Apr
22
2020
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Medallia acquires voice-to-text specialist Voci Technologies for $59M

M&A has largely slowed down in the current market, but there remain pockets of activity when the timing and price are right. Today, Medallia — a customer experience platform that scans online reviews, social media, and other sources to provide better insights into what a company is doing right and wrong and what needs to get addressed — announced that it would acquire Voci Technologies, a speech-to-text startup, for $59 million in cash.

Medallia plans to integrate the startup’s AI technology so that voice-based interactions — for example from calls into call centers — can be part of the data crunched by its analytics platform. Despite the rise of social media, messaging channels, and (currently) a shift for people to do a lot more online, voice still accounts for the majority of customer interactions for a business, so this is an important area for Medallia to tackle.

“Voci transcribes 100% of live and recorded calls into text that can be analyzed quickly to determine customer satisfaction, adding a powerful set of signals to the Medallia Experience Cloud,” said Leslie Stretch, president and CEO of Medallia, in a statement. “At the same time, Voci enables call analysis moments after each interaction has completed, optimizing every aspect of call center operations securely. Especially important as virtual and remote contact center operations take shape.”

While there are a lot of speech-to-text offerings in the market today, the key with Voci is that it is able to discern a number of other details in the call, including emotion, gender, sentiment, and voice biometric identity. It’s also able to filter out personal identifiable information to ensure more privacy around using the data for further analytics.

Voci started life as a spinout from Carnegie Mellon University (its three founders were all PhDs from the school), and it had raised a total of about $18 million from investors that included Grotech Ventures, Harbert Growth Parnters, and the university itself. It was last valued at $28 million in March 2018 (during a Series B raise), meaning that today’s acquisition was slightly more than double that value.

The company seems to have been on an upswing with its business. Voci has to date processed some 2 billion minutes of speech, and in January, the company published some momentum numbers that said bookings had grown some 63% in the last quarter, boosted by contact center customers.

In addition to contact centers, the company catered to companies in finance, healthcare, insurance and others areas of business process outsourcing, although it does not disclose names. As with all companies and organizations that have products that cater to offering services remotely, Voci has seen stronger demand for its business in recent weeks, at a time when many have curtailed physical contact due to COVID-19-related movement restrictions.

“Our whole company is delighted to be joining forces with experience management leader Medallia. We are thrilled that Voci’s powerful speech to text capabilities will become part of Medallia Experience Cloud,” said Mike Coney, CEO of Voci, in a statement. “The consolidation of all contact center signals with video, survey and other critical feedback is a game changer for the industry.”

It’s not clear whether Voci had been trying to raise money in the last few months, or if this was a proactive approach from Medallia. But more generally, M&A has found itself in a particularly key position in the world of tech: startups are finding it more challenging right now to raise money, and one big question has been whether that will lead to more hail-mary-style M&A plays, as one route for promising businesses and technologies to avoid shutting down altogether.

For its part, Medallia, which went public in July 2019 after raising money from the likes of Sequoia, has seen its stock hit like the rest of the market in recent weeks. Its current market cap is at around $2.8 billion, just $400 million more than its last private valuation.

The deal is expected to close in May 2020, Medallia said.

 

Apr
15
2020
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Frame AI raises $6.3M Series A to help understand customers across channels

Frame AI, a New York City startup that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help companies understand their customers better across multiple channels, announced a $6.3 million Series A investment today.

G20 Ventures and Greycroft led the round together. Bill Wiberg, co-founder and partner at G20, will join Frame’s board under the terms of the deal. The total raised with an earlier seed round is over $10 million, according to the company.

“Frame is basically an early warning system and continuous monitoring tool for your customer voice,” Frame CEO and co-founder George Davis told TechCrunch . What that means, in practice, is the tool plugs into help desk software, call center tooling, CRM systems and anywhere else in a company that communicates with a customer.

“We then use natural language understanding to pull out emerging themes and basically aggregate them to account and segment levels so that customer experience leaders can prioritize taking actions to improve their relationships,” Davis explained.

He believes that customer experience leaders are being asked to do more and more in terms of talking to customers on ever more channels and digesting that into useful information for the rest of their company to be responsive to customer needs, and he says that there isn’t a lot of tooling to help with this particular part of the customer experience problem.

