Meet Intercom – the company behind those pop-up chats at the bottom of websites

The SaaS company has quickly carved out a leadership position in the business messaging space, with a valuation of $1.3 billion and a quickly growing number of customers, here's what you need to know


The business messaging service Intercom is expanding quickly thanks to the sort of venture capital funding that puts it into the enterprise software big leagues alongside the likes of Slack and Zoom.

Founded in San Francisco in 2011 by four Irishmen, Intercom provides business messaging software-as-a-service to clients like Sotheby's, Atlassian and Eurotherm. You know those pop up chat windows that appear when you are browsing a site? There is a good chance Intercom is responsible for that, with a bunch of customisation options and automated bots thrown in for good measure.

The potted history is that while working for the Irish software design consultancy Contrast, which made the bug tracking tool Exceptional, the four engineers recognised a gap in their relationship with customers in the digital realm.

The startup last raised a $125 million Series D funding round led by Kleiner Perkins in March 2018, which valued it at $1.3 billion. For context Slack was valued at $1.2 billion in October 2014 when Kleiner Perkins led a $120 million funding round in the enterprise software darling.

The platform

The Intercom platform hinges on live chat, but also has tools for engaging those customers with email and push messages, as well as a helpdesk solution.

The challenge is scale and being able to engage with all of these leads as your company grows. The answer, for Intercom, is building a business messenger platform that also incorporates software bots to do the "lightweight lead qualification in a way that leads react well to, and route that to [sales development] teams or more online material," as Brian Donohue, director of product management at Intercom told Computerworld.

In a nutshell: "Intercom is that software communications platform and our customers provide the humans that their customers are talking to, we are the software to allow that happen," Donohue explained.

"It connects seamlessly to CRM and contact centre software via integrations, so our mission is to make internet business personal."

In terms of the future of the platform, machine learning is the technology Donohue is most excited about, much like many of Intercom's SaaS peers.

"Machine learning is the answer to scale and to stay personalised," Donoghue said. "We think that will be the dominant way customers will speak to customers and bots are right at home inside the messenger. That is how you enable personalisation at scale ... our angle is getting that handoff from bots to humans right."

Eurotherm case study

It's a product that has proved most popular with fellow SaaS providers so far, which is not uncommon. Fellow upstart enterprise software vendors like payments giant Stripe and communications platform Slack both found early traction with their fellow Silicon Valley peers.

"SaaS is our sweet spot, but we have also seen traction across other industries," Donohue said. "Subscription companies that need to keep customers engaged and happy through the customer lifecycle is your typical Intercom customer."

That doesn't mean that more traditional enterprises haven't caught on yet. One British company using Intercom is Eurotherm, a unit of Schneider Electric that sells industrial electronic equipment.

The firm was relying on partners and field sales to reach customers, and traditional lead generation methods like email and webforms, so it wanted a way to become more digital in the way it reached prospects and existing customers for sales and support.

"We looked for something AI-based to run within a chat interface," Andrew Waterson, digital services director at Eurotherm told Computerworld. He became aware of Intercom around September last year and ran a free trial followed by a paid two month trial in the UK and USA.

"We were impressed by adoption from internal sales teams to the tool," he said. "We have a younger team in those departments and it felt natural for them to use the Intercom messenger to engage with customers and prospects.

"Maybe they wouldn't feel as comfortable on the phone and they were very comfortable on Intercom messenger, where there may be more space and time to find technical answers. They were quickly developing leads through the platform and sharing those with partners and we got better insight into the type of visitors we were getting through the website."

Since then the tool was rolled out to reps in France and Germany in October, on top of UK and US, but adoption has been a little slow beyond that, Waterson admitted.

"That tends to be the way within Eurotherm, it is not dictatorial and we want to get buy in," he said. "If it is another tool pushed from the UK that doesn't tend to work as well as letting the tool itself sell the benefits."

Intercom integrates with popular CRM systems like Salesforce, Hubspot, Marketo and Clearbit, but Waterson says that Eurotherm has decided against a direct integration because they run Salesforce in a private cloud environment. This means sales reps have to manually input lead information into Salesforce once they have been qualified via Intercom, for now. The company is planning to integrate Intercom with its internal MyEurotherm platform to share leads with partners though.

Waterson said that Eurotherm has developed 7,000 new qualified leads this year via Intercom, "which is larger than what we could achieve via all other prior lead generation tactics," he said, before admitting that they have "not capitalised on all of them yet".

The number of direct pricing inquiries via the Eurotherm website has also doubled since the introduction of Intercom.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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