Customer Support | 5 min read

Don’t be afraid of live sales conversations


Salespeople do not like the idea of live chat. We see it taking away our power to prioritize our time for leads and instead gives that power to whoever happens to be online at that moment. At Intercom, we’ve worked hard to change this way of thinking.

Traditional sales teams are often taught to pre-qualify their leads before even talking to them. Pre-qualifying simply means doing background checks on a company to see if they’d be a viable customer that will pay the bills, upgrade their plans, and succeed with your product. Usually this discovery is done before you even talk to them. Put another way, a lot of sales people look at a lead and see a dollar sign. No wonder we get a bad reputation.

As one of the frontline reps for inbound leads, I spend most of my time triaging a ton of messages we receive through email or via our Contact Us page. By adding Acquire, our new alternative to live chat, to the list of ways an unqualified lead could get in touch, wouldn’t that just slow us down? Wouldn’t this just increase the noise from pointless enquiries? Weren’t we relinquishing control of our daily schedules to be available to answer queries at a moments notice?

We decided the only way we’d find out was to give it a try. Our approach was to dive right in and try and adjust.

No one likes a gatekeeper

As SaaS consumers begin to wield more purchasing power we knew we couldn’t stick with the traditional sales approach of simply expecting to talk to everyone interested in buying our product. People can now just buy without ever having to talk to us. But if somebody does have a question, we didn’t want to  make them feel like they had to answer twenty questions before they talked to the right person. An interested party should never feel like they have to jump through hoops, such as filling out an impersonal form, to get an answer.

When we added Acquire to our marketing website, we stepped back for a minute to consider the end user experience. If someone is serious about trying your product, they’ll want to talk to someone right away. Live chat lets us take advantage of an important factor – timing – by letting us talk to a person who is online right now. We usually prioritize these conversations over others we’re having with people who are offline. By establishing an immediate connection with someone in real-time, you can score an easy win like this:

Previously we might have waited hours or even days to build rapport with a potential customer. Not to mention the longer a lead waits for a reply the less likely they are to actually become a customer. Now we can see when they are online and get in touch with them in minutes to provide faster, smarter service. It’s the kind of modern communications experience we’ve all become used to from the early days of text messaging right up to newer tools like WhatsApp. Chatting with someone paints a better picture of who’s sitting on the other end of the screen and the job they need to accomplish.

Another thing we can do within minutes is direct questions to the best teammate to respond. Sometimes this means we need to loop in an engineer or marketer. With a real-time conversation this can be tricky, because the other person might not be available to continue the conversation at that exact moment. This is why you have to be careful to set expectations for the potential customer.

Reframe your sales approach

Moving to Acquire fundamentally changed how the sales team works at Intercom. Here are four takeaways we learned in the process:

Make sales customer-centric

A conversation with a potential customer isn’t one-sided in real life, so why should it be on your website? Change your vocabulary from “qualifying” to “understanding” a customer’s needs. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer and try to understand their goals, in order to make the conversation meaningful for both sides. This lets you start building an important relationship right away.

Redefine your role

Similarly, ask yourself what it means to be in sales. Do you want to be a used car salesman, selling whatever’s on the lot? Or do you want to benefit from your customer’s success? At Intercom, we aim to function more like a customer advocate and consultant. This means understanding their specific use case, offering best practices, and putting them on a plan they really need – not trying to make the most out of the sale. That customer experience will go a long way in being a trusted source of knowledge and nurturing return customers who refer others.

Keep it conversational

Keep the tone conversational and human. Think of the different mediums that we use to communicate with each other (i.e. phone, chat, email). The medium you are using is chat, but the result you want is the same – to build a customer relationship. Keeping it conversational is a great way to build rapport or to diffuse angry customers. Keep in mind, it’s also important to match the tone of your user. Unlike more formal ways of communicating (like email), live-chat lets us be our quirky selves and every sales person at Intercom is encouraged to be themselves rather than being robotic.

Set realistic expectations

In sales we talk a lot about expectation setting, but what does that really mean? Setting expectations with your customers establishes trust and brings accountability for both sides. For example, letting customers know you’ll get back within 30 minutes, when your response time is typically 24 hours, is going to piss people off and discredit you. As a sales person you’re already fighting the stigma that you can’t be trusted.  Instead, be honest about your current bandwidth, thank them for messaging you and let them know you’ll get back to them as soon as possible.

Bottom line, don’t let live chat intimidate or overwhelm you. When managed properly, it can be an effective way to scale the relationship-building that is so critical in a SaaS sales cycle. Since we’ve started using live chat on our team, we’re converting more visitors into happy customers. And when it comes to sales that’s the key measure of success.