“We don’t think they have the right tools to do either the listening in the first place or the analysis. We’re trying to make it possible for them to hear their customers everywhere they’re already talking to them, and then act on that information,” he said.

He says they work alongside customer data platforms (CDPs) like Segment, Salesforce Customer 360 and Adobe Real-time CDP. “We can take the customer voice information from all of these unstructured sources, all these natural language sources and turn it into moments that can be contributed back to one of these structured data platforms.”

Davis certainly recognizes that his company is getting this money in the middle of a health and economic crisis, and he hopes that a tool like his that can help take the pulse of the customer across multiple channels can help companies succeed at a time when a data-driven approach to customer experience is more important than ever.

He says that by continuing to hire through this and building his company, he can contribute to restarting the economic engine, even if in some small way.

“It’s a bleak time, but I have a lot of confidence in New York and in the country, in the customer experience community and in the world’s ability to bounce back strong from this. I think it’s actually created a lot of solidarity that we’re all going to find a lot of new opportunities, and we’re going to just keep building Frame as fast as we can.”

Apr
13
2020
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How Adobe shifted a Las Vegas conference to executives’ living rooms in less than 30 days

Adobe was scheduled to hold its annual conference in Las Vegas two weeks ago, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to make alternate plans. In less than a month, its events team shifted venues for the massive conference, not once, but twice as the severity of the situation became clear.

This year didn’t just involve Adobe Summit itself. To make things more interesting, it was also hosting Magento Imagine as a separate conference within a conference at the same time. (Adobe bought Magento in 2018 for $1.6 billion.)

Originally, Adobe had more than 500 sessions planned across four venues on the Las Vegas Strip, with more than 23,000 attendees expected. Combining all of the sponsors, partners and Adobe personnel, it involved more than 40,000 hotel rooms.

Once it became clear that such a large event couldn’t happen, the company reimagined the conference as a fully digital experience.

Plan A

VP of Experience Marketing Alex Amado is in charge of planning Adobe Summit, a tall task under normal circumstances.

“Planning Summit is a year-round endeavor,” he said. “Literally within weeks of finishing one of those Las Vegas events we are starting on the next one, and some of the work actually is on an 18 or 24-month cycle because we have those long-term hotel contracts and all of that stuff.

“For the last 12 months, basically, we had people who were working on what we now call Plan A — and we didn’t know that we needed a Plan B and Plan C — and the original event was going to be our biggest yet.”

2019 Adobe Summit stage in Las Vegas. Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

After the team began to wonder in January if the virus would force them to change how they deliver the conference, they started building contingency plans in earnest, Amado said. “As we got into February, things started looking a little scarier, and it very quickly escalated to the point where we were talking really seriously about Plan B.”

Mar
26
2020
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Yaguara nabs $7.2M seed to help e-commerce companies understand customers better

Yaguara, a Denver-based startup that wants to help e-commerce companies understand their customers better to deliver more meaningful experiences, announced a $7.2 million seed investment today.

The round was led by Foundation Capital with participation from Gradient Ventures, Rainfall Ventures and Zelkova. It also had help from some e-commerce heavy hitters including Warby Parker, Harry’s and Allbirds.

Yaguara CEO Jonathan Smalley was working at an agency building specialized cloud tools for online businesses when he recognized there was a need to pull data together into a single place and help companies understand their customer’s behavior better.

“Yaguara is based on integrating data and having all their data in the right place. For us, it started with several dozen tools from performance marketing to your actual e-commerce data to your fulfillment and unit economic data — bringing that all into one place letting them see their data in real time.”

“Then our platform serves predictive and prescriptive insights and recommendations to individual users across your teams, so they can drive specific outcomes across the organization based on that unified data set,” Smalley explained.

Screenshot: Yaguara

They build that data set by connecting to a variety of popular tools to help understand what’s happening across the customer lifecycle, whether that’s customer acquisition through Facebook or Google ads or understanding shopping cart abandonment data or how often the customer has returned to buy again, all of which help build a better picture of the customer.

