Balancing efficiency with experience in customer support: The story of Intercom Macros
When it comes to customer support, efficiency and customer experience tend to be two sides of the same coin.
Providing a best-in-class support experience might be a path to maximum customer happiness — but often at maximum cost. Likewise, companies focused on supporting customers most efficiently can end up sacrificing customer satisfaction.
So how, then, can companies offer both? How can customer support teams deliver a remarkable experience and operate with speed and efficiency?
For customer communications platform Intercom, the solution lies within Macros. Combining pre-written responses with common actions, Macros lets support teams increase their efficiency by 43% by standardizing workflows, eliminating tedious tasks, and completing multiple actions at once.
That dichotomy between speed and efficiency also lies at the very heart of how Intercom builds products, according to Jane Honey, Senior Product Director at Intercom. Leading the Support program at Intercom, Honey is responsible for keeping both Intercom’s customers and her product organization operating at maximum efficiency.
We sat down with Honey to find out more about how Intercom built Macros and to share some of their lessons learned with you.
Start with the why
The idea for Macros first originated in the summer of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Support teams worldwide were struggling to adjust to remote work while also juggling increased demand.
While Intercom already offered support reps the option of using Saved Replies — pre-written text snippets they could share with a single click — in their support conversations, Honey’s team began receiving feedback from customers who wanted to take that one step further. “Customers wanted to save even more time plus have more flexibility, like being able to create private Saved Replies for every agent,” explains Honey.
Honey’s team began quantitative research to identify where reps were spending their time and what they were clicking on most often, along with observing teammates using an Inbox (Intercom’s name for a teams’ customer support hub) to determine how they behaved when those inefficiencies were occurring and identify repetitive workflows. “We used the number of clicks teammates were making as a proxy for repetitive actions,” shares Honey. “We were looking at how we can reduce the percentage of overall inbox clicks that teammates were doing.”
“We used the number of clicks teammates were making as a proxy for repetitive actions. ”
What they found was that many customer service reps were repeating the same actions in each and every conversation — and all these actions were being performed manually. In fact, 43% of conversations were having a combination of repetitive actions all applied to multiple conversations. “We could see, for example, if they had to involve a sales team in a conversation,” shares Honey, “they would have to use a saved reply, save the conversation, tag the conversation, and assign the conversation to sales. And they were doing all these repetitive tasks for every single conversation.”
It was that analysis that became the genesis of Macros — but before the hard work could begin, Honey’s team had to narrow down exactly what should (and shouldn’t) be included in the feature.
Think big, start small, learn fast
Just like their product, Intercom’s product design and validation processes are also built for efficiency.
“Once we were clear on the problem, we then went into a phase that we call ‘Think Big, Start Small, Learn Fast’,” explains Honey. “Led by design and partnering strongly with product management and engineering, we’ll explore the various solutions we might build out for this feature” — for example, merging Macros with the existing Saved Replies feature rather than keeping each feature separate.
Customers played a key role in validating Macros right from the beginning, says Honey. “We went into a beta phase with some of our larger existing customers, sharing our problem statements and very rough designs with them early on.” The product team worked directly with beta customers to learn and iterate on Macros as quickly as possible.
Honey’s team also created early buzz among both customers and staff. “The PM was brilliant at generating hype around the feature,” she shares. “We encouraged beta customers to talk about the macros they were creating, posting them on our community forum, and sharing them both with other beta customers and also with us.”
The product marketing team also created a blog post listing best practices for using Macros, along with a “cheesy” demo video that went viral internally to get support and sales staff engaged before launch (regretfully, Honey declined to share said cheesy video with your writer).
“We encouraged beta customers to talk about the macros they were creating, posting them on our community forum, and sharing them both with other beta customers and also with us. ”
That early feedback helped Honey’s team see exactly where the value was that customers would gain from the Macros feature, and narrow down the exact scope the feature needed to cover. “The scoping was excellent,” said Honey. “The feature was relatively straightforward from a technical perspective, and while we definitely added a few features during the beta, this was a great example of the PM getting it just about right.”
How Intercom manages feedback from thousands of customers, prospects, and users
“As a product team, we’re constantly talking to our customers to understand the challenges they’re facing to help us prioritize what to focus on,” says Honey. “And because we use Intercom to support our own customers — more than 30,000 at the last count — we have a huge amount of feedback we can take into consideration.” They use this plethora of both quantitative and qualitative data and customer feedback to drive their product roadmap.
“We have feedback coming in from all sorts of routes,” explains Honey — “from prospective customers, churned customers, existing customers, wholesalers, customer service agents.”
Every piece of feedback is given an impact score depending on importance, urgency, and value. While Honey understandably declined to share the exact recipe, she did list many of the factors Intercom uses to prioritize feedback:
- Product health: How might a feature impact the operational health of Intercom?
- Vision and strategy: Does this feature or idea help us move towards our product vision?
- Product gaps: What are the missing features that existing customers are asking for?
- Product blockers: What are prospective customers looking for that Intercom doesn’t offer?
- Churn: Why are customers contracting from using specific features, or leaving Intercom entirely?
