Austin’s Step One Aims to Put the Customer in Charge of Customer Care

Calling customer service—or navigating the maze of an online help desk—is among the most frustrating chores for consumers who are dealing with product problems. Turns out, it’s not that much fun for the companies either. One Austin startup says its software can make the experience better for all.

“There are typical things that people call in about; we use this to predict the help that is needed,” says Alex Mitchell, Step One’s CEO. “Within five seconds, we’ve indexed the company’s help content and we’ll return a list of the five most helpful video articles and troubleshooting tools to address the problem.”

It’s not that the cable company or the wireless provider has suddenly grown a heart for us long-frustrated customers. Mitchell says Step One’s software can reduce the $1 billion a year those companies spend dealing with issues like laggard WiFi connections. “If we can drive even single-digit percentages of better self-service, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” he says.

The company last week released its software, called Contextual Care, which Mitchell says uses artificial intelligence to learn what problems people like you or me might have—and the best ways to solve them. “This is similar to a recommendation engine that you’d see from a Netflix or Amazon,” he explains.

It works like this. Click the “Help” button on an app or website that’s using Step One, and it connects to the CRM database Step One has created for the company. That system gathers information on previous reasons for similar help calls from people like you and it assesses your real-time situation. For example, you might be a new customer, or there might be a power outage in your area.

Unsurprisingly, Step One’s first target customers are in the telecom industry. Among them are Telstra, the largest phone company in Australia, and a US telecom company Mitchell didn’t want to name. Mitchell says most people would rather be able to solve the problem, quickly and efficiently, on their own and that Step One’s software helps them do that.

Step One is the latest entrant into what can be called the “smart” customer support sector, something my colleague, Wade Roush, has written much about from his perch in San Francisco. In fact, the Bay Area is home to a few companies, including Get Satisfaction and Lithium Technologies, that are using online, crowdsourced intelligence to help fix service glitches.

Lithium, in particular, tries to address customer service issues by, in essence, creating forums in which customers can present problems and respond to questions among themselves, tapping into a customer’s own knowledge and creating a community of fans for the company itself. Mitchell recognizes the power in Lithium’s approach, so much so that Step One is in discussions he says to partner with the San Francisco-based company to analyze their crowdsourced wisdom in order to gain context that Step One then feeds into its software. (Telstra is also a Lithium customer.)

“There’s only so many subject matter experts inside of these companies; this is free help from the crowd,” he says. “We put that Lithium knowledge into context so it’s not just random crowdsourced content.”

Other companies like Oracle, which provide content and customer relationship management strategies, attempt to address this problem as well. And telecoms themselves have been trying to use artificial intelligence to improve their own analytics internally. But Mitchell says Step One has combined the two to greatly improve the customer experience, including providing a feature where its Contextual Care software can learn from its interactions, refining the results that will be presented to the next frazzled customer.

The software also reviews outcomes, Mitchell says: Did you end up calling in to the help desk anyway? Did you tweet something by going on GripeO?

“It adjusts the content over time so the customer experience gets better,” he says.

In addition to officially launching its product, Step One also said on Thursday that it has raised $4 million in venture funds from Silverton Partners and LiveOak Ventures, both in Austin. (It had previously raised seed money from LiveOak.) The startup will use the money to double its workforce to 20 and move into new offices as it expands operations.

Mitchell and his two co-founders started Step One a year ago in an RV parked in the parking lot of Motive, an Austin software company where they had worked together. (Motive was acquired by Alcatel-Lucent in 2008.) Since then, the company has graduated to a two-bedroom apartment in Austin where the 10 employees are “crawling all over each other,” Mitchell says, laughing.

As it plans to move into new digs, the company is gearing up to tackle customer service issues in other industries, including the health care sector.

“This is one of the first times that businesses are engaging customers in a visible way one-to-one. Usually, it’s one-to-many,” Mitchell says. “We’re going to make getting help an effortless customer experience.”

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