While this may sound like a customer data platform (CDP), Smalley says it’s actually more than that. While the CDP provides the pipeline to your data sources like Yaguara, it doesn’t stop there. He says it reduces the complexity of helping front-line marketing personnel access and query that data without having to know SQL or R or have a technical intermediary to understand the data.

While the company is young it already has 250 e-commerce customers using the platform. With the new infusion of cash, it should be able to bring in more employees, build more data connectors and continue working to build out the platform.

Mar
19
2020
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Even in the age of COVID-19, you need to stay focused on the customer

It’s easy to think, as we find ourselves in the midst of a truly unprecedented situation, that the rules of building a successful business have suddenly changed. While the world may be topsy-turvy at the moment, keeping your customer at the center of your business strategy is more important than ever.

That means finding creative ways to engage with your customers and thinking deeply about what they need as the world changes before our eyes.

As a small example on a local level, Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, Mass. has started offering same-day delivery to neighborhoods in the Boston area for a $5 fee and a $20 minimum purchase.

This is taking a difficult situation and finding a way to stay connected with customers, while keeping the business going through difficult times. It’s something that your most loyal customers will certainly remember when we return to some semblance of normalcy — and it’s just a great community service.

When you hear from leaders of the world’s most successful technology companies, whether it’s Jeff Bezos at Amazon or Marc Benioff at Salesforce, these two executives are constantly pushing their organizations to put the customer first.

At Amazon, that manifests itself in the company motto that it’s always Day 1. That motto means they never can become complacent and always place the customer first. In his 2016 Letter to Shareholders, Bezos described what he meant:

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Benioff runs his company with a similar world view, and it’s no coincidence that both companies are so wildly successful. In his recent book, Trailblazer, Benioff wrote about the importance of relentless customer focus:

Nothing a company does is more essential than how it engages with customers. In a world where online portals are replacing customer service centers and algorithms are replacing humans on the front lines, companies like ours continually need to show that the personal connections our customers craved were still — and always would be — there.

In our current crisis, that focus becomes ever more important and universal. In his last interview before his death in January, Clayton Christensen, author of the seminal book Innovator’s Dilemma, told MIT Sloan Management Review that while these organizations had other things going for them, customer centricity was certainly a big factor in their success:

They have all built organizations that have put the customers, and their Job to Be Done, at the center. They also have demonstrated the ability to manage emergent strategy well. However, they also have been in the fortunate circumstance where their core businesses have been growing at phenomenal rates, and they have had the presence of the founder to help, to personally get involved in key strategic decisions.

While you don’t want to appear like you are taking advantage of a bad situation, there are ways you can help your customers by thinking of new ways engage and help them in a difficult time. Many companies are offering services for free for the next several months to help customers get through the financial uncertainty we are facing in the near term. Others are posting free content and access to other resources on websites.

While it’s understood that some customers simply won’t have money to spend in the coming months, those that do will have different needs than they did before and you have to be ready to address them, whatever that means to your business.

This virus is going to force us to rethink about a lot of the ways we run our businesses, our society and our lives, but if you keep your customer at the center of all your decisions, even in the midst of such a crisis, you will be setting the foundation for a successful business whenever we return to normal.

Mar
04
2020
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Zendesk’s latest tools designed to give fuller view of the customer

Like many technology companies, Zendesk made the tough decision to cancel its Zendesk Relate customer conference this week in Miami amid COVID-19 health concerns. That doesn’t mean the announcements didn’t happen though, even if the conference didn’t, and today the company announced a major update to its Sunshine development platform.

You may recall that the company, which is widely known for its help desk software, made the move to CRM when it acquired Base in September 2018. A little later that year, it announced the Sunshine platform, which customers could use to build applications on top of the Zendesk platform.

It has been working to integrate the CRM tool more broadly into the platform, and today’s announcement is about giving Zendesk users a broader view of its customers. Zendesk has a great amount of data at its disposal about the customer’s likes and dislikes based on interactions with the help desk side of the house, and Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane sees the two sides being interconnected. At the same time, he’s embracing the idea of this all taking place in the public cloud on AWS.

“Our vision is really to have all the components, all the infrastructure, all the business logic that you need to build a customer experience, and customer relationship management applications, all on the Sunshine platform, all living natively on AWS,” Svane told TechCrunch.