- Outcome reports: What feedback is the team collecting from new feature launches?
- Revenue: How much revenue is Intercom generating from the customers requesting a feature?
- Competition: How is the market changing, and how does Intercom need to adapt?
- Customer segment: How big of an impact will this feature have on our most important customers?
- Urgency: Is this feature or fix a blocker to using Intercom, a hurdle, or a nice-to-have?
All that feedback gets funneled into an in-house feedback management system. Says Honey, “We’ve built that all into one tool where we can see what the biggest, highest-priority features are to focus on. Then when we’re roadmapping, which we do every quarter, we look at all these different inputs and feedback to decide which features to explore.”
Of course, feedback can be a double-edged sword. Launching a successful feature made it difficult for the team to move on to other projects. “There was an urge to spend more time on [Macros],” Honey shares, “but it underlined the importance of starting small and being ruthless about scope. With such strong adoption, the PM chose to move on knowing that the more you start pouring [into a feature], the lower the returns.”
Scaling a product team efficiently through process
Intercom has maintained steady growth since being founded a decade ago. At the time of writing, the company boasts roughly 700 employees based in various locations around the world, 250 of which work in research and product development, encompassing product, design, engineering, and analytics. Honey explains that the company is aiming to add more than 150 employees in the next six months, bolstering their output with several more product development teams.
That kind of growth is only possible with a robust product development process and consistent team structure across the company. Product teams form the foundation. Each product team within Intercom is fully cross-functional, consisting of a product manager, an engineering manager, and a designer, along with 4-5 engineers depending on the team.
Teams with similar remits are combined into what Honey calls a group. Each group is led by a group product manager, a group design manager, and a group engineering manager. Group managers are responsible for the team members reporting into their group — a group product manager, for example, is also the direct manager of the PMs on their teams. “It’s a combination of a people management role,” explains Honey, “but also overseeing execution and defining strategy and vision for that area.”
Every team and group follows the same product principles and more or less the same product development process.
“Using the same process across every team makes it easy for everyone to understand how far along a team is with feature development”
The team is also constantly evolving its development processes. Says Honey, “We’re constantly thinking ‘How can we cut through and make it faster?’ We recently evolved our decision-making process and took certain layers out of the process to really empower teams to go fast and not feel like they have to cross every T and dot every I.”
Many product managers might find such a rigid process stifling — but it’s a key part of Intercom’s rapid growth. “We’ve been incredibly fast at shipping value to customers since the beginning,” shares Honey, “and that’s something we want to hang on to as we scale.”
2 key takeaways for PMs looking to maximize their efficiency
When the team launched Macros in March of 2021, the adoption rate took Honey by surprise. “They were absolutely over the moon at the impact,” she laughs. “We had a 30-day target to get 20 percent of our customers using [Macros], but we very quickly beat that — a few weeks after we launched, 38 percent of our customers were using the feature.”
What works for small teams often must change as organizations scale
Particularly for remote teams, efficient product team structure is key to scaling output while preventing the organization from becoming unwieldy. It’s also particularly important to have a more structured approach to product development processes as a company grows. At Intercom, for example, this structure has allowed Honey’s product teams to launch expansive features like Macros without fear of communication breakdown or coordination overload.
Here at Productboard, we follow a similar team structure: each of our Tribes (similar to Intercom’s teams) are focused on a single top-line problem, and include a PM, a designer, an engineering manager, and 4-6 engineers. This lets us keep each Tribe’s focus area stable — even as business and product priorities shift between different initiatives.
Use continuous feedback loops to improve your product
It’s not enough to simply collect feedback — you need to ensure that feedback is being used effectively to guide product decisions and inform strategic objectives. While smaller companies might not have be able to take Intercom’s approach of building their own feedback management tool, building effective product feedback loops is something every software team should put into practice.
- Make it as easy as possible for other teams to share feedback. Open as many channels as possible into your feedback management system — customer support tickets, sales conversations, and feature suggestions are all great sources of product ideas.
- Review feedback regularly. Honey’s team regularly meets to review feedback, before prioritizing feature ideas during their quarterly roadmapping process. A standardized product prioritization process helps keep teams aligned on strategy. Ensure each piece of feedback is given an impact score to aid with prioritization.
- Help team members see how their feedback is being used. Incorporate feedback into your product discovery sessions, share stories in team meetings, and call out colleagues in places you communicate. Don’t forget to keep customers involved as well — let them know when you put their feedback to work.
Efficiency and experience don’t have to be exclusive
What struck me most about how Intercom built Macros wasn’t the complexity of the feature or the challenges overcome by Honey’s team. It was the singular focus on efficiency — both on behalf of the support reps tasked with using Intercom’s support platform every day and within the product groups building the platform itself. Making efficiency a singular goal has helped Intercom grow from a scrappy startup into the customer communications leader it remains today.
The best part: that focus on efficiency has done nothing to dim Honey’s enthusiasm. “I love the fact that every time I have a terrible support experience myself, I feel like I’m helping the industry move to a better place. It’s really inspiring to be part of an ambitious team that really cares about the product, about changing how we work, and about changing the support industry as a whole.”