Quick Summary: Frameworks are great tools for helping us work smarter in support. Read on for an introduction to why and how to use them and learn about the Conversational Support Funnel, a valuable framework for combining different methods of support to create great experiences for your customers without overtaxing your team.
This article was created with the support of Intercom, provider of solutions and frameworks to help teams deliver personalized customer support efficiently. Thanks!
True story: when I was eight years old, I asked for a magna duster for my birthday. I was mesmerized by the infomercials that showed the fluffy purple bristles picking up dust like a magnet. Cleaning was, and is, something of a hobby for me.
Yes, I’m a classic type A, Enneagram 3, Myers Briggs Commander, insert-any-other-personality-test here — I land on some version of the high-strung
“achiever” every time. It’s part of why, as a support leader, I’ve specialized in operations, giving talks at SUPCONF and other events and writing pieces on things like metrics, forecasting, QA, and AI.
It’s why I love organization, systems, and tools that help me work more efficiently and have more impact. One such tool is the framework.
A framework, according to the Cambridge Dictionary is a:
- Supporting structure around which something can be built
- System of rules, ideas, or beliefs that is used to plan or decide something
In other words, music to the ears of anyone who loves a good system. A framework is a blueprint, a guide that one can follow to build toward a specific outcome.
Bringing the frame into focus
In addition to my time as a support leader, I’ve also worked as a marketer, and one difference I’ve noticed is the prevalence of frameworks in each of these functions. From the 7 Ps to pirate metrics to Brian Balfours four fits and beyond, there are a lot of frameworks in marketing.
In support, on the other hand, there are very few frameworks. It’s funny, because we possess and share an immense amount of knowledge. The thing is, we just don’t tend to package it into a tidy form that one might call a framework.
On the surface, this difference makes sense. A lot of marketing is about packaging things up nicely and naming them in an appealing way to drive awareness and interest (and desire, and action… aka AIDA, yet another marketing framework!) Meanwhile, in support, we’re focused on helping, often on a highly relational, one-to-one basis.
However, I’d argue that if the support community used more frameworks, we’d save a lot of time and effort. Instead of solving common problems and challenges over and over again, each time in a bespoke way, we could follow the formula laid out by frameworks to get to quicker, better answers and help more people along the way. Namely, one another, but also all of our collective customers — and in doing so, we’d accelerate the continued rise of the support function as a whole.
Codifying and sharing our knowledge through frameworks allows us to pass our knowledge along faster. With a framework, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you want to share advice. Frameworks also provide a clearer plan for the recipient to follow and a more effective, tried-and-true model for success versus a mishmash of unstructured insights.
Long story short, I’d absolutely love to see more frameworks in support, which is one reason I was particularly excited to hear about Intercom’s Conversational Support Funnel.
Intercom’s Conversational Support Funnel
The Conversational Support Funnel is a framework that combines three methods of support — proactive, self-serve, and human — into one model and details how to most efficiently and effectively use each one. These three methods of support are often talked about independently but rarely, if ever, layered together in a holistic and comprehensive way such as what’s laid out in the funnel.
This framework is specifically meant to be applied in a chat or messenger-based context using something like Intercom’s Business Messenger, but much of the theory and structure can be applied to other channels too.
In my past roles in support leadership, and in my work now advising companies on how to set up and grow their support teams, I’ve noticed that proactive support is often talked about as a relatively abstract and aspirational concept as opposed to an actual systematic way of providing value to customers.
Everyone wants to reach the land of proactive support but almost no one seems to have a map to get there, nor a template for how proactive support is related to and interconnected with other forms of support.
In terms of self-serve support, I often hear teams talk about this when it comes to ticket deflection and reducing budget, and occasionally as a boost to customer experience for those who know it’s a preferred method of support for most customers.
However, similar to the conversations about proactive support, self-serve efforts are often not connected to the proactive and human forms of support in a holistic way or strategic way.
Human support is, most of the time, seen as the default and blanket form of support for all customers in all scenarios, with the other two forms either chipping in on customer value or chipping away at volume.
Why it works
The Conversational Support Funnel flips the more traditional human-support-first model on its head and instead starts with proactive support measures.
I love this, because I’ve long said that the best support is no support. In an ideal world, customers would have everything they need without having to ask for it.
In practical terms, this means measures like:
- An e-commerce company sending out advance notice when they have a delay in shipping
- A SaaS platform pushing a message to help customers navigate a known bug
- Serving customers in-app onboarding messages that help them navigate new concepts and adopt core features
- Popping up a chat window for customers on a key purchase page to head off any questions or objections and drive conversion
- Monitoring customer activity and sending an outbound message when it drops
Some might argue that these last few are technically “customer success.” To me, it’s “tomato, tomahto.” There’s an increasing amount of overlap between proactive support and scaled customer success, and it doesn’t matter what you call it.
What matters is that you’re anticipating customer needs and providing for them in advance of the customer asking. And, that you’re looking at everywhere your customers come into contact with you, throughout their entire lifecycle, and identifying places where you can give them a boost.
In fact, if I were to implement the Conversational Support Funnel with any given team, I’d actually start with a full scale review of the customer journey map. For those unfamiliar, with a journey map, you go through an exercise to detail everywhere you come into contact with your customer and their state of mind along the way. This process always ends up surfacing points of friction, highlighting gaps between what users need and what you’re offering, and illuminating areas for improvement that can be turned into proactive support efforts.
At any rate, having proactive support at the top of your funnel and the top of your mind is so powerful because it ultimately:
- Reduces customer effort and improves customer experience
- Lowers inbound volume and saves time for your team
- Improves team morale when they don’t have to field questions and complaints that could and should have been addressed in advance
- Opens up opportunities to more directly connect support to revenue-generating activities like conversion, adoption, and retention
After filtering out inquiries that can be addressed before they even arise, the Conversational Support Funnel layers in self-serve next, which is a valuable double-down on the benefits listed above. In addition, because of the messenger-based context of this model, this is seamless and contextual deflection as opposed to the fragmented experience of a knowledge base and an email form.
