With a background in user experience, Des Traynor leads marketing and strategy for Intercom, one of the fastest-growing and most innovative communication startups to connect a business with its customers.
Elliott Adams: Intercom is very successful because it’s so unique and because it’s solving a problem people didn’t realize they had, in a sense. How did this come about?
Des Traynor: In 2007, the four founders of Intercom had a consultancy called Contrast, and we were very much inspired by this Basecamp style of having a consultancy and building a side product.
The project was called Exceptional, and it had thousands of users and was making money. It wasn’t a smash hit, but it was definitely popular. We were just four founders in Dublin, and the problems and the pains we felt all trickled out of Exceptional. Obviously, being in Ireland, you're not in amongst your customers.
DT: I often thought Dublin looked like a street in San Francisco where we had more customers than we did in all of Ireland. We had this physical divide from our customers, but it went so much deeper than that. In 2007–2009, the web and startup world wasn't very mature. There was no Stripe. A lot of technology was missing, so most people’s understanding of their customers was either an email list, which wasn't all their customers, or it was a PayPal dashboard, which was actually a list of active subscriptions. Everyone was widely out of touch and out of sync with reality in the sense of what people were doing with your product.
We had thousands of customers, and we didn’t know who the hell they were. And finding the customers who used us a lot would involve asking Ciaran, the CTO of Intercom, “Okay, can you pull an SQL export so I can get all these email addresses?” Then, if you wanted to talk to those people, you take this new export, run it into a Campaign Monitor and you write them an email, and then all their replies go into your Gmail. There was no good, structured way of dealing with six or seven hundred people replying. It just occurred to us progressively that there had to be a better way. The language I use to describe it now is not perfect, but it’s a lot more mature because we’ve been marketing Intercom for five years. But at the time, it was a very raw intuition that this just needs to be easier. Talking to your customers was a nightmare. The real and frustrating thing was that just talking to only your active customers was a seven-step process.
EA: Was there an inspiration from anyone in the enterprise realm?
DT: At the time, we were actually quite inspired by a coffee shop in Dublin we were at, a company called 3FE, 3rd Floor Espresso. They were just starting, and Colin, the guy who runs it, was the most in-touch-with-his-customers kind of person we’d ever seen. I realized over time, Colin was not dealing with email lists. If he wanted to try out a new bean, he was not sending people SurveyMonkey links. He was just asking people, “Hey, how’s that coffee?” Which, today, we call in-app marketing, or in-product marketing. He was talking with people in a store about the thing they were consuming in the store.
The very first iteration as Exceptional had this little star, which is our logo, that was in the photo of the product. One day, the star had a little note pop out that was apologizing for downtime. It was just like, “Hey! This is happening!” We realized it was so much easier to talk to our customers than anything we did before. From there, we built in a way to respond. We thought, what if our customers could reply? What if we could message some, but not all, of our customers? What if we could message them only at certain points of the day? What if we could do all of that through email? Today, you can sort of see how Intercom rolled out of that. But the key realization was knowing who your customers are and how talking to them is probably the most important thing you do as a product creator, so it needs to be really, really easy. That’s what Intercom is: our contribution to making it easy.
EA: With all things in this space, when you guys get success, everyone notices. Everyone’s like, “Let’s build our own Intercom, let's add our own Intercom.”
DT: Yeah, “Let's rip off Intercom.”
EA: Sure, or make Microsoft’s version of Intercom.
EA: So, just generally, how do you stay competitive in that way?
DT: When we think of competitors at Intercom, what we actually think is there are a few direct actual pixel-per-pixel ripoffs. It’s very uninspired and an awful waste of human capital. It really disappoints me. But for the most part, when we think of actual, credible competitors, it’s rarely the whole Intercom thing. It’s like, oh, we’re like a help desk, but now we’ve added in your little bubbly thing. Or, “Hey, we’re email marketing, but we’ve added in a way to push an in-app message.” So, people compete with us as a help desk but not as a marketing tool or compete with us as a marketing tool but not as a help desk. Our vision is basically making a tool that can help a business person do everything that needs to be done. That often leads us to times where we're doing things that look slightly irrational. We might spend months building a really great emoji picker. Our whole belief is that messaging is the way forward. Messaging is getting expressive, and anything that becomes the normal way for humans to communicate with other humans is what Intercom needs to do.
So, the way we stay competitive is by not looking at it like, “We need to take care of Zendesk or Help Scout.” I mean, they’re all great companies with great products, and they had their own original slant to begin with, so we obviously respect them. But our question is, how can we make business owners, product managers, support managers, and frontline staff feel more connected and know every need-to-know to do their jobs? We only really think of it from that point of view. What is the job they’re trying to do, and how do we make it as easy as possible or as fast as possible or as cheap as possible for them to do it? And that’s kind of it. I know it’s not a great answer as in, “Well, we have this one little tactic that gets us ahead of competitors,” but that’s honestly how we think about it.
