When I started working for Intercom a year ago, the initial reactions I received were people asking: “The live chat company?” And while that’s primarily the solution it’s known for, the reality is in this age where businesses flock to Facebook, Google, Slack, Kik, WeChat, and other third-party messaging services, Intercom wants to provide the same thing, but with a twist: It all resides on your property.
Facebook helped usher in the era of customer service by messaging with the launch of its chatbot platform. Until then, WeChat was the only user of this technology, allowing customers and brands to communicate through instant messaging, adding a real-time and modern way to discuss orders and service requests. We’re now in a world where these bot-like conversations can take place on Slack, Kik, WhatsApp, Apple’s iMessage, and others. And this has to be a boon to marketers and platforms — after all, shouldn’t you be where your customers are?
But there’s one thing that could concern businesses, and that’s who’s really controlling the relationship (e.g. the data, interactions, capabilities, etc.)? One could make the argument that businesses are better off letting bigger platforms provide the technology, but for in an age of GDPR and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the preference may be to have all traffic and information flow into a company-owned property.
So while Intercom’s main offering might be its live chat, that’s more a window into its true offering, including its marketing and sales lead capabilities in which all the data amassed funnel down into its customer relationship management-type platform. After six years, Intercom is extending itself to include third-party apps to empower businesses to be more personable, electing to focus on the psychology of relationships versus the tactics of reaching people.
Data for you, not third-party platforms
Online marketing methods have facilitated driving traffic to branded sites, be it through email newsletters and promotions, search engine marketing, targeted landing pages, data collection forms, and more. But in the era of real-time communication where customers just want to pick up the phone, open up an app, and complain, ask questions, or provide feedback, brands were largely left without any recourse save going to Facebook, Apple, Kik, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Many see messaging as a means to get things done — just take a look at the last time you had an issue with a cable provider, airline, public transit, or other business with known customer complaints.
“When you send an email, it goes into a black hole, or you don’t get the standard email reply with an FAQ,” Eoghan McCabe, Intercom’s chief executive once told me when I interviewed him during my time at VentureBeat. “When you see the messenger, you see that [someone’s] online. It’s more fluid. It’s getting involved in a far easier way. The hurdle to start a conversation is lower.”
Disclosure: Although I used to work at Intercom, nothing in this post comes from my time at the company, just from public information or my aforementioned interview.
It all comes down to a seamless experience to connect brands with customers. If you have a question, there’s more work involved to determine if a business is accessible on Facebook Messenger, Kik, or on Twitter. Instead, you might visit their website directly to look for contact information — it’s the source of truth for all your needs, including possibly the physical address of a retail store, telephone number, email address, contact form, or even the live chat where you can connect with a representative directly. And if the brand has a mobile app, there are ways you can integrate Intercom into it so that customers can remain in the app instead of having to jump to another app, thereby losing their business.
Having ownership of this chain of communication can be invaluable for businesses. “You’re connected to all this data,” McCabe explained. “The consumer-side feels like a friendly, fun messenger. On the back-end, it’s connected with all the data a business is interested in. It has live user data that can be personalized at scale.”
After six years, Intercom is seeing the fruits of its labor with the establishment of an app marketplace highlighting the tools which integrate with its messenger. Company Vice President of Product Paul Adams explained it to VentureBeat: “If you think about the customer lifecycle, there are great use cases…from people just browsing but interested in learning more to people ready to buy to people needing assistance,” Adams said.
He went on to explain: “For example, with people who are in the research phase of their purchase, you can use the MailChimp or Campaign Monitor app to collect their email and reach back out to them. With people ready to buy, the Google Meet or Aircall app allows you to have voice and video calls from within the messenger. You could then go on and use the Stripe app to help convert people from a trial to a paying customer, or to manage or upgrade an existing subscription.”
Although Intercom is a third-party service, I’m suggesting that instead of brands bringing their data and customers to Facebook, Twitter, Kik, Apple, Google, and other social-minded offerings, there’s value in having everything based on owned properties, including the ability to customize workflows without being beholden to Facebook, which may only roll out support for an integration if the masses request it.
At one point during my interview with McCabe back in 2016, I asked him about Intercom competing against Facebook Messenger. He felt the comparison was off, telling me: “We don’t need the data that Facebook has. Billions of pieces of data are helpful if you want to market to them. Intercom’s messenger is where the experience is owned by the companies — it’s a very different use case. Facebook Messenger is trying to grow the audience so they can sell ads. [We] believe we’ll be manning different messengers — there won’t be one app for them all.”
Don’t discount the power of live chat
Live chat may be synonymous with Intercom and this may not seem scalable or “sexy”, but it’s like looking at a glacier — you have to look at what’s under the surface. This messaging capability is the gateway to a lot of data that customers might give a business. Although it might be used primarily for customer support inquiries, Intercom has offerings in marketing and sales, so anything that involves customers (current and potential), businesses will likely find useful. From questions you receive from the live chat, you can use tools to turn them into leads, or reach them with marketing tools.
With its app marketplace, Intercom enables businesses to create their own workflows, matching the behaviors from other companies with marketplaces like Slack and Zenefits. Businesses can take the conversations and data that they have with customers and put them into a host of external services. Intercom is sitting on this pot of data and now it has established an ecosystem.
But while Intercom has done well here, it’s still far from dominating the scene, thanks to the likes of Drift, LiveChat, Zendesk, HelpShift, and numerous others. But its unicorn-like status following its latest $125 million funding round, gives it some good runway to take on its competitors and push further upmarket and capitalize on the enterprise.
When Intercom announced its last round of funding, McCabe told TechCrunch: “Intercom is the next generation customer database that’s specifically built for internet businesses. Salesforce is not built for internet businesses.” The latter has been the gorilla in the room for years, but what McCabe may be suggesting is that it’s main focus of lead generation and helping businesses interact with customers is tied to the days of old, while Intercom is more attuned to the needs of today’s business world, one where people are interacting across social media and accustomed to sending complaints, feedback, and making purchases through mobile apps and messaging services.
As the saying goes, it’s still “early days” to see if Intercom’s progress can continue to move upward, but as long as businesses want to retain ownership of their relationships with customers instead of going through Facebook, then there’s still an opportunity for Intercom to succeed. But whatever it plans to do, at its core will be its mission to make business personable and human, and that’s something customers seem to resonate with.