For example, you could surface support articles directly in your app in specific places where you know customers frequently encounter friction or confusion, effectively delivering highly-contextual content that helps them help themselves. Chatbots are a great way to serve these articles because they can enable users to quickly navigate to the absolute best-fit article for their needs, and they present a fast option for getting in touch with a human for additional support.
Last but not least, the funnel reserves human support for the high-level stuff that only they can handle — complex issues, angry and frustrated folks who need a helping human hand, and high-value customers with whom you want to build a high-touch relationship.
When it comes to support, humans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But with customer expectations continuing to rise at the same time that support teams are typically operating on lean budgets, people should, most of the time, be the last touchpoint for a customer inquiry, not the first.
Making the funnel work for you
One thing I’ve learned in consulting with so many teams is that, while there are a lot of common challenges and opportunities — enough to make something like a standard framework a useful starting point — there’s also a wide variance in context based on differences in business models, customer bases, team composition, and cross-functional resourcing.
That means two things. First, the answer to a lot of initial questions when I’m starting work with a new team is “It depends. Let me ask you about…”
Second, this wide variance also means that when you encounter something like a framework, where there is somewhat of a standard recommendation being made, you need to apply discretion.
Start at the beginning
First of all, is this an initiative that you should even be prioritizing? In my experience it’s not uncommon for a team to jump on the latest trend only to realize it wasn’t the right trend for them, wasting valuable time in the process.
In the case of the Conversational Support Funnel, I’d first encourage you to consider your current position with messenger-based support.
Are you already using chat to support your customers? If so, how’s that going? Are customers using this channel or is it relatively underutilized? If the former, what’s your hypothesis? Is it because it’s the wrong channel fit for your customer base, because you’re not offering this option in enough places, or something else?
If you’re not using chat, how’s it going on your existing channels? Do you have a solid foundation and enough staffing to handle a new, often more synchronous-channel with higher response time expectations?
The answers to these questions will inform whether or not you’d want to prioritize this for your team. Generally speaking, I’d recommend giving this funnel a serious look if:
- You’re already using chat-based support to some degree of success
- You’re not using chat and you have solid support on your existing channels
- You’re ready to dedicate some time to strategy and implementation
- You don’t have other more important and pressing priorities, for example, a major launch, development of a new business unit, or other effort that will be taking up a disproportionate amount of your time and focus
In a nutshell, as excited as I am personally about frameworks in general and the Conversational Support Funnel, figuring out what you should be prioritizing is a process.
Similarly, a framework is an amazing recipe. But, as all good cooks know, you can and should add a little more salt if it suits you (and butter, always add more butter).
In other words, there’s a second layer of discretion here. And one of the nice things about this framework is that you can pick and choose different pieces of it. For example, maybe you have a super limited budget. If you don’t have the funding to hire all the people you need to staff inbound volume, you might choose to prioritize the proactive and self-serve measures that help you stretch that budget, without necessarily offering the live chat support that would require more people on your team.
So, once you’ve decided this is something you’d like to focus on, you then need to use your understanding of your specific situation and your own critical thinking skills to help fit the framework to your needs. In addition to everything I mentioned above, there will of course be nuance based on your industry, business, and customer base to consider.
The Conversational Support Funnel is a flexible framework — you don’t have to use every piece of it exactly, and you don’t have to use every piece within a messenger context, specifically (though if you do, the benefits will be compounded through each piece you implement).
Bringing it all together
To wrap things up, the true power of the Conversational Support Funnel is that it combines three methods of support in a measured way to encourage teams to make the most of each and to build on one cohesive and overarching approach instead of a patchwork of different tactics.
In this way, every inquiry is answered with the method most suited to it and teams can provide fast and personal service at scale, even with limited resources, which keeps our customers happy and our teams fulfilled.
In addition, following this funnel framework means you get a fast track to results — you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or triangulate insights across all these different areas. Instead, you can apply a tried-and-true model developed through the expert experiences of others in the field.
But as I’ve mentioned, it’s important to go through an evaluation process to determine if any new framework is right for you at the present moment, and if so, exactly how it can be applied to your unique situation.
If you’d like to explore further, Intercom has put together an in-depth Starter Kit to help you learn more about the framework so you can start lining it up with your own operations.
The kit includes:
- The full scoop on the framework
- An interactive worksheet to help you plan your funnel
- Tactics for fast and personal issue response
- Advice on what to measure and how to get buy-in for your support program
Should you use a framework in customer support? Read more here.
Keep an eye on our blog, where we’ll be going deeper on the recent shifts in customer support that make this funnel even more compelling, moving from proactive to reactive support and using the funnel to do it, and the current landscape of support trends and how to hook into them to make a business case for your team.
About the Author
Nykki Yeager is a people-focused leader with 10+ years of experience in customer-facing roles in tech startups. She currently serves as CEO and co-founder of Flight CX, an outsourcing agency that builds world-class remote customer experience teams for growing startups. She’s also an avid home cook and baker, cat mom, and music lover.
Aprill Allen is the managing director at Knowledge Bird. She’s a specialist knowledge management consultant and certified KCS trainer, helping customer support and success teams deliver service at scale. April’s a painter, over-thinker, gin & tonic drinker
Nick Sauve is a customer support lead at ClickTime. He’s committed to supporting people realize their full potential and achieve their goals. He’s passionate about: education, the arts, technological innovation, and engineering. Nick plays D&D, tinkers around with smart home tools, woodworks, sings way too loudly for his own good, and brews beer.