The phrase “customer service” sometimes seems like a joke, given all the barriers consumers must overcome to get their questions or problems resolved by big companies.
We’ve all been there: Trying to navigate convoluted phone systems to reach an actual human being; twiddling your thumbs while listening to lame hold music; getting bounced from department to department and being forced to explain your problem over and over again; having arguments with call center workers. It’s enough to make anyone chuck their phone or laptop at the wall.
A small startup in Boston called GetHuman wants to bear those burdens for you. “Just hand it over to us, and we’ll do all the work for you,” co-founder Christian Allen says. “Our goal is really to try to bring down that level of pain customers are feeling, no matter what it takes.”
Allen’s company is rolling out an on-demand service that enables people to hire a GetHuman employee, aided by artificial intelligence-related software, to resolve their customer service issues for $5 to $25 a pop. This might involve getting airline refunds, disputing bank fees or extra charges imposed by cable companies or wireless carriers, fixing issues with social media accounts—basically any headache-inducing interaction with a company. GetHuman charges bigger fees for requests involving companies that require a higher level of toil. (*Cough* telecom companies *cough*)
The idea behind GetHuman began about a decade ago as a pet project of Paul English, Kayak’s co-founder and former chief technology officer. English wanted to make it easier for his father to circumvent robotic customer service lines and reach an actual human, so he compiled a list of direct phone numbers of customer service departments at big companies. He posted those online, but the website he created stayed fairly static for several years while he focused on his duties at Kayak, Allen says.
But the concept intrigued Allen, one of English’s Kayak colleagues. After Allen left the company in 2011, he began brainstorming and experimenting with software tools for GetHuman.
In 2013, he formed an actual company and began building out its services. Besides expanding the list of phone shortcuts to customer service reps, GetHuman has offered products like how-to guides for resolving customer service problems; free tools for calling companies via a Web browser; and (through a partnership with CallPromise, Allen says) a software program that will call a company and wait on hold for you, then call your phone when it gets connected with a human agent.
Now, GetHuman is taking the next step in its quest to be a go-to resource for solving customer issues. Its staff members have helped nearly 10,000 people through the problem-solving service since the company began testing it in December, according to a press release. Today, GetHuman announced the official launch of its new offering.
“This is a natural progression for us,” Allen says. “We started with free tools and information, and we’re always going to provide those. We’re moving toward the end of the spectrum where we take care of [the problem] for you so you don’t have to worry about it.”
GetHuman is betting that people will be happy to pay a small fee to save time and frustration. It might be worth it—a 2013 survey found that the average person spends 43 days waiting on hold over the course of his or her lifetime.
The return on a customer’s investment can be tangible and significant. Allen shares the story of a customer who paid $9 to correct mistakes in a shipment from a furniture company. GetHuman secured a nearly $5,000 refund for the person, he says. “What we’ve found so far is people are getting a lot out of their money for their service,” Allen says.
Sometimes the calculus has deeper psychological underpinnings than saving time or money. For some, it’s about avoiding a confrontation with another person, Allen says. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with that kind of confrontation, even if they’re in the right,” he says of interactions between consumers and customer service reps. Allen says he used to try to dodge conflict himself. “Now it’s my job,” he jokes.
GetHuman gets the job done with a combination of humans and software. When a person initiates a request with GetHuman, a simple online “bot” program gathers basic information about the problem (see below). That information is then relayed to a GetHuman employee, who handles the rest. “The bot already saves us around 20 to 25 percent of the total turnaround time it takes to solve a problem,” Allen says, but “it’s important for us to have that human touch,” he adds.
Still, if GetHuman is going to be able to serve a much higher volume of customers, it will need to get creative. “Scaling this is tough,” Allen says.
The startup’s staff and contract software developers are experimenting with ideas that could make the problem-solving process more efficient. Those include developing artificial intelligence software that could communicate with customer service reps via online chatting, and telephony and machine learning technology that would cut down on the wait time when trying to navigate to a customer service agent on the phone, Allen says. “Some companies, we’ve been unable to get through their customer service lines … in under two hours,” he says. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
In the meantime, GetHuman will expand its service the old-fashioned way—by hiring more humans. The team is currently about 10 full-time employees, but that could grow to at least 25 this year, Allen says.
The company’s expansion will depend on how well it can attract customers and keep them satisfied. Unlike most tech startups these days, GetHuman hasn’t raised any institutional venture capital. English and Allen have both put in some of their own money, and together they own the majority of the company, with the rest owned by the startup’s employees, Allen says. (English remains an advisor and sits on the board. Interestingly, he is also CEO of Lola, another startup whose product—in this case, a travel concierge app—is powered by a combination of human employees and artificial intelligence software.)
GetHuman has primarily made money by selling display ads next to content on its website, Allen says. It turned a profit in its first year and remains in the black, he says.
“I’m happy to say we’ve bootstrapped up until now,” Allen says, adding that the firm might consider raising venture capital at some point. “What we see in front of us is a future that we want to grow quickly. But to date we’ve been scrappy.”