Paul English Interview – Part 1 of 3

Paul English is the founder of GetHuman.com, which is a huge site that lists the best ways to literally get to humans at some of the biggest companies and organizations consumers have to call. Paul is also the co-founder and CTO of Kayak.com, which is an interesting travel site that searches hundreds of travel sites to get users the best prices and flights.

This interview was quite long (which isn’t a bad thing), so I’m splitting it up into three separate posts. The first part of the interview is after the “more” link.

1. What caused you to start GetHuman?

GetHuman was born out of my personal frustration with dealing with my local bank who had been acquired four times, and then with my cellphone company. The thing that makes me crazy with the cellphone company is that I pay them $100 a month, and the fact that I paid that much money and they wouldn’t let me talk with a human just seems outrageous. My bank had been acquired four times and each time [it got acquired], they made it more and more difficult to reach a human. When it was a little bank, it was easy, but the bigger it got the more impossible it became to actually talk with someone.

2. Your background isn’t in customer service, is it?

Not exactly. I’m a software engineer by training. Kayak.com is the fifth company I’ve founded or co-founded and in each of companies, of course, I have had to deal with customers and customer service. I’m someone who has always been obsessed with learning from customers and I think my skills have sharpened over the years. When I was at a company called Interleaf in Waltham, Massachusetts many years ago, at one point the worldwide customer support team reported to me That was my first exposure to IVRs and call routing and I found it fascinating. I spent a bunch of time with the guy who ran support to try to understand how it works. I even went out to Germany where we had some of our European support and sat in with the headphones on and all that.

At Intuit, I didn’t run any customer service, but the guy who ran it was a peer to me. We had 2,000 people in Tucson, Arizona and when I joined Intuit, one of the first things I did was fly down to Tucson and sit with the headsets on and listen to the calls, and talk to the reps and try and figure out how they experienced customers and how customers experienced them.

I have a patent pending for Intuit about a new customer service methodology I designed for them and I also have a patent pending for a newer customer service technique which we use at Kayak.com.com.

It is something I’ve been obsessed with. I always do very frequent formal usability testing as well. I think there are a lot of software engineers that claim they talk to customers, but as far as I know, Kayak.com is the only company that absolutely requires every employee to talk or email with at least one customer every day. Our programmers are not allowed to write new code until there are no questions from customers about their old code, and we give personal responses to every email we get.

3. What have you learned from the company you co-founded, Kayak.com and the customer service it has to provide?

We have seven million consumers who came to the site this past month and we are growing 10 – 20% a month every month We are a very fast growing company. With 30 employees, we answer every question the 7 million can throw at us.

When I answer questionably email, I’ll give them my personal cell phone number, which is also on my business card. We answer the phones when we are there. We aren’t always in the office, but we get right back to people. A lot of customers, since they are using an online product, just click our feedback button and send feedback online, but in any way they contact us, I am really just incredibly zealous about getting back to them and really understanding things from their point of view.

In my mind, there is no such thing as a stupid customer and you’ll never hear anyone at Kayak.com utter the words “stupid customer”. I look at every customer interaction as an opportunity to learn. For every customer who takes the time to call me, I assume there are a thousand other customers who have had the exact same experience and confusion, but they just didn’t take the time to call me. So I really appreciate it when a customer takes the time to email me or call me.

We’ve been wildly successful at Kayak.com as a company and extremely fast growing. Revenues will be almost tenfold what they were last year and if I had to attribute it to why we were growing so fast, I would say:

1. We recruited an unbelievably talented team.
2. Our obsession with us requiring every employee to talk to customers every day and the fact you can’t work on new code until there are no questions about the old code.

4. The company you co-founded, Kayak.com has an interesting policy regarding customer service. What is it?

I think it is the things we just spoke about.

1. Every customer inquiry gets a personal answer. Many companies will do semi-automated support where if you type your email, I can write software that says “It looks like you are asking about XYZ, read this FAQ and if you really have a question that isn’t answered, call us.” The guys at Kayak.com are really smart and they know how to build stuff like that too, but I don’t let them because I find it offensive that if a paying customer takes time to write me and in the end, I’m going to have the computer guess the answer when I know it isn’t 100% accurate and force the customer to come back to me again, I find it offensive. I require personal replies to every customer, every inquiry.

2. Every engineer, every employee has to talk to customers every day.

Look at some of the big companies who have bad customer service. I’m going to pick on Michael Dell’s company a little bit and say that they are in a “customer service death spiral”. What I mean by that is their products have issues, and instead of fixing the products and make them easy to understand, what they do is they just keep laying off more Americans, putting more people in India, putting more IVRs and computers in place, and tweak the systems for higher “call containment” rates.

When I actually learned that term, “call containment rates”, I found the term offensive. Different IVR manufacturers will brag that their products have a 94% containment rate in the financial services industry or whatever. What they are doing is they are containing the paying customers in IVR jail, and I just find it offensive.

5. What companies besides Microsoft are going to try and meet up to the GetHuman standards?

On the day that Microsoft announced, it was also announced that from Nuance (a leading IVR manufacturer) had signed up. I gave the keynote speech at the annual Speech Technology Conference earlier this week in New York and all of the manufacturers were there. A number of them have reached out to me and are interested in working with us on these issues.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t about me or GetHuman, it is about the consumers. Last year this stuff was really big news. When I first created my blog on this and I became this well known vigilante, everybody wrote about it. It was everywhere, but the coverage back then said, “My god, how did we let it get this bad?” so consumers were wakened and said “God, I hate it too” and that is all we did.

What we do now, is take something and just don’t say “God, I hate it too” but do something about it. Call up and complain, call the CEO’s office, whatever it takes. Tell your friends about it, blog about it, tell people about the good service and the bad service. If consumers demand to be treated with dignity, which means the consumer gets a choice in how they communicate, these companies will wake up.

I don’t think the CEO will change how he does things just by one guy calling up and complaining. I really do think I have some return on investment message to the CEOs that I have tired to point out, but what I think is more important is the consumers demanding their rights.

All I try to do at GetHuman (we are a non-profit initiative), we get a 100 consumers a day sending email to us and all I try to do is look at all the consumers of every age and ethnic group and learn from them and say “OK, is this really what they are saying to me and these are the systems I would recommend that would meet the consumer need, which is 90% of it, and 10% of it, I also think will help businesses be more successful, as we’ve done at Kayak.com.

3 Responses to “Paul English Interview – Part 1 of 3”

  1. Service Untitled » Paul English Interview - Part 2 of 3 said:

    Aug 15, 06 at 2:04 pm

    […] This post continues the interview with Paul English, founder of GetHuman.com as well as CTO and co-founder of Kayak.com. Part one can be found here and we’ll finish it up tomorrow. […]

  2. Service Untitled » Paul English - Part 3 of 3 said:

    Aug 16, 06 at 10:22 am

    […] Part 1 of his interview can be found here and Part 2 can be found here. I appreciate Paul taking the time to talk to me and provide his thoughts. Service untitled will certainly be talking more about him, GetHuman, and the GetHuman 500 in the future. […]

  3. CustomersAreAlways said:

    Oct 24, 06 at 4:31 pm

    Introducing the Customers Are Always Incredible Hall of Acclaim!…

    If you’ve been a regular visitor to this blog, you may have noticed the little “Incredible Hall of Acclaim” badge below the topic listing in the middle column of this blog.  This is a new program that I have to……