Making internet business personal: an interview with Intercom’s Ciaran Nolan

8 min read

How do you turn a transaction into an experience? Find out why Ciaran from Intercom thinks this is the key question SaaS companies should be asking themselves.

8 min read

We’re more connected to people and opportunities than ever. But connections ≠ relationships. Sure, Netflix is convenient—but does it beat nerding out with the local Blockbuster guy?

Well, maybe. But if there was a problem with your video, at least you knew who to call—unlike when Netflix goes down.

Intercom makes interacting with online businesses feel personal again. Founded in Dublin in 2011, these days they’re powering conversations for thousands of companies all over the world.

So when it comes to chatbots, they know what they’re chatting about. But their success isn’t just down to their products. They try to embody their company mission in everything they do.

We caught up with Sales Manger, Ciaran Nolan, to talk about the power of GIFs, customer service vs. customer experience, and the state of chatbots now the hype has died down.

Ever wondered what a form inside a chatbot would look like? Check out the Typeform + Intercom integration.

Adding that personal touch

SD: A lot of companies talk about creating more personal relationships with customers. Are companies seriously trying to do this, or is it just marketing speak?

CIARAN: Some talk about caring deeply about customer experience, but they fail at executing it. Our approach at Intercom is to make every interaction count.

We know that if we can create better outcomes for our customers, we can build relationships. If we build relationships, we start to build loyalty. And through loyalty you get faster growth.

SD: Do you have a specific example of how Intercom adds a personal touch to customer interactions?

CIARAN: The moment you create a trial on our website, you’re going to get a video from one of the sales team. That might just be to say, "Hi, welcome to Intercom. I'm going to be your point of contact," or it might be a video to help if you’re stuck on your setup.

Videos are a much more personal and engaging way to build relationships than sending an article or an email. Ultimately, we're a SaaS business—we survive off renewing subscriptions. So we need to build relationships if we're going to be a successful business.

SD: How do you deliver these videos?

CIARAN: When we started to experiment with videos, we thought we’d need a recording studio and really high-end equipment. But we actually found that we got more engagement with videos shot on a phone or laptop.

So I think having a slightly unscripted, less polished video gives it that extra level of authenticity.

SD: Has anyone been like, “Wow, I didn’t think a company would send me a personal video!”

CIARAN: Yeah, we get that a lot. There’s a perception of sales teams in tech that they always send templated emails. Often you get one chance to cut through the noise, and if you can nail it through video it increases engagement and conversion rates.

Almost every business is an internet business at this point. If Typeform was a physical store in Barcelona, you’d have that face to face interaction. So if you think of your website as a shop or a store: how can you take that offline experience and bring it online?

That's really what drives us to create a more authentic experience for our customers: the concept of making internet business personal. If we're not the ones pushing boundaries to make internet business more personal, we're not delivering on our values.

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Owning your interactions

SD: Do you have an example of one recent customer interaction that stands out?

CIARAN: The memorable interactions are probably when we recognize that we've made a mistake, or something in our product hasn't worked out for a customer.

We're working with an Irish company who are based a 20-minute walk across the city. Things were going really well, but they started to run into some problems. We were doing video calls with them—both sat in meeting rooms in the same town.

So just walking over to their office, sitting down with them, and actually being able to have that face to face interaction was really powerful.

SD: Having a little vulnerability makes you more authentic as a business, right?

CIARAN: Yeah, I genuinely believe that and it’s something we’ve had to learn. Intercom’s core product is our messenger, and that brings a whole new level of being personal. But at the same time, you're losing a large chunk of what makes up communication.

Almost all of our support team’s interactions are done through the messenger. So how do we replace the elements that we lose from not being on a video call or in person?

We use GIFs a lot. Which might sound quite cheesy, but they can defuse a really tricky situation or add a human element to a conversation.

Customer experience vs. Customer service

SD: Which other companies have impressed you with their approach to customer interactions?

CIARAN: Zappos were founded on this belief that to be successful, you have to create these ‘wow’ moments for your customers. On the surface, it's the same as many other online retail stores. But what sets them apart is being able to separate ‘customer service’ from ‘customer experience.’

‘Customer service’ is just the transaction of buying something. ‘Customer experience’ is everything else: from how people interact with the website, to how their customer support agents speak.

One example of their customer experience is that they always try to find a customer support agent who's from your city. So let's say you're in Chicago, your shoes haven't arrived on time for the party, and you're really pissed.

Suddenly you're talking to a person who's also from Chicago, knows the neighborhood you grew up in, maybe knows some familiar bar or café. So they’re creating a connection rather than just having a transaction, and that's what people really value.

Their longest ever customer support call was almost 11 hours. It wasn't even a high value customer.

SD: You have a talk titled ‘Your Brand Is Your Customer Experience.’ What gave you the idea for this topic?

CIARAN: Companies spend such a long time creating fantastic brands, and so many hours go into them. But if you don't deliver on customer experience, all of that hard work and beautiful branding goes out the window.

E-commerce is moving towards a subscription model, even in B2C. You can buy your garden plants, your vegetables, you can consume all your media via subscriptions. And it's just so easy to cancel.

Customer expectations have changed. They want to do business with companies that care about them, and who create an experience. So we need to create these emotional, memorable interactions with people—not just transactions.

Wondering how we moved from customer support to customer success? This infographic has your answers.

Think chatbots are dead? Rita disagrees

SD: A few years ago, there was a lot of hype about messengers and chatbots. Now you often read that they didn't live up to their potential. What's your perspective on this?

CIARAN: When Facebook messenger launched their chatbots, a huge wave of them started appearing on Facebook pages. And a lot of them were really, really terrible. So the hype died down a little bit.

Chatbots aren't there to replace a whole customer support team. But what we can deliver is a product that allows your support agents to focus on really complex issues, instead of answering repetitive or redundant questions.

Revolut has a chatbot called Rita. Her customer satisfaction score is higher than the support agents, because Rita can solve simple questions really efficiently—probably way faster than they can. Meanwhile, the support agents are solving complex things that sometimes can't be resolved.

Maybe someday we'll all be replaced by robots, but I don't think it's going to be anytime soon.

SD: Do you have any best practice tips for making good chatbots?

CIARAN: Start with a really simple problem, like ‘How do I reset my password?’ for your website login. Then be really thoughtful about how you scale it up, because you’re not always going to get it right. And when your bot doesn’t get it right, make sure there’s always an exit to speak to a real person.

SD: OK, last question: got any good stories to share about bizarre or funny conversations you’ve had with the Intercom chatbot?

CIARAN: Oh my god. I can certainly show you some.

I've had conversations where I've been talking to friends, and we just haven't realized it. And sometimes you'll hear a little eruption of laughter in the corner of the office, where there's some back and forth going on about last night’s football match or something.

Probably no stories that’ll make the blog post though!

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