Des Traynor on customer engagement

Best Practices for Customer Engagement from Intercom’s Des Traynor [Video]

You’re connecting with customers, but are you connecting in all the ways that you should? Or are you even sure how you should be engaging them? We talked with Des Traynor, VP of Customer Success for Intercom, to get his input on best practices for customer engagement at every step of the life cycle.


Looking for more insight on building great products? Check out our interviews with Andrew Warner of Mixergy and Bestselling author Gary Vaynerchuk in the FullContact Halftime Archives.

Video Transcript: Intercom’s Des Traynor on Customer Engagement Best Practices

Brad: I’m Brad from FullContact, and we’re back again this week talking to Des from Intercom. Des, give us the quick and dirty. What does Intercom do?

Des: Intercom is a simple messaging service for businesses to communicate with their users.

Brad: Okay. Wow, that was the quick and dirty. I was waiting for, like, the 30 second elevator pitch.

Des: Sure. I can expound if you wish.

Brad: Yeah, yeah, give us a little more insight on it.

Des: What we’ve built is a way for businesses to connect and stay connected and grow relationships with their customers. Our core sort of idea here is that when you communicate with your users through multiple disjointed tools, you end up wildly out of synch and sending messages that aren’t personal or aren’t appropriate to your customers.

A classic example would be somebody might have lodged three or four complaints with you in your help desk, and simultaneously will receive a marketing mail. Or somebody might have not used your product for two years and will receive a new features email.

Or somebody will be wildly active and have done everything you would possibly want them to do. Let’s say in the sake of FullContact, they upgrade to your enterprise platinum professional super plus pay more money plan, and they’re using the hell out of everything. And then you decide let’s start mailing them and telling them to configure their plan.

Again, you’re sending the wrong message to the wrong customer at the wrong time in the wrong medium. Intercom solves all that.

Brad: Cool. Basically, marketing automation is kind of hot space as far as how do you stay in touch with customers. How do you kind of constantly keep that sales loop going? What kind of stuff do you guys find as best practices?

Let’s talk lifeline. I met you today, and that can be a virtual meet. You came to my website. You signed up for a newsletter or whatever. We captured your email address. Now what? What do we do for best practices?

Des: The first piece is you have to determine the strength of the connection that you have. Somebody has signed up to receive your blog because they like the FullContact playbook that you guys release on Fridays. Somebody signs up to receive that by email.

They specifically haven’t said, “Tell me everything about FullContact. I’m ready to start importing contact data into my web product.” If email number one is here’s how you can configure it out using our API. It’s going to alarm on deaf ears. Actually, what it will get you is a pretty high unsubscription rate.

However, honestly, what would be a better approach there would be like to gradually drip feed in content that’s more appropriate to people who specifically are running web products, And then to give examples of how different people are benefiting from FullContact’s data in their current web products. Then, ultimately, what you’re doing with your blog is you want to trigger an actual declaration of interest in your product. Because up until now if they sign up for your blog, they’ve declared interest in your blog.

So the first thing you need to do is shift that interest. When you actually get somebody who’s said specifically, “Yes, I’m trying to use FullContact,” or they’ve signed up for more information about FullContact, or they’ve started an install and they haven’t completed it. Now you’re in a position where you say, “What is the current state of the user.”

How far have they gotten through our onboarding? Have they created an account? Have they added their teammates? Have they used our API? Have they successfully performed one API call? Have they committed a curler request or whatever different ways you have tested it?

What’s important for you guys is to understand what level of progress have they made through the point, and then target a message appropriate to how far they’ve gotten, or rather what’s their first incomplete step.

Let’s say, they’ve managed to sign up, create an account, add their team, enter their credit card number. At this point you’re thinking cha-ching, but they haven’t actually hit any API, say, for example. I’m only focusing on how business and how web apps would use this. I know FullContact has lots more than this. But if they haven’t done that, what’s going to happen is at some point your bill’s going to land. They’re going to say FullContact, what the hell are we using this thing for? If it turns out they’re not using it. You’re going to lose a customer.

What you need to do is make sure that they’re actually moving through the gears of what it means to be fully loaded, fully onboard FullContact customer. Behavioral targeting, or what we simply call the right message to the right person at the right time, is about finding how far have they gotten, where are they possibly stuck, give them time to get past it, and if they struggle to get past it, hit them with help.

Help at the low end of your user base… Let’s say, if you’ve got thousands of free customers, help can look like here’s the tutorial. Here’s a webinar. Here’s some docs. Here’s how other people have gotten past it. At the high end it might be like we have an account manager and they jump on, just tell us what the problem is, we’ll get straight on talking to your engineers. Again, the efficacy of those messages comes not from a blanket sort of let’s hit everyone on day three, but it’s let’s hit people at the appropriate point where we believe they’re stuck.