All of this is in service of giving customers a better experience based on what you know about them. He said that the goal today is to retain and satisfy the customer, and the platform is designed to give them the data they need to help do that.

“In the old days, you went out and you bought a product, and that was kind of the end of the transaction. Today, through the convenience economy, through the subscription economy, it’s more about your long-term engagement with a vendor,” he explained.

He sees the platform helping pull all of this data together, while recognizing and acknowledging the challenges involved here. In fact, he is reluctant to call it a complete picture, calling that a false narrative other vendors are putting out.

“We do want to help our customers extract all the relevant information and to try and create a picture that is helpful across all these different channels, but we also know that the reality of it is that you have so many disparate systems right now,” he said.

He sees his platform with the engagement data on one side and the customer record on the other as a good starting point for this. “I think there’s a lot you can do to collect a lot of information and have an abstraction layer, and that’s what we try to do with Sunshine. We want to have an abstraction layer where you start working and seeing all of this data to get insights into your customer. And I think that’s much better start.”

Nov
14
2019
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Adobe announces GA of customer data platform

The customer data platform (CDP) is the newest tool in the customer experience arsenal as big companies try to help customers deal with data coming from multiple channels. Today, Adobe announced the general availability of its CDP.

The CDP is like a central data warehouse for all the information you have on a single customer. This crosses channels like web, email, text, chat and brick and mortar in-person visits, as well as systems like CRM, e-commerce and point of sale. The idea is to pull all of this data together into a single record to help companies have a deep understanding of the customer at an extremely detailed level. They then hope to leverage that information to deliver highly customized cross-channel experiences.

The idea is to take all of this information and give marketers the tools they need to take advantage of it. “We want to make sure we create an offering that marketers can leverage and makes use of all of that goodness that’s living within Adobe Experience platform,” Nina Caruso, product marketing manager for Adobe Audience Manager, explained.

She said that would involve packaging and presenting the data in such a way to make it easier for marketers to consume, such as dashboards to deliver the data they want to see, while taking advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning under the hood to help them find the data to populate the dashboards without having to do the heavy lifting.

Beyond that, having access to real-time streaming data in one place under the umbrella of the Adobe Experience Platform should enable marketers to create much more precise market segments. “Part of real-time CDP will be building productized primo maintained integrations for marketers to be able to leverage, so that they can take segmentations and audiences that they’ve built into campaigns and use those across different channels to provide a consistent customer experience across that journey life cycle,” Caruso said.

As you can imagine, bringing all of this information together, while providing a platform for customization for the customer, raises all kinds of security and privacy red flags at the same time. This is especially true in light of GDPR and the upcoming California privacy law. Companies need to be able to enforce data usage rules across the platform.

To that end, the company also announced the availability of Adobe Experience Platform Data Governance, which helps companies define a set of rules around the data usage. This involves “frameworks that help [customers] enforce data usage policies and facilitate the proper use of their data to comply with regulations, obligations and restrictions associated with various data sets,” according to the company.

“We want to make sure that we offer our customers the controls in place to make sure that they have the ability to appropriately govern their data, especially within the evolving landscape that we’re all living in when it comes to privacy and different policies,” Caruso said.

These tools are now available to Adobe customers.

Nov
13
2019
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Freshworks raises $150M Series H on $3.5B valuation

Freshworks, a company that makes a variety of business software tools, from CRM to help-desk software, announced a $150 million Series H investment today from Sequoia Capital, CapitalG (formerly Google Capital) and Accel on a hefty $3.5 billion valuation. The late-stage startup has raised almost $400 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The company has been building an enterprise SaaS platform to give customers a set of integrated business tools, but CEO and co-founder Girish Mathrubootham says they will be investing part of this money in R&D to keep building out the platform.

To that end, the company also announced today a new unified data platform called the “Customer-for-Life Cloud” that runs across all of its tools. “We are actually investing in really bringing all of this together to create the “Customer-for-Life Cloud,” which is how you take marketing, sales, support and customer success — all of the aspects of a customer across the entire life cycle journey and bring them to a common data model where a business that is using Freshworks can see the entire life cycle of the customer,” Mathrubootham explained.

