How Customer Service Has Transformed in the Last 20 Years with Brad Birnbaum

22 min read

How Customer Service has Transformed in the Last 20 Years with Brad Birnbaum TW

Listen and subscribe to our podcast:

In this episode of Customer Service Secrets, Gabe Larsen is joined by the CEO of Kustomer, Brad Birnbaum. They discuss the transformation and evolution of the customer service experience over the last two decades. Brad started his customer service career by founding eShare Communications. As Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of Product Development, he helped create the first chat tool used for customer support. He later co-founded Assistly, which was acquired by Salesforce and rebranded as With his extensive knowledge and experience in the CX space, Brad knew where solutions in the market fell short. He decided to create what customer service agents were looking for and founded Kustomer, a company dedicated to creating a modern customer support tool for the 21st century. In this podcast, Brad and Gabe discuss how the industry has changed, the different channels being used today, and what companies can do to create rich support experiences. Listen to the full podcast below.

The Evolution of the Customer Service Experience

Customer Service has drastically changed within the last 10-20 years. With the advent of online support, customer service was done over chat, and it was very transactional in nature. Phone support was used, but chat options were preferred. Due to the creation of new technologies, chat use declined at first but came back strong. Channels like Facebook messenger, SMS, and web chat solutions soon became popular. Brad summarizes this point well by stating, “We were doing a tremendous amount of support through chat and I sort of saw chat tapering off in the […] 2010s. It wasn’t nearly as popular. And I think with … mobile phones coming online and then people starting to really text… chat just took on a new light.”

An Omnichannel Approach Creates a “Rich Support Experience”

Today, there are multiple channels used in communicating with customers. In order to create a “rich support experience,” companies need to consider their customer when deciding which channels to use. Brad specifically warns against singular channel customer service because it often creates frustration for both the consumers and the agents involved. Although phone calls generally come to mind when customer service is mentioned, Brad suggests that calling should not be the only option available. In fact, he recalls what issues surface when you focus on a singular channel.. “In those traditional systems, a ticket or a case can be a one channel type, a singular channel type. What that does though is [it] creates a really miserable experience for customers because, in the end, you’re going to get agent collision.”

Supporting Customers and Creating Success

Now more than ever, consumers are demanding excellent service from brands, and the bar is constantly being raised. Brad gives a great insight into what the attitude of an organization should be when it comes to supporting their customers. He states, “mak[e] sure you’re supporting your customers in the way that they want to be supported.” It’s all about the people. The more brands focus on their customer’s needs, the happier and more loyal that customer will be, leading to company success.

Brad shares a few ways to keep customers happy, but first he asks brands to remember that negative experiences travel faster than positive ones. Consumers immediately turn to social media, friends, and family when something goes wrong. Therefore, companies need to overemphasize the positive experiences they have and put all of their efforts into creating a quantity of quality experiences. Brad mentions that this can be done by having a “higher caliber of agents” with exemplary training. Having the right tools to enhance the training of the agents is also essential. Brad knows Kustomer’s product is the type of tool to “enable […] agents to be successful” in creating the support system that consumers are looking for.

To learn more about the evolution of the customer support experience and how that affects businesses, check out the Customer Service Secrets podcast episode below, and be sure to subscribe for new episodes each Thursday.


Listen Now:

You can also listen and subscribe to our podcast here:

Full Episode Transcript:

How Customer Service Has Transformed in the Last 20 Years with Brad Birnbaum

Intro Voice: (00:04)
You’re listening to the Customer Service Secrets Podcast by Kustomer.

Gabe Larsen: (00:11)
Welcome everybody to today’s podcast. I’m excited to get going. We’ve got Brad Birnbaum here, CEO of Kustomer. Brad, thanks for joining. How that the heck are you?

Brad Birnbaum: (00:19)
I am great. I am great, excited to be on my first podcast with you.

Gabe Larsen: (00:22)
That’s right. Kicking off the Customer Service Secrets Podcast. I wanted to have Brad on. Brad, can you tell us just a little about yourself and what you do over here at Kustomer?

Brad Birnbaum: (00:32)
Sure, my name’s Brad Birnbaum, CEO and co-founder of Kustomer. Been in the customer service space my whole career, started my first company in the mid-nineties, focused on doing internet-based customer service. We were one of the first companies doing so. We used to be the online customer service for companies like Microsoft, Dell, Sprint, AOL, et cetera. And, I’ve just been a part of many, many companies along the way and on that journey, had a couple of great exits. Fast forward a little further along, I co-founded Assistly in 2009 and we’re all about SMB, SaaS services. It was kind of awesome back then and we were doing real, real well. It was frankly 18 months from–

Gabe Larsen: (01:13)
That’s so cool!