EA: You're not just building a ton of random stuff. You’re just doing what you do really, really well.
EA: What’s exciting for you as a next channel or next step? Do you have GIFs on the road map, for example?
DT: Oh, yeah. That’s very much on the road map. You can actually do it today, but we are going to make it easier. But the stuff that’s exciting to me is anything that can make the human connection richer. I think our product team is way more likely to look at Snapchat for inspiration than a helpdesk system. That said, we’re very aware. Inside every company, there are two products. There’s the innovation, and there’s the table stakes work functionality. When you start, you may only focus on innovation because you need to get your brand out there. You need to sort out what you’re doing and what you're about. I think for the last while, we've definitely been doing a bit more of the latter.
How could we use video to connect businesses and customers? How could we use audio to connect businesses and customers? How could we use annotations and drawings and heartbeats from a watch? What can we actually do that will make people really feel connected with a business or with a customer? That’s the tale of two products inside of things.
EA: Do you do follow-up through these other unique channels?
DT: We’re actually working on that right now. The best way I would phrase it is the way we tend to think about these things is by what feels right. You’re interviewing me, and at the end of all this, we are going to conclude the interview. What would feel more natural? We just say, “Hey, how was that? Was it okay?” Or would you send me a survey tomorrow or an email later on, or would you shoot me a text message? The reality is, different things are appropriate. If I had to just mic drop and leave, you are not going to come running after me saying, “How was it?” So, I think the way you have to think about these things is by what is the most natural way.
Ultimately, our mission is to make internet business personal. Personal means appropriate to the person and the circumstance. If you’re having a live chat session, and we were shooting messages back and forth, and I answered your question, an email kind of feels weird because it’s an orthogonal direction to come in at, as opposed to just a natural conclusion. I’m like, “Hey, Elliott, just checking in. If this answered everything, can I just ask you to fill out this form?” And a little form pops open. Can you fill it out in context? I could argue that would work better and perform better when it’s actually the right thing to do.
DT: Versus other circumstances, where we could be talking over the course of three days while we’re trying to figure out some complex issue on your side, and at that point, maybe an email is more appropriate That’s honestly how we think about it. I don’t know where I’ll fall out on this exact thing. Maybe there will be options, maybe there won’t. Who knows? But I think the guiding principle is always what feels right from a personal perspective.
EA: So, different channels make sense for different customers and situations?
DT: Absolutely, we have no opinion on channels. We’ve created one proprietary phenomenal channel, which is the in-app stuff, but we absolutely support email, we support Facebook, and we support Twitter. We don’t really mind how businesses and customers want to communicate. We just want to make it great on all sides. And we’re about to add some SMS capabilities soon as well, but your analysis is totally correct: different mediums for different people and different circumstances. To give you a very simple example, you could start a chat, but then it gets really serious, like, “Oh, well, the order’s going to be $4,000.” You might want to loop in your CEO, and that might happen by email because maybe that’s how they work. We think it’s dangerous to take an opinion on channel because obviously, we have b2b customers, b2c customers, we’ve got marketplaces, enterprise, mobile apps. We don’t get to decide. We do our best to make sure that all the richness of Intercom is available in all the various means, but we can’t build an emoji picker into your email client. Hopefully, you already have one, but that is genuinely how we think about it. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only actual omni-channel communication system for businesses and customers.
EA: Are there any thoughts on helping your business customers have a sense of what channels work for what customers?
DT: Our best guidance is that we have seen a significant increase in performance when you talk to people inside your product, specifically when you’re trying to get them engaged and show them your new features. That just makes sense. If you’re in my coffee shop, the chances of me getting you to try coffee is much higher than me emailing you about coffee, right?
Similarly, the chances of you getting someone to download your book are much greater when they’re on your site. There’s a lot of intuition and actual data that backs up in-app outperforms, but it’s not perfect for all circumstances. You can’t talk to inactive users, for example.
EA: And are you integrated with services where users seem to be migrating, like WeChat or WhatsApp?
DT: No, not yet, but they’re all things we look at. When we look at integration partners, we look for either a large volume of requests on our side, or we look for it to be a good experience for the end user. Our customers go through us, and whenever that makes sense, we’re into it. That’s where our Facebook move came from, and WhatsApp could be a candidate, but again, the story’s yet to be written about WhatsApp. Well, actually, how formal or how serious they want to take customer service as a channel, if you like. But for sure, if it’s relevant, we’ll be there.