Intercom takes on Zendesk

Intercom takes on Zendesk

The News

Intercom is a conversational relationship platform that helps businesses build better customer relationships through personalized, messenger based experiences. It’s the only platform that delivers conversational experiences across the customer journey, with solutions for conversational marketing, conversational customer engagement and conversational support. Intercom is bringing a messenger-first experience to all business-to-customer communication, powering 500 million conversations per month and connecting 4 billion unique end users worldwide across its more than 30,000 paying customers, including Atlassian, Sotheby’s and New Relic.

On August 12, 2020 Intercom launched a new product release with more than twenty functional enhancement that are intended to ‘supercharge customer support’. The company says that it is its biggest ever launch and targeted at ensuring that its customers “can provide prompt, personal support without sacrificing power or efficiency”.

The twenty plus new features in this release cover enhancements across Messenger, Inbox and reporting.

As part of this, there are new bots that can be used in the messenger, new data attributes that conversations can be tagged with and new rules and assignment features that enable deeper automation of conversations. This gets augmented by additional view capabilities in the support inbox that help getting better overview and by offering more task bots to the messenger that help providing a high customer experience while automating jobs.

Additionally, Intercom improved its reporting capabilities by adding three dashboards covering conversations, effectiveness, and team resolutions with twelve new metrics plus improved filtering capabilities.

Lastly, Intercom changed the side-bar navigation by providing clearer icons, changing their sequence and renaming one of the core sections, Platform, to Contacts. This has the goal of improving usability.

According to Jane Honey, Senior Product Director at Intercom, the company is especially strong at proactive and messenger based support, while the part of Intercom’s software that supported human customer service, was not so powerful. This has been addressed with the recent product launch with the goal of combining the best of both worlds, the Intercom strength of enabling great customer experience via conversational and bot based support with the strength on the back-end side of ticketing systems.

The Bigger Picture

In general, there are two varieties of customer service tools. Historically, there have been ticketing systems that support the ‘traditional’ support channels like phone or e-mail. These have evolved well over years and work well for companies that implemented them. They offer powerful routing mechanisms to find the right person to answer an inquiry and, of course, have strong reporting mechanisms as well, to track and improve the performance of a service centre.

Then there are a newer breed of systems that base upon conversations and bots. Many of these started not as customer service systems but have their origins in marketing. Being newer, they often are not as sophisticated in routing incidents or in managing the performance of a service centre as the more traditional tools. On the other hand, a conversation is more natural to humans and, if combined with a bot, many simpler inquiries can be answered without being worked upon by a human service agent. Still, there can be any number of conversation requests at any given time.

As a result of this, the former variety of support systems tend to be better for the service team while the latter tend to provide a better customer service experience for the customer while imposing additional stress on the service agents.

Customers want reliable support, and they want it fast. They do not want to wait for prolonged times until their requests are answered.

Service centres want efficiency and scalability, service agents want and need a good user experience, too.

As a consequence of this, both types of help desk platforms are increasingly utilizing AI based mechanisms to identify the customers’ issues, so that they can be resolved via chatbots before the need for them to be addressed by a human arises. If they need to be escalated to a human then they need to be routed to the right agent, with the complete history of the current incident and enough of a history about earlier ones for the agent to hit the road running.

My Analysis and PoV

Intercom is essentially a messenger first platform in contrast to Zendesk and as such appears to be rather competing companies like helpshift or Kustomer. Still, according to G2, Intercom performs well in the upper right corner of the help desk software category. The company finds itself in a tight group with Zoho Desk, Freshdesk and, of course, Zendesk.

As the helpdesk software vendors are embracing conversations, bots, and AI to help their customers to resolve incidents fast and efficiently, the competition has become fierce. Additionally, this category is a playground for lots of nimble and flexible specialists that can easily compete with powerhouses like Salesforce.

Lastly, especially the bigger players are getting increasingly similar from a functional angle. Their capabilities can be offered via all relevant channels. The conversation is more and more becoming main the vehicle as opposed to tickets, and the internal efficiencies of the service centres are supported more and more – by all of them. The difference is that traditional ticket based vendors are moving from a ticket metaphor towards AI and conversations, while the newer breed of vendors that base customer service on conversations are moving towards internal efficiencies.

With its “conversational support funnel”, Intercom has a clear strategy on how to enable customer service, starting from proactive support that offers immediate, AI assisted support using chatbots, via improved automation and self-service towards direct support via dedicated service staff.

Coming out of the messenger area, Intercom has not been so strong in the latter areas, hence, according to Jane Honey, this was the focus of the current release, and the reason for Intercom pitching with the slogan of ‘taking on Zendesk’. What she also said is that businesses haven’t yet fully caught up to the shift towards a messenger first support model.

This is an important release for Intercom, as efficiency and a great user experience are as important as customer experience, especially in times where service centres get more and more decentralized and support operations out of necessity get more online.

Combining the conversational experience with the power of tickets and enabling service agents to be equipped with the customers conversation history and an AI that suggests good solutions to provide to the customer is the immediate way ahead. The ability to pro-actively provide support will help even more. The time of the search box that is not connected to a service bot is clearly over.

Let’s see how these enhancements pan out for Intercom.