While Mathrubootham was not ready to commit to an IPO, he said they are in the process of hiring a CFO and are looking ahead to one day becoming a public company. “We don’t have a definite timeline. We want to go public at the right time. We are making sure that as a company that we are ready with the right processes and teams and predictability in the business,” he said.

In addition, he says he will continue to look for good acquisition targets, and having this money in the bank will help the company fill in gaps in the product set should the right opportunity arise. “We don’t generally acquire revenue, but we are looking for good technology teams both in terms of talent, as well as technology that would help give us a jumpstart in terms of go-to-market.” It hasn’t been afraid to target small companies in the past, having acquired 12 already.

Freshworks, which launched in 2010, has almost 2,500 employees, a number that’s sure to go up with this new investment. It has 250,00 customers worldwide, including almost 40,000 paying customers. These including Bridgestone Tires, Honda, Hugo Boss, Toshiba and Cisco.

Nov
11
2019
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Salesforce Ventures invested $300M in Automattic while Salesforce was building a CMS

In September, Salesforce Ventures, the venture of arm of Salesforce, announced a hefty $300 million investment in Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the ubiquitous content management system (CMS). At the same time, the company was putting the finishing touches on Salesforce CMS, an in-house project it released last week.

The question is, why did it choose to do both?

One reason could be that WordPress isn’t just well-liked; it’s also the world’s most popular content management system, running 34 percent of the world’s 10 billion websites — including this one — according to the company. With Automattic valued at $3 billion, that gives Salesforce Ventures a 10 percent stake.

Given the substantial investment, you wouldn’t have been irrational to at least consider the idea that Salesforce may have had its eye on this company as an acquisition target. In fact, at the time of the funding, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet that there could be some partnerships and integrations with Salesforce in the future.

Now we have a Salesforce CMS, and a potential partnership with one of the world’s largest web content management (WCM) tools, and it’s possible that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Nov
07
2019
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Salesforce announces new content management system

Salesforce has its fingers in a lot of parts of the customer experience, so why not content management? Today, the company announced a brand new tool called Salesforce Content Management System, which it says is designed from the ground up to deliver a quality customer experience across multiple channels.

The idea is to provide a way for customers to create, manage and deliver more meaningful content across multiple channels from within the Salesforce family of products. The company claims it doesn’t require any kind of deep technical knowledge to do it, meaning marketers and product people should be able to create and deliver content without the help of IT, once the system is properly set up.

Anna Rosenman, Salesforce’s VP of product marketing for Community Cloud, Commerce Cloud and Salesforce CMS, says the company created the new CMS to answer a customer demand. “Our customers have been asking for a dedicated CMS. The systems that they’ve been relying on so far tend to be legacy tools that are hard to use and built for a single-channel or site,” she said.

Photo: Salesforce

While users can create more personalized content based on what they know about the customer based on Salesforce data, Rosenman says the key differentiator here is the ability to connect to third-party systems. “A hybrid CMS provides a native experience channel or touchpoint, but also gives you the flexibility to present content to any touchpoint built on a third-party system,” she explained.

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group, who has followed the Web CMS space for two decades, says this isn’t the first time that Salesforce has tried content management. The previous iteration was called Salesforce Sites. “They made big promises around that platform, got some major customers on board and then dropped it,” Byrne said.

He says it’s a major challenge to build a sophisticated multi-channel CMS. “It’s easy to build a simple CMS. It’s much harder to build an extensible, enterprise platform,” he said. He added, “There’s a lot of work they still need to do to feed other platforms around things like connectors, simulation, tracking, very advanced asset management (e.g., compound assets), object-oriented storage, etc.”

But Rosenman says the system’s built-in flexibility is designed to provide that, and even be used in conjunction with existing legacy tools if need be.

What’s interesting here is that Salesforce decided to build this tool, rather than buying a company and integrating it into the Salesforce family, an approach it has not been afraid to take in the past. In fact, the company pursues an aggressive acquisition strategy. This year alone it spent more than $15 billion to buy Tableau and another $1.35 billion to buy ClickSoftware.

In this case, in the tension between building and buying, it decided to build instead. Time will tell if that was a good decision or not.

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