When we talk about lifeline, the danger of the phrasing, this is what we call drip feed marketing or life cycle marketing is that people inevitably focus only on time points. The truth is that even if that’s all you do it’ll actually still be effective, to be honest. But to be actually properly effective and really get the results that we’ve seen, what you want to do is make sure you’re actually sending the right appropriate messages.

There’s a world of difference between, let’s say, I sign up for a project management tool tomorrow, and on day three it’s like configure a profile photo when I’ve already done that, versus on day three it’s like we notice you’ve started a project but you haven’t invited any clients, here’s how you do that. The business results… And, even as a customer, the customer experience is far more appropriate when you’re like, oh these guys are actually thinking about what I need, so I’ll go ahead and do it.

The other piece that I think a lot of people miss out on is they assume that this whole thing, this whole behavioral targeting, or life cycle marketing, or automated marketing, or whatever different buzz word we use for it in 2014, they believe that it all has to be done through email when in reality only a subset of the tasks are actually appropriate through email.

I often make the point the best time to talk to somebody about the usage of your product is when they’re using your product. That almost sounds so simple as to be trite, but what happens is… The example I always draw is imagine if you are a chef and you’re trying out a new French onion soup, and you want to get feedback on it.

Well, if you’re following the old web world, here’s what you do. You’d serve it for a couple of weeks and then you’d mail everyone who was in your restaurant over the past two weeks with a SurveyMonkey link or something like that and would say question one, did you have the soup? Question two, do you remember if it was nice? Would you refer this soup to a friend?

The real world example, which is what we’re all about, bringing in this real world sort of interaction to the web is the chef would get his ass out of the kitchen and say, “I notice you’re having the soup. Is it nice?” The patron of the restaurant would say, “Yes it is,” or “No it’s not,” or “It’s served too hot,” or “It doesn’t complement the steak,” or whatever. But you’ll actually get real feedback from people who are actually in a position to give it to you.

The simple web analogy is you ask somebody what problems do you have with Gmail. Imagine you just ring somebody who you know and say, “Hey, just off the top of your head, what ideas do you have about Gmail.” They’ll be like, “Why are you ringing me, Brad? This is kind of weird.”

Whereas if you actually sit down with them when they’re in front of Gmail and watch them use it, let them send a few emails, archive a few, and then say, “What problems do you have with Gmail,” they’ll just come gushing because the ideas and thoughts you have in context of use are wildly different to the stuff that you artificially make up when you receive an email randomly. There’s a lot to be said, also, for communicating in context as well.

Brad: Yeah. Definitely. Let’s talk about context for a second then because, obviously, that’s kind of what we do. We try to help people add more context to who they’re talking to and kind of get that full picture of who somebody is and what they’re going through at a given time.

I would imagine that you guys have some pretty interesting kind of use cases or data points surrounding that. What’s the difference from a consumer perspective? Like, if I’m using Skype or whatever and somebody can hop on and say, they can see my five latest tweets have said, “Freaking Skype, I hate this thing”…

Des: Yeah.

Brad: …or whatever. From your guys’ end, what’s the difference in communicating with somebody that way versus kind of going in cold? Obviously, we’re going to see a net positive, but what’s the real stuff about that?

Des: It can vary from product to product. I think there are many different forms of context. There’s place, time, awareness, knowledge. It’s all these different things, specifically, the idea of knowing more about a person.

Let’s say, if we’re talking about pulling in tweets or pulling in job title via LinkedIn, or Facebook, or say a summary profile via Twitter, something like that. Where that really lends context isn’t per se, it’s not specifically usually in the behavior of if by day seven this guy hasn’t invited his teammates… You’re not going to be like oh my God he’s a director of marketing at Coca Cola, we should definitely send… It’s not going to add context there.

I believe where that really enriches things is when you actually are going one to one and offering direct personal service to actually have a better background about who it is you’re talking to. There are other things you can do that are kind of clever. You can say, again, if you’re running a social media campaign, you might want to sort of say something like, “Well, let’s focus on the people who actually have Twitter accounts.” Or, “Let’s focus on the people who are active in social media.”

Or if somebody mentions your brand a lot publicly, it’s certainly true to say if you’re talking about a customer inside your product who tends to report issues within the product and externally over Twitter, that might change how you go about addressing them. You don’t want to end up having two parallel identical conversations where someone’s running your tweets and saying, “Hey we’re fixing this. Here’s how you do it,” and you’re also doing this inside your help desk as well or whatever.

That’s where I think the best use of additional information around a user that’s externally sourceable for context is really to inform a conversation. And where conversations benefit from being informed by back drop is usually when they’re one to one, possibly if they’re sales or high touch support. It’s like literally would you behave differently if I told you this guy was VP of purchasing at IBM or if I told you he was a student in the University of Texas.

The fundamental thing is yes, you would. Everyone likes to say we treat absolutely everyone identically, but they also do have different price plans. So that’s obviously not totally true. Yeah, that’s honestly where context brings most to the party.