Brad Birnbaum: (01:14)
[inaudible] from Salesforce and it was a super fun ride being a part of Salesforce, but ultimately –

Gabe Larsen: (01:22)
Three years with Salesforce. Right?

Brad Birnbaum: (01:22)
I spent three years with Salesforce.

Gabe Larsen: (01:24)
And what were you doing over there?

Brad Birnbaum: (01:25)
Well, when Salesforce bought Assistly they rebranded it to and that was our SMB play for customer support.

Gabe Larsen: (01:33)

Brad Birnbaum: (01:33)
And we were very focused on that; frankly, doing well. But, decided that there was a bigger vision out there. And, we just saw the opportunity to do something in a much more modern way than what Salesforce was doing at the time. We understood the value of the Salesforce platform, but it was 20 years old. It was built in a different generation; I would argue almost two generations ago. It was built pre-AWS, it was built pre-mobile, the tech around it was different, there was no such thing as documents stores, and was built on RDMAs. We knew that the world needed a better version of it and decided to set forth and create Kustomer with that in mind. Right? So we wanted to reinvent, or re-imagine the customer service space.

Gabe Larsen: (02:18)
Yep, yep.

Brad Birnbaum: (02:18)
So, the platform first approach. It took us over two years to build our platform and our platform was designed to know everything about customers, to be able to take that information that company has acquired about customers and use it to enhance support experiences.

Gabe Larsen: (02:34)
I love it. I love it.

Brad Birnbaum: (02:34)
Use it to present support agents with the relevant data they need to provide that optimal support experience customers want. Use it to automate routine and mundane tasks in RPA like fashion with our business process automation, especially in retail. We’re seeing just amazing benefits and efficiencies around that and overall improvements in customer satisfaction. It’s been a great journey and, Kustomer is about five years old now and it’s starting to transform the world.

Gabe Larsen: (02:58)
I love it. I love it. Well, let’s get into that. I think that’s a good introduction. 20 plus years in customer service. You highlighted a little bit, some of the challenge, but also what customer service looked like back then. And then as we start to translate into, what it does look like now, how would you paint that picture of some of the big changes?

Brad Birnbaum: (03:19)
So, it was back in the 90s and early two thousands, it was super transactional in nature.

Gabe Larsen: (03:25)

Brad Birnbaum: (03:25)
We still see some people’s view of that as transactional in nature, but it was, it was very transactional in nature. In the late nineties and early two thousands, we saw chat as a really up and coming channel and everybody was jumping on chat.

Gabe Larsen: (03:38)
But that would have been new because phone was–

Brad Birnbaum: (03:41)
Yeah it was. Phone and email was coming online, but we saw a lot of chat. We were doing a tremendous amount of support through chat and I sort of saw chat tapering off in the two thousand and 2010s. It wasn’t nearly as popular. And I think with the resurgence of, well mobile coming along, mobile phones coming online and then people starting to really, you know, text and things went right. Chat just took on a new light.

Gabe Larsen: (04:06)
Right, right, right.

Brad Birnbaum: (04:06)
It’s become an incredibly popular channel and all forms of chat, right? Whether it be web chat, mobile chat, whether it be Facebook messenger, chat, texting, et cetera, et cetera. We’re just seeing that being super–

Gabe Larsen: (04:16)
That is, I mean, you saw back in the 90s, but chat has kind of reemerged. Is it due to the mobile? [inaudible]

Brad Birnbaum: (04:21)
I do think so. I do think so.

Gabe Larsen: (04:22)
It’s old but new.

Brad Birnbaum: (04:22)
I think so. Think about how we communicate nowadays. I communicate probably more through various forms of texting, anything from Slack, to texting, to even LinkedIn messenger. It’s all, it’s all text-based, right? The amount of time I spend on actual phone calls is far less than it was 10, 20 years ago.

Gabe Larsen: (04:40)
Right, right.

Brad Birnbaum: (04:40)
You would probably say the same. That has been driving it for sure.

Gabe Larsen: (04:44)
So that was a big difference back then. But chat was coming online and that’s where you jumped in.

Brad Birnbaum: (04:49)
That is, that is.

Gabe Larsen: (04:49)
To see if you could provide a third channel for customer service back then.

Brad Birnbaum: (04:54)
For sure. Back then companies were just starting to understand what e-commerce looked like and they were realizing that the benefits of it and they were saying, well, if we’re going to start selling online and driving people online, we have to support online. And how do we do that? And chat was the predominant channel.

