a lot of money.”

I asked Traynor about the recent claims made by Drift that they are developing a chatbot which will be able to compete with human sales reps in effectiveness. “It will surprise me if they have that, and it’s not humans in the background. I expect it will come with a large ticket price, and there will be a lot of people configuring the language, grammar, and keywords in the back end. There is an art to sales, there is an actual craft to it. I haven’t reviewed the product, but my guess would be it works for the first few questions of a sales conversation. We’ll see how it performs.”

As for developments at Intercom, Traynor sees customization as the future, with brands being able to adapt messengers to their own, specific needs. This would include custom scripts for bots to use in response to common and predictable inquiries. 

Among other plans: growing the selection of applications (currently around 200) which can be used with Intercom; and developing and maturing the core marketing, sales, and support workflow tools. “Our plan ultimately is to make them justifiable, adapable, and interoperable. Right now we have 30,000 customers, and they hit friction points when they get big. It’s hard to add 200 support agents at a time, yet when we talk to a Fortune 500 company, that’s exactly what they want to do. A lot of what we’re doing is adding those more complex workflows for the larger customers.”

I asked Traynor what signals he was picking up from the crowd at Inbound.

“Something I’m hearing is two clouds of concern surrounding hyper-personalized marketing,” said Traynor. One is the investment to effectively get that level of personalization, plus the incremental result of it. There was quite a while when I could say, ‘Hi Kim’ — and you’d think, he knows me. We’re going to see diminishing ROI on that. The other side of it is that, as PII [personally identifying information] becomes more of a thing, businesses are going to become more thoughtful about the data they collect and use, and the data they procure from third parties.”

Traynor sees a couple of possible outcomes. In two years, hyper-personalized message will be so common they produce “banner blindness,” or: “Potentially it will be the mark of a business which is less ethical in the treatment of your data. There are chickens out there which are coming home to roost.” Brands needed to decide whether hyper-personalization is worth it, and in their customers’ best interests.

Another trend Traynor is observing is that, especially in B2B, the “sign up” isn’t relevant any more. “We are firmly in a world of ‘try before you buy,’ so a lot of tools which focus on the sign up as a conversion event (the customer entered their email!). The real value of the customer becomes obvious when the customer is in your software, or trying to use your software. For so long we’ve focused on top of funnel conversion rates, landing pages, etc, but now all eyes are going to be on trials, engagement, what’s the best way to onboard a customer.”

Landing page optimization isn’t a fully solved problem, but Traynor sees adjustments which produce minimal improvements as essentially irrelevant, when 95 percent of visitors bounce after signing in. “Let’s talk about that problem.” Intercom has been addressing this by deploying videos of sales reps offering to show the customer the product. “You can personalize the onboarding experience, and that’s an area where we’ve seen a lot of success.”

As customer-facing teams like marketing, sales, and support, try to respond to customer needs in a world where a sign up means nothing in terms of engagement, “they might all start looking towards the product team. If people can’t use the product, or it doesn’t make sense, you can’t support or market your way out of that. You just need to fix the product.”

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