May
14
2020
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Kustomer acquires Reply.ai to enhance chatbots on its CRM platform

Last December, when CRM startup Kustomer was announcing its latest round of funding — a $60 million round led by Coatue — its co-founder and CEO Brad Birnbaum said it would use some of the money to build more RPA-style automations into its platform to expand KustomerIQ, its AI-based product that helps understand and respond to customer enquiries to take some of the more repetitive load off of agents. Today, Kustomer is announcing some M&A that will help in that strategy: it is acquiring Reply.ai, a startup originally founded in Madrid that has built a code-free platform for companies to create customised chatbots to handle customer service enquires that use machine learning to, over time, become better at responding to those inbound contacts.

Kustomer, which has raised more than $170 million and is now valued at $710 million (per PitchBook), said it is not disclosing the financial terms of the deal.

Reply.ai — whose customers include Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Samsung, and a number of retailers and major ad and marketing agencies working on behalf of clients — had by comparison raised a modest $4 million in funding (with the last round back in 2018). Its list of investors included strategic backers like Aflac and Westfield (the shopping mall giant), as well as Seedcamp, Madrid’s JME Ventures, and Y Combinator, where Reply.ai was a part of its Startup School cohort in 2017.

Birnbaum said that the conversation for acquiring Reply.ai started before the global health pandemic — the two already worked together, as part of Reply.ai’s integrations with a number of CRM platforms. But active discussions, due diligence, and the closing of the deal were all done over Zoom. “We were fortunate that we got to meet before corona, but for the most part we did this remotely,” he said.

Reply.ai was founded back in 2016 — the year when chatbots suddenly became all the rage — and it managed to make it through that and then the subsequent trough of disillusionment, when a lot of the early novelty wore off after they were discovered to be not quite as effective as many had hoped or assumed they would be. One of the reasons for Reply.ai’s survival was that it had proven to be a builder of effective applications in one of the only segments of the market to become a willing customer and user of chatbots: customer service.

While a large part of the CRM industry — estimated to be worth some $40 billion in 2019 —  is still based around human interactions, there has been a growing push to leverage advances in AI, cloud services, and use of the internet as a point of interaction to bring more automation into the process, both to help those who are agents deal with more tricky issues, and to help bring overall costs down for those who rely on customer support as part of their service proposition.

That trend, if anything, is only getting a boost right now. In some cases, agents are unable to work because of social distancing rules in cases where customer queries cannot be handled by remote workers. In others, companies are seeing a lot of financial pressure and are looking to reduce expenses. But at the same time, with more people at home and unable to make physical queries at stores, the whole medium of customer support is seeing new levels of usage.

Kustomer has been taking on the bigger names in CRM, including Salesforce (where Birnbaum and his cofounder Jeremy Suriel previously worked), Zendesk and Oracle, by providing a platform that makes it easier for human agents to handle inbound “omnichannel” customer requests — another big trend, leveraging the rise of multiple messaging and communications platforms as potential routes to both speaking to customers and seeing them complain for all the world to see. So moving deeper into chatbots and other AI-powered tools is a natural progression.

Birnbaum said that one of its key interests with Reply.ai was its focus on “deflection” — the term for using non-human tools and services to help resolve inbound requests before needing to call in a human agent. Reply.ai’s tools have been shown to help deflect 40% of initial inbound queries, he noted.

“Some companies have been dealing with a significant increase in inbound volume, and it’s been hard to scale their teams of agents, especially when they are remote,” he said. “So those companies are looking for ways to respond more rapidly. So anything they can do to help with that deflection and let their agents be more productive to drive higher levels of satisfaction, anything that can enable self-service, is what this is about.”

Other tools in the Reply toolkit, in addition to its chatbot-building platform and deflection capabilities, include agent-assistant tools for suggesting relevant answers, as well as suggestions for tagging (for analytics) and re-routing.

“We are excited for Reply to join Kustomer and share its mission to make customer service more efficient, effective and personalized,” said Omar Pera, one of Reply.ai’s founders, in a statement. “As a long-time partner of Kustomer, we are able to seamlessly integrate our deflection and chatbots technologies into Kustomer’s platform and help brands more cost-effectively increase efficiency. We look forward to working with Brad and the entire team.”