Gabe Larsen: (05:13)
Got it, got it. And then you also touched on, so chat was a big one. The new channel.

Brad Birnbaum: (05:16)

Gabe Larsen: (05:16)
This ticket concept or kind of the structuring of the way we looked at it.

Brad Birnbaum: (05:21)

Gabe Larsen: (05:21)
Zendesk, some of these created 15, 20 years ago. What does that mean when we say ticket? What does that? How else? What is the structure of that.

Brad Birnbaum: (05:28)
Sure, for pretty much all of eternity in various forms of customer support, it was, a very transactional nature. You were always bound by a ticket or sometimes people would call them cases. People use those words synonymously, right? And that was just a single incident, had a finite resolution. Um, but it was a very small piece of understanding the customer, right? Like businesses were always thinking of customers in terms of that ticket or case they weren’t thinking of customers as the actual person that they are. Right? Like you and I as we have gotten and grown to know each other, we form a relationship and we learn more and more about each other and it’s not that single transaction that defines us. It’s the entire relationship with the business that’s important. And we’ve seen this over the years as a barrier to amazing and incredible support experiences and knew that in transforming the way that people at the companies receive support can truly adopt that shift of the way the world’s going. So, here at Kustomer, we took a pretty different approach. We are support agents, people who use our product don’t think in terms of tickets or cases. They think in terms of customers and you’re always working on a customer. We call that our customer timeline. And the customer timeline is, everything about the customer, right? You might see what we call conversations. Some people might think of that as a modern lightweight case or ticket, but it’s more than that. And then inside of that timeline might be, if you’re a retailer, orders and shipping information, everything about that customer and how they interface with the business. And that has really transformed. The information architecture around it has transformed how support agents can–

Gabe Larsen: (07:09)
Can actually interact with their customers.

Brad Birnbaum: (07:11)
And customers really appreciate it and it is the modern way of engaging with customers, right? The world has gone from thinking of call centers as call centers and they’re now starting to really think of it as profit centers, right? They are investing heavily in amazing support experiences. They’re no longer trying to save 5 cents off a phone call. That’s not how the game is played, right? But it used to be that way.

Gabe Larsen: (07:32)
No, no. Absolutely. That at all costs $1 and 8 cents. How do we make it $1?

Brad Birnbaum: (07:37)
They’re no longer focused on that. Right? What they’re focused on is these amazing experiences–

Gabe Larsen: (07:40)
I love that.

Brad Birnbaum: (07:40)
–that you are investing in, right? As the world is going more direct to consumer, as the world is going online–

Gabe Larsen: (07:46)

Brad Birnbaum: (07:48)
–The stores in the malls are closing. The stores on Fifth Avenue are closing and companies are investing in a very different way. They’re investing in amazing experiences through tooling and through support.

Gabe Larsen: (08:00)
Got it, got it.

Brad Birnbaum: (08:00)
It’s producing repeat buyers, producing customers for life. And some of us, we’ve all seen the Zappos stories, right? Where our people stay on the phone for–

Gabe Larsen: (08:08)
15 hours.

Brad Birnbaum: (08:08)
–extreme amounts of time to provide those rich supporters. That’s extreme and exaggerated, but companies are embracing that philosophy because they realize once you get those customers, you get them for life and they become advocates and that’s what they want.

Gabe Larsen: (08:21)
I love that. I love that. Okay, so one big thing was certainly the ticket. Now focusing kind of on the customer. You talked a little bit about the channels, and I want to dive into… let’s go there next because back then it was kind of chat, phone and email. It’s like 30 now.

Brad Birnbaum: (08:38)
Look, there is more and more. If you look at your phone and all the different ways you communicate with your friends and family–

Gabe Larsen: (08:42)
And how important is that?

Brad Birnbaum: (08:44)
It’s very important because everybody has a preferred communication mechanism, right? Within our business, we use a lot of Slack inside the business, right? There’s different tools that people use. And some of my friends I will text with some of my friends, I might Facebook messenger with some, I might actually hit up on Twitter, right? We all communicate with people with a multitude of channels and escalate them accordingly, right? So, it’s important that you can converse with your customers in any way. The other thing you’ll, you know, that that has happened is there’s the immediacy of channels. You know, if customers, they may try a slightly more asynchronous channel and if they don’t get a response fast enough, they would gravitate towards moving towards a more synchronous channel–

Gabe Larsen: (09:25)
Got it.

