Brad Birnbaum, CEO and co-founder of Kustomer, is a youthful 40ish with a boyish haircut, a relaxed manner, and a surprisingly neutral accent, considering he’s Long Island born and bred.
I looked Birnbaum up after two customer support experiences I had with two prominent Direct to Consumer [DTC] companies: Untuckit (the shirt company whose distinctive triangular flag you so often see flapping over male bellies these days) and AWAY, the fast-expanding luggage upstart. Both brands, I noticed, are powered in their customer support operations via Birnbaum’s customer support platform. Likewise I figured out, once I poked around, that Kustomer is the muscle behind Rent the Runway, Glossier, Ring, and others; an impressive list, in other words, of the companies that have become the visible front line of the Direct To Consumer trend.
Brad Birnbaum, Kustomer CEO
Brad Birnbaum: I do think we’ve found our niche here with DTC, or the niche has found us. We set out to build the best customer support platform, period, and we didn’t intend to aim it at any particular niche.
But what has emerged is that these DTC companies are particularly emphatic about not breaking that chain of support, no matter what channel the customer is engaging them on. DTC companies don’t have the giant real estate footprint that traditional companies have. They don’t need stores in malls, or a flagship store on 5th Avenue here in New York or on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So, instead, they overindex on customer service and customer support experiences.
Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes.com: Agreed. But you’ve only recently come onto the competitive landscape of customer support platforms.
[Kustomer, which was founded in 2015 and went to market with its platform two years later, is a new arrival among these platforms, many of which I’ve covered here: The innovative, channel-agnostic NextOS platform from fast-growing Arizona-based Nextiva (check out my detailed article on NextOS); UJET, a mobile-friendly support innovator; Gladly (which is in part owned by one of its prominent customers, JetBlue); B2B-oriented TeamSupport; Bold360 from LogMein; and well-established players like Zendesk; Oracle; and Salesforce, among others.]
So why Kustomer? Why have these DTC companies decided, apparently en masse, to rely on your platform?
Birnbaum: First of all, because with us, omnichannel isn’t a buzzword, a marketing concept to paper over the same old siloed support experience. True omnichannel, done right, is a differentiator for us. Although everybody says they’re omnichannel, they really aren’t, if you hold strictly to our definition.
Solomon: And your definition of omnichannel is…
Birnbaum: Ready? It’s “a single-threaded conversation around a topic where you can converse with your customers on any of the channels you support.”
Now, of course, you’re going to say to me, “Well, yeah, Brad, that’s obvious.”
Solomon: Well, yeah, Brad, that’s obvious.
Birnbaum: But now I’m going to challenge you and say that almost nobody provides true omnichannel that lives up to our simple definition. Traditionally, if you’re a customer and have a problem with product X, your initial email complaint will result in the creation of a ticket, which will have an assigned team or an assigned agent or “owner.”
If you later use chat, and call in on the phone after that, and tweet in even after that, those will all be separate tickets with different statuses and different owners. In all of today’s traditional systems, a ticket can only be of one channel type. For us, that’s not how we see the world, so that’s not how we designed Kustomer.
Solomon: So how is customer support different in the Kustomer world?
Birnbaum: Say you’re the customer and you start out by tweeting. They [the company’s agent] not only could DM back to you, they could switch the conversation right there to email or to SMS. Literally it’s just one drop down [in the Kustomer menu]. So with Kustomer, you can honor the customer’s preference–or the agent’s preference, for that matter: The agent could decide, “Micah might’ve tweeted at us, but I want to respond through text, because it’ll feel more personal, more discreet.”
A second reason DTC companies love us is that Kustomer is a true CRM [Customer Relationship Management solution].
Solomon: Shouldn’t that be KRM?
Birnbaum: KRM. Absolutely. We are a CRM–or KRM, if you prefer–platform, and the consumers supported by the Kustomer platform typically share tremendous amounts of data to allow the enrichment of their support experiences. As a result, we find that companies are using our platform for more than support. They use it for marketing. They use it for engagement.
Solomon: One of the things that struck me as a consumer trying to do a complex return and replacement with your client (Untuckit) was how seamless and efficient it seemed, not just for me as a consumer, but for the agents as well. It not only took zero work on my part to fix what was essentially my mistake as a consumer, it didn’t seem like they were struggling at their end either. Is this your doing?
Birnbaum: I’d like to think we had a hand in that. One of the most powerful aspects of what we do is our business process automation engine as well as our newly introduced KustomerIQ, which is the embedding of artificial Intelligence and machine learning across the Kustomer platform.
With Kustomer, you can automate complex business operations to do the heavy lifting. Kustomer can help agents do their work by automating routine tasks like returning a shirt or exchanging it for larger size. Although that’s actually a four-step process: generate an RMA, check inventory for a larger size, then go to an order system and so forth, Kustomer allows the entire series of tasks to be automated and essentially feel like one task to the agent.
You brought up Untuckit, and they’re one of our customers that permitted us to publish a case study. They saw a 25% improvement in agent productivity when switching to the Kustomer platform. Now, as a customer service consultant, you probably realize that 25 percent sounds like a crazy number.
Solomon: On the face of it, that number seems insane.
Birnbaum: It’s an amazing number. I come from a world where if you could shave five seconds off a five minute phone call, you’re a hero. 25% is crazy. But we’ve got multiple customers giving us similar numbers. [Here’s the Untuckit case study Birnbaum provided.]
Solomon: Now I do need to defend companies with a more traditional retail model. It would be wrong to imply that only DTC brands want to provide extraordinary customer service and support. In fact, I wouldn’t have the pants or belt I’m wearing right now if it weren’t for Joanne, my salesperson at Nordstrom, which has traditional retail roots even though it has been innovating in its delivery model recently.
Birnbaum: I agree 100%. And I’m happy to say that non-DTC merchants are getting with us more and more. Just this month, in fact, we brought on Abercrombie and Fitch.
Solomon: Where are most of your customers coming from?
Birnbaum (misunderstanding the question): Referrals. We have such great brand advocacy.
Solomon: I meant the question in a more brutal, competitive way.
Birnbaum: Oh. Where are they converting from? Almost all of our customers convert from either Zendesk, Salesforce or Oracle. That’s the mic drop.
Solomon: Pretty soon you’re going to have a yacht in the Americas Cup.
Birnbaum: Yeah, but I’m not a boating kind of guy. I’ll stay here in New York and keep doing what we’re doing. It’s what I love to do.
Solomon: Good answer.