Jun
15
2018
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Kustomer gets $26M to take on Zendesk with an omnichannel approach to customer support

The CRM industry is now estimated to be worth some $4 billion annually, and today a startup has announced a round of funding that it hopes will help it take on one aspect of that lucrative pie, customer support. Kustomer, a startup out of New York that integrates a number of sources to give support staff a complete picture of a customer when he or she contacts the company, has raised $26 million.

The funding, a series B, was led by Redpoint Ventures (notably, an early investor in Zendesk, which Kustomer cites as a key competitor), with existing investors Canaan Partners, Boldstart Ventures, and Social Leverage also participating.

Cisco Investments was also a part of this round as a strategic investor: Cisco (along with Avaya) is one of the world’s biggest PBX equipment vendors, and customer support is one of the biggest users of this equipment, but the segment is also under pressure as more companies move these services to the cloud (and consider alternative options). Potentially, you could see how Cisco might want to partner with Kustomer to provide more services on top of its existing equipment, and potentially as a standalone service — although for now the two have yet to announce any actual partnerships.

Given that Kustomer has been approached already for potential acquisitions, you could see how the Ciscos of the world might be one possible category of buyers.

Kustomer is not discussing valuation but it has raised a total of $38.5 million. Kustomer’s customers include brands in fashion, e-commerce and other sectors that provide customer support on products on a regular basis, such as Ring, Modsy, Glossier, Smug Mug and more.

When we last wrote about Kustomer, when it raised $12.5 million in 2016, the company’s mission was to effectively turn anyone at a company into a customer service rep — the idea being that some issues are better answered by specific people, and a CRM platform for all employees to engage could help them fill that need.

Today, Brad Birnbaum, the co-founder and CEO, says that this concept has evolved. He said that “half of its business model still involves the idea of everyone being on the platform.” For example, an internal sales rep can collaborate with someone in a company’s shipping department — “but the only person who can communicate with the customer is the full-fledged agent,” he said. “That is what the customers wanted so that they could better control the messaging.”

The collaboration, meanwhile, has taken an interesting turn: it’s not just related to employees communicating better to develop a more complete picture of a customer and his/her history with the company; but it’s about a company’s systems integrating better to give a more complete view to the reps. Integrations include data from e-commerce platforms like Shopify and Magento; voice and messaging platforms like Twilio, TalkDesk, Twitter and Facebook Messenger; feedback tools like Nicereply; analytics services like Looker, Snowflake, Jira and Redshift; and Slack.

Birnbaum previously founded and sold Assistly to Salesforce, which turned it into Desk.com — (his co-founder in Kustomer, Jeremy Suriel, was Assistly’s chief architect), and between that and Kustomer he also had a go at building out Airtime, Sean Parker’s social startup. Kustomer, he says, is not only competing against Salesforce but perhaps even more specifically Zendesk, in offering a new take on customer support.

Zendesk, he said, had really figured out how to make customer support ticketing work efficiently, “but they don’t understand the customer at all.”

“We are a much more modern solution in how we see the world,” he continued. “No one does omni-channel customer service properly, where you can see a single threaded conversation speaking to all of a customer’s points.”

(In actual fact, Zendesk has now started to respond: in May the company launched a new omnichannel product called The Suite, which bundles Zendesk Support, Guide, Chat, and Talk to give a unified view of a customer to the support agent. One more reason Kustomer needs to keep expanding what it does.)

Going forward, Kustomer will be using the funding to expand its platform with more capabilities, and some of its own automations and insights (rather than those provided by way of integrations). This will also see the company expand into other kinds of services adjacent to taking inbound customer requests, such as reaching out to the customers, potentially to seel to them. “We plan to go broadly with engagement as an example,” Birnbaum said. “We already know everything about you so if we see you on a website, we can proactively reach out to you and engage you.”

“It is time for disruption in customer support industry, and Kustomer is leading the way,” said Tomasz Tunguz, partner at Redpoint Ventures, in a statement. “Kustomer has had impressive traction to date, and we are confident the world’s best B2C and B2B companies will be able to utilize the platform in order to develop meaningful relationships, experiences, and lifetime value for their customers. This is an exciting and forward-thinking platform for companies as well as their customers.”

Sep
27
2016
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Kustomer, founded by Salesforce alums, nabs $12.5M to repair customer care

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-23-59-59 The need to contact customer support is the bane of many a modern consumer’s existence: not only is it likely that you are doing it because you have a problem that needs fixing, but you are inevitably sucked into a vortex where you have to sit on the phone for ages (or wait in stasis for emailed replies), repeat your details several times to subsequent assistants, and potentially… Read More

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