Brad Birnbaum: (09:25)
–or real time channel. And ultimately each of those channels tend to be more expensive to support as well. Ultimately landing on telephony, on voice, which tends to be the most real time in nature. And, we’ve approached that in a really solid way, right? We’ve, we’ve changed, we’ve transformed it in that the way we think about omni-channels is very different than most companies do, as we’ve reimagined customer service. So, our definition of omni-channel is actually quite simple. It is a single thread of conversation around a topic where we could converse with your customers on any channels and provide support on.

Gabe Larsen: (9:58)

Brad Birnbaum: (9:59)
And while that sounds obvious and you’re like, of course Brad and I would tell you nobody does that, right?

Gabe Larsen: (10:03)
It certainly wasn’t that way.

Brad Birnbaum: (10:05)
None of our competitors do that, right? They, the way our competitors see the world is, is they, they do support you across different channels. But each of those channels would be a separate ticket or case, right? So if I have a problem with company X as a customer, initially I might email in and, I’m an impatient guy, so after 15 minutes–

Gabe Larsen: (10:22)
I jump to the channel.

Brad Birnbaum: (10:22)
–If I don’t get a response, I’m like, all right, I’m going to jump to another channel. Maybe I’ll text and I don’t get a response ultimately, maybe I’ll end up on voice. A lot of the solutions out there, really all the other solutions out there today, those will be three separate tickets for cases–

Gabe Larsen: (10:38)
The channel and searching, [inaudible].

Brad Birnbaum: (10:38)
Because in those traditional systems, a ticket or a case can be a one channel type, a singular channel type. What that does though is creates a really miserable experience for customers because in the end you’re going to get agent collision. So eventually agents will probably get to all three of those.

Gabe Larsen: (10:54)
Yeah, and you’ll get different answers.

Brad Birnbaum: (10:55)
Again, getting three responses. Hopefully you’re not getting three different answers; hopefully, or at least getting the same answer three different times and from three different people. But you’re wasting a lot of your business time because three of your agents are ultimately supporting them. Hopefully you’re not given three different answers because then your business really doesn’t– [inaudible]

Gabe Larsen: (11:11)
Actually, that’s a little bit, I’m nervous about that because one of my favorite things to do is call Delta, and if I get an answer that I don’t like, I like to call another agent.

Brad Birnbaum: (11:19)
Yeah, absolutely. Try again.

Gabe Larsen: (11:20)
So what you’re doing is you’re eliminating kind of my channel.

Brad Birnbaum: (11:22)
Sure, yeah, yeah. But for us, those all funnel into a single conversation, which is a really interesting and amazing paradoxical shift. And not only is it helpful for when customers contact you multiple times, through different channels, but even when you’re on the same channel, let’s say we’re on a phone call, and I’m like, Hey, you know, check out this link. I’m going to text it to you, and I can text it to you from the same conversation, and you’re getting it through touch while you’re on the phone call. You could click on it, see it if you want to. Like there’s, there’s a lot of value in being able to context switch.

Gabe Larsen: (11:50)
Cool. Makes tons of sense.

Brad Birnbaum: (11:50)
Through the proper omnichannel. And we’d probably do ourselves a disservice here by calling it omnichannel because it’s a word that’s so used, it’s so used by everybody else. But I just think they got it all wrong. Their definitions are just wrong.

Gabe Larsen: (12:02)
On this multichannel versus omnichannel can, I think sometimes be a little confused.

Brad Birnbaum: (12:05)
It’s very confusing, yeah.

Gabe Larsen: (12:07)
Okay. So, we got one is kind of the different view of the ticket and customer. Two is this channel thing.

Brad Birnbaum: (12:11)

Gabe Larsen: (12:12)
Data. Talk to me about data. I can only imagine when you were back in the day talking through different chatbots etc. The availability of data then versus now has got to be completely different. What does that mean for customers?

Brad Birnbaum: (12:23)
I know we saw over my entire career. We would always see companies trying to use the various point solutions that I had in market. Right? Starting from my first company eShare or to my most recent one, where people were trying to stick data into cases or tickets. They were trying to know more about the customer, know more about the transaction and trying to stay–

Gabe Larsen: (12:46)
–But it wasn’t making–

Brad Birnbaum: (12:47)
–and it just didn’t fit. It was a round peg and a square hole. Right? It’s like, well, we need more custom fields on the case object, and we went from 10 to 25 to 50 to a hundred to ultimately 200– [inaudible].

Gabe Larsen: (12:55)
Why do you need all these customers?

Brad Birnbaum: (12:56)
Because you’re trying to fit data and because you want to have those richer support experiences; you want it to be more CRM-like in nature. But most of the solutions out there are not, they’re not CRM-like in nature. They are point solutions for ticketing. So, when we started Kustomer, we knew that we needed to think about the world differently. We knew that we needed to be a CRM system.