Brad: That brings up a really interesting question then about would it be better if we could treat everybody absolutely equally across the board? Or at what level does it become genuinely better to treat people differently based upon that context? Isn’t there something to be said kind of for giving everybody the exact same treatment?

Des: In my opinion, I think you might blur two issues here. There is fair and appropriate treatment. Somebody who pays you zero dollars and has only ever paid you zero dollars for two years. And somebody pays you $100 a month for two years, it’s actually not fair, in my opinion, to prioritize or equalize the two cases. They’re not equal. They’re just not equal. You can see this. Companies from Basecamp through all the way to Optimize, they all have different degrees of tiered support, depending on the input of the customer.

I think what you have to focus on is treating customers fairly and appropriately for what the value that they represent to your business is, for literally how much you value that customer. That’s what you need to do. In fact, that’s one of the things Intercom does really well.

Oftentimes, you’ll sit down to a day’s support load. You guys might do, say 200, 500 – I’m just guessing numbers here – tickets a day sort of thing. Is it useful to be able to get back to your highest paying customers first? Probably. Is it useful to be able to get back to your newest prospects before you get back to your oldest free users? Probably.

The thing you have to bear in mind with free users is that they are valuing your service for free, but the flip side of the exchange is they have to accept that for you to continue to be able to serve them for free you have to focus on your monetization elsewhere. So for as long as they are happy to use your service for free, they also have to be happy with the idea that somebody else is picking up the paycheck and that person comes first.

That’s kind of a personal opinion I’ve long held. Free users are wonderful advocates of a platform. They’re effectively a marketing expense is what they are. But the best way you can look after them is to look after your business to make sure you can continue to serve them. When people talk about treating all customers equally, I mean, equally in terms of how fair you are to each customer.

Brad: Sure. Sure. Yeah, I actually love that parallel between the free user being kind of a marketing cost. That’s actually a really cool way to think about that. I mean there’s been lots of talk over the past couple of years, especially as we’ve seen more and more companies go to these freemium models where you can come on at the base level and you can use the service at a very kind of basic… It’s inside of this box and that’s all you can do with it.

You can do that for free. But if you really want great stuff, you’ve got to pay for it. I think that’s kind of been the talk over the past couple of years is what’s the cost of free. I think there’s a cost on both sides. There’s a cost on the customer side, and at the free level there’s only so much we can do. Then there’s the cost on the product provider side for… We have to pay attention to these people because every one of them could become a paying user. While they’re not a paying user, they’re still valuable to us at a different level as well.

Des: Yeah.

Brad: That’s a very interesting discussion. We should come back to that at a later time for a different interview.

Des: Sure.

Brad: I think that would be awesome. Well, Des, that’s all the time I’m going to eat from you today. I promised you 15 minutes, and I don’t want to steal more.

Des: Oh, yes.

Brad: Just as a parting shot, what kind of really awesome stuff are you guys working on with Intercom? What’s down the pipe that you can talk about?

Des: We don’t really speak specifically about what’s coming down the pipe. The best indication I can really give, in our announcement during the week we said we’re going to continue to focus on our product core, and we’re going to continue to deliver Intercom in more ways to more people. Naturally, the logical conclusion to that is mobile usually.

Yeah, what Intercom does today is supremely valuable for thousands of people. I believe that my personal strategy… And I’m not the one driving this within Intercom. I’m not driving product. What’s more important in my opinion when you’re involved with a product is that you don’t forget core. Not that you continue to add, but you don’t forget core.

I believe that improving our product is actually as hard as building a product in the first place. In fact, given an existing product people already love, you have to be delicate about how you iterate because the natural progression is to do whatever it does which is do the Microsoft Word approach of let’s build absolutely everything for everyone.

That’s not even necessarily a flawed strategy, because Word is obviously one of the… I think it’s possibly the most or maybe the second or third most successful software product of all time ever for sale. People like to throw up that toolbar and be like ha, ha, ha, look how these guys messed up. But I’m like yeah, I’m sure they’re crying into their bank balance.

But I do think that when you have a product that’s loved by so many different types of people as Intercom is it’s tricky. One thing that I believe that any good product team should never stop focusing on is improving themselves for the core jobs that people use it for.

Brad: Yeah. Definitely. So intercom.io is where they can find the Intercom site. Where can they find you because you do some blogging as well?

Des: Yeah. The blog is insideintercom.io as well. You’ll find it there. There’s lots. If anyone found anything I said here interesting, there’s lots more smarter stuff written by other people there. Yeah, I’m Des Traynor on the Internet. You’ll find me on Twitter, all those places, as just Des Traynor.

Brad: Cool. Well, Des, thank you very much for your time, and looking forward to seeing what you guys do in the future.

Des: Cool, you guys, too.

Brad: Thanks.

Des: Take care, bye-bye.

Image: Betsy Weber via Flickr

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