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What is customer intent? A complete guide

Customer intent goes beyond what customers say—it's what they truly need. Read our guide to learn how AI can help you better understand customer intent.

Von Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Zuletzt aktualisiert: July 10, 2024

What is customer intent?

Customer intent is the driving force that motivates a customer to a brand. It involves understanding your customers’ needs beyond the surface of their inquiries, enabling you to provide support that’s efficient, empathetic, and, ultimately, more human.

Delivering effective, empathetic, and personalized customer interactions hinges on understanding customers’ intent. Consumers expect tailored experiences where they feel heard and valued. Yet, scaling this approach poses challenges for many businesses.

That’s where AI comes in. AI streamlines workflows by identifying intents, populating support tickets, and equipping agents with immediate insights into customer needs to deliver swift support. Moreover, AI agents, pre-trained on real customer experience (CX) interactions, leverage generative AI to assess intent, resolve customer requests autonomously, and provide personalized support 24/7.

But that’s not all.

Keep reading to learn more about customer intent, including how AI-powered tools can elevate your ability to gauge and harness it to deliver more seamless customer experiences.

In this guide:

Customer intent vs. preferences: What’s the difference?

To truly understand your customers, it’s essential to distinguish between their intent and preferences, as each represents a unique aspect of their decision-making process:

  • Customer intent represents the driving force behind a customer’s actions—a specific goal or desired outcome they aim to achieve when engaging with your brand.
  • Customer preferences encompass the specific choices, tastes, and inclinations unique to individual customers, including preferred communication channels.

For instance, a customer may intend to reach out to a fintech company to dispute unrecognized charges on their credit card statement. Given the gravity of the issue, they may prefer resolving it over the phone.

Why is customer intent important?

Customer intent is crucial because it helps CX teams understand customer needs so they can deliver fast, personalized, and proactive experiences that boost retention and build customer trust. Leveraging comprehensive customer analytics—including insights into intent—further streamlines CX management.

The significance of customer intent is widely acknowledged among CX leaders: According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2024, 70 percent of CX leaders are investing in tools that can automatically capture and analyze customer intent.

70 percent of organizations are actively investing in tools that automatically capture and analyze customer intent signals.

Here are a few examples that illustrate why understanding intent is key:

  • Understand customer needs faster: An angry VIP customer who speaks French reaches out to your business with a technical support question. AI automatically understands their intent, routing them to your tech support team and finding an available agent who speaks French. Because it can also discern that they’re upset, it prioritizes the ticket based on their sentiment and loyalty status.
  • Create frictionless experiences: Imagine a customer wants to return an item. Engaging with an AI agent on your website, they receive immediate assistance. The AI quickly identifies their intent, checks your knowledge base to ensure the return is within the conditions of your return policy, and generates a shipping label—automating the process end-to-end.
  • Personalize communications: A client contacts a financial services firm seeking savings advice. AI recognizes the intent and promptly shares that information with an agent. Subsequently, an AI-powered agent copilot curates resources and offers recommendations tailored to the client’s financial situation and preferences, which the agent can modify if needed.

Customer intent bridges who a customer is (demographics) and what they want or need. By understanding this, you can deliver a more relevant and personalized CX and increase customer loyalty.

How to find and use customer intent data

Take the guesswork out of discovering intent. Here’s how to assess your customers’ goals and leverage that information to deliver better support.

Four tips to find and use customer intent data with customer service tools.

Use AI to detect and triage intents

While you can extract customer intent by asking customers questions and reviewing customer conversations, this process can be difficult to scale when done manually. AI-powered customer service solutions like Zendesk can detect customer intent automatically and supply that information to your support team in real time. That way, agents get the insights necessary to provide personalized customer service.

Additionally, AI agents can determine customer intent and use that data to resolve customer requests independently. Investing in conversational AI that understands customer intent is key—according to our CX Trends Report, nearly 70 percent of consumers believe that AI agents should have the same level of expertise as highly skilled human agents.

Cross-check intent with sentiment

Cross-checking customer intent data with sentiment analysis gives you a more nuanced understanding of your customers—neither customer sentiment nor intent alone tells the whole story.

A customer might contact your business to cancel their subscription, citing price as the reason. However, analysis of their sentiment data reveals overall satisfaction with the product. This combination of positive sentiment alongside the intent to churn presents a valuable win-back opportunity for your CX team to save the relationship by offering a discount.

Motel Rocks, an online fashion retailer, uses Zendesk AI to automatically identify customer intent and sentiment and gain a better understanding of conversation nuances. “I can go into the [Zendesk] platform and see, at a glance, exactly what people are contacting us about at this very moment and whether they are happy or sad,” says Lucy Hussey, customer service manager at Motel Rocks. Hussey estimates that sentiment analysis turns 70 percent of negative interactions into positive ones.

By using a customer service tool that detects customer emotion and intent, businesses can strategically utilize that data to address customer churn proactively.

Automate workflows

Intent data can also help admins make support more efficient. For example, you can route customer requests based on intent to ensure customers reach the right agent or team for their issue. Additionally, you can design workflows to help you proactively identify potential escalations situations based on intent.

Liberty London, a UK-based premium department store, uses Zendesk AI to intelligently route customer requests based on intent, sentiment, and language. This approach reduces manual triage and eliminates bottlenecks in customer service operations. As a result, Liberty has achieved higher satisfaction rates and increased the number of one-touch tickets, easing the workload for agents and enabling them to concentrate on more impactful tasks. It has also empowered Liberty to maintain operational excellence, even during peak ticket volumes.

Use insights to improve CX

Customer intent data enables your CX team to track, analyze, and understand the motivations driving customer interactions with your business. This invaluable information serves as a goldmine for spotting trends in customer pain points, anticipating their needs, and proactively addressing issues.

For instance, if numerous customers are contacting you about a particular issue with a product feature, you can relay this data to the product team for prioritization. Addressing the issue promptly helps mitigate customer frustration. Similarly, if password resets are a common query, you can create a comprehensive knowledge base article about it. This way, customers are empowered to find clear instructions independently, reducing the need for support outreach.

HyperJar reduced response times by 94 percent after leveraging AI to automate a recurring intent.

HyperJar, a mobile banking app, leveraged AI to automate a recurring intent, reducing response times by 94 percent. The team identified that 16 percent of customer inquiries involved replacing bank cards—typically, this required a 15- to 20-minute conversation with a human agent, not including wait times. By automating this process, HyperJar has eliminated agent escalations on this intent and cut resolution times to under two minutes for similar inquiries.

Frequently asked questions

Automatically capture customer intent with Zendesk AI

With Zendesk AI, you can deliver fast, personalized, and, ultimately, more human customer experiences. AI-powered intelligence empowers agents with critical customer insights to resolve issues efficiently. Taking it a step further, our intelligent agent assistant can proactively suggest responses to customer queries based on their intent, ensuring faster issue resolution. Additionally, you can use intent detection to optimize workflows, such as by intelligently routing requests to the right team or agent. Zendesk AI agents are the most autonomous AI-powered bots in CX, capable of comprehending and fully resolving even the most sophisticated customer issues.

Trained on over 18 billion CX interactions, Zendesk AI understands the nuances of CX. It offers robust security features and requires no training or lengthy implementation so you can get started on day one.

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