Gabe Larsen: (13:14)
Right, right.

Brad Birnbaum: (13:14)
Because the only way you can deliver amazing support experiences if you truly understand the customer that you’re engaging with, right? Otherwise you have such a myopic view of them you’re not going to provide that optimal experience. And if not, you’re then going to be context switching between a multitude of other applications to try to get that information out.

Gabe Larsen: (13:30)

Brad Birnbaum: (13:30)
Whereas in the Kustomer world, we’re able to actually aggregate it together, present it, leverage it for those richer support experiences. And then we’re able to take advantage of Kustomer IQ, which we’re rolling out, which will be able to automate a lot of routine and mundane tasks around that like something like processing a return or processing an exchange if a retailer could often be…

Gabe Larsen: (13:49)
That’s why, but the whole AI stuff comes in.

Brad Birnbaum: (13:52)
And it’s also our business process, our RPA business process automations where it could often take five different steps of going to one system, generate an RMA number; another system to process the return and another system to see if you have that same item and let’s say a larger size, let’s say if it was a shirt–

Gabe Larsen: (14:07)

Brad Birnbaum: (14:07)
If not, go to a suggestion engine, finding it in–

Gabe Larsen: (14:09)
Got it.

Brad Birnbaum: (14:09)
–Another one, ultimately placing the order. We can automate that down where it might take a person many minutes to do across these different systems with a whole bunch of copying and pasting.

Gabe Larsen: (14:18)
[inaudible comment]

Brad Birnbaum: (14:18)
When it’s in our system and when our system, our platform, what it means is it takes milliseconds to actually do actions.

Gabe Larsen: (14:24)
I love it. I love it.

Brad Birnbaum: (14:24)
What we’re seeing is we’re seeing it across our customer base, right? Significantly. Significant improvements in agent productivity and efficiency.

Gabe Larsen: (14:35)
Of course you eliminate–

Brad Birnbaum: (14:35)
We publish case studies where we’ve seen customers go anywhere from 10% to 25% improvement in engine productivity, which is just– which is massive. That’s not your five seconds off of a five-minute phone.

Gabe and Brad: (14:48)
That’s an agent. That’s measurable, right? That’s a day.

Brad Birnbaum: (14:49)
So you’re really able to … your customers are getting service faster so they’re happier and agents are not spending time doing those routine and mundane tasks. So, they’re happier because they’re spending their time actually doing what’s important and supporting the customer.

Gabe Larsen: (15:01)
Right, right.

Brad Birnbaum: (15:01)
And then your business is more efficient. So arguably you might need fewer agents. Right?

Gabe Larsen: (15:04)
No, I love it.

Brad Birnbaum: (15:05)
Which is arguably a very large cost for most customers and [inaudible] agents.

Gabe Larsen: (15:07)
And I still think people are always looking for ways to make that more efficient. Right?

Brad Birnbaum: (15:12)
Of course, of course.

Gabe Larsen: (15:12)
Got it. All right. Well, love the three trends, kind of big differences that you’ve seen in the past and now in present day. Because you think about the audience and maybe this is just kind of your final summary statement. You’re a new customer service leader trying to make a change in your organization. What’s kind of the baby step or the one takeaway you’d say, guys, my quick advice for you would be start here or do this or do that. Anything you’d kind of leave for the audience?

Brad Birnbaum: (15:37)
Well, I mean, I would say make sure you’re supporting your customers in the way that they want to be supported. Right? They– the bar is going up and up every single day, right? People are, when you have a bad experience, you’re taking it to Twitter, you’re telling all your friends about it, right? So over index on those amazing support experiences and the ways to do that would be through higher caliber of agents here that are very well trained and then a tool that’s going to enable those agents to be successful. And certainly, our product can help you do that. But I would focus on that. I think that’s one of those amazing support experiences that will drive customer loyalty and retention.

Gabe Larsen: (16:15)
Yeah. I like, you’re right. The bar is being raised and if you don’t do something quick, you’ll be falling behind. So, Brad, thanks for joining.

Brad Birnbaum: (16:24)

Gabe Larsen: (16:24)
Appreciate your time and for the audience, hope you have a fantastic day.

Brad Birnbaum: (16:28)
Thank you much.

Exit Voice: (16:36)
Thank you for listening. Make sure you subscribe to hear more customer service secrets.


Ready to discover how AI + Data + CRM equals customer magic?

View PricingRequest Demo