Podcast #7

The time for AI is now

Matthew Caron
Head of Customer Support – Open Table

About this podcast

Today Inbenta interviewed Matthew Caron, Head of Customer Support, from Open Table. 

Matthew talks about what they are doing at Open Table to provide great customer support. He chats about life before and during Covid — since they serve restaurants, they’ve become very scrappy. His one big tip is to start with AI for customer service now.



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Interview Transcript

Andrea Palten
We have Matthew Caron, Head of Customer Support from Open Table. Thank you so much for being here Matthew, tell us a little bit about what you do for Open Table. 

Matthew Caron
Absolutely. Thank you for including me and having me on. Honestly, the title feels like it’s a little bigger than the experience. So as the head of customer support for Open Table, I’m in charge with making sure that we deliver the best customer experience. And within that driving strategy, budget adoption, and making sure we fall within our budget, as well as making sure that the voice of our customers is heard throughout all the organization.

But more so I take the role as the responsibility of ensuring and doing everything that I can to empower my team who are the ones who really do drive and run the operation, to not only succeed at delivering a great customer experience. Where we actually prioritize more and more than anything is that employee experience. And so ensuring that we can provide the best growth opportunities, communication environment, to our CSRS, as well as our supervisors and managers to really grow them in their careers. That’s the main objective. So just leading and driving those goals, and then getting out of the way so that my team can execute it. 

Andrea Palten
How big is your team? 

Matthew Caron
So globally, we have about 250 people. About 200 of it is the CSR population, and the rest are supervisors, managers and some support staff. So we’re not very large in size, we’re huge in scope, because we’re on 365 24-7, and we truly do have a global presence. Denver is our main office. But we also have locations in London, Melbourne, Australia, as well as some smaller groups in San Francisco, California. 

Andrea Palten
Nice. Are you currently in Denver? 

Matthew Caron
I am currently in Denver, yep. 

Andrea Palten
I’m a neighbor. I’m in Colorado Springs, and Inbenta is all over the world. But we’re headquartered in California and also in Spain. So we’re everywhere.

Let me ask you five questions. These are the questions that I’ve been asking a lot of customer service professionals such as yourself, we just want to see what is going on currently in the space. So what have you and your team been doing to currently promote great customer service at Open Table?

Matthew Caron
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I think it’s very much kind of divided by, you know, during COVID. Are you one of those businesses that’s flourishing? Are you one of those businesses that’s really struggling? And I wouldn’t think it’d be surprising that Open Table being that we support restaurants is one of the ones that’s really struggling. So it’s really about being very, very scrappy, and understanding what is a great customer experience, understanding what isn’t, but also what is the tolerance for in between.

And so for us, what we’ve really tried to do is ensure, like I said earlier, is that the one thing I can control, I can’t control my volume at all anymore, because of COVID. And it really can’t control what that experience is going to be leading up to them calling us because it is so segmented in the individual states and countries. So we focus on what we can control, which is that agent experience, if we provide them what they need, they should then reciprocate that experience for their customers. So we have always taken a lot of pride and asking our agents, what do you need to have the highest level of success.

But now I think we’ve taken it to a whole nother level, really what within our infrastructure is creating problems. And so a good example of one thing that we did is we actually reduce the hours of support.

And the reason behind that is we provide the 24 hours really stretched our agents as well as our support of the agents to handle a disproportionate few number of calls, so if we reduce those hours, hopefully our customers can change their behavior when they reach out, because we don’t believe they need us at the moment. We believe they wanted us. And so can we move our people to where there’s more of that need, and it works, we provide better service in the middle of our day during our peaks. And we provided shorter hours to stretch our team. And we provided less hours for those fringe aids, the ones that close to be really really isolated and alone. And that was something that was acceptable when they’re in an office and they can share that experience with them, with their teams. But now because it’s individualized at home, it really became that negative. So that was one just listening to them and asking the agents, how can we provide you that better experience, it’s actually turned into a better experience for those customers. And the fringe ones that we’re calling events have changed that behavior they’ve called in earlier, to get the same type of support that they needed.

The other big one is just taking our data.

Where I feel like a lot of organizations are misleading in how they optimize and use support is that they look at cost, instead of looking as an extension of their marketing team. And so we’re asking how can we do a better job of taking the customer interaction, which is just the behavior of reaching out and calling? Why did they call or email or chat, and make sure that we streamline that information so that it is prevalent in the decision making and prioritization for product and for marketing.

It’s a constant moving target. But there needs to be more focus than today. Because if we can, I can convince the organization that support is not just a cost, it’s an investment. And it’s not just an investment in educating your customers, it’s an educated investment in data as well, then we’re in the forefront of developing more user friendly products. And that ultimately does create that better customer experience.

The last one, I would say is, it really continues to drive to be that champion, for your customers, for your employees, what can easily be misunderstood or over indexed in an especially COVID environment is scale.

If we build this product, we can drive this revenue. Yeah, and we need all the dollars that we can get. But you’re driving this cost. And it’s not always easily seen on a bottom sheet of sales support costs. And that’s how we can help really distinguish that.

Because it’s easy for them to say that, hey, we can have three employees cover that process gap that the product doesn’t have that set fixed costs, but then remind the organization Well, that doesn’t ever go away. Like if you build on that, and you invest on that, and you build other layers, that’s going to grow in it during a time period where we don’t have strong revenue. And we don’t have a great customer experience, because things out of our control, do we want to invest long term into a negative experience? Probably not, because then that’s become a deep seated root. So it’s just making sure someone is holding the company accountable to the full end customer experience from all decisions that I really have embraced as being a big part of my current role. 

Andrea Palten
So tell me a little bit about what happened before COVID. So a lot of the customer service professionals that we talked to said one of the biggest pain points is that they have limited resources, either limited resources and time, or limited resources and people. So tell me before COVID, what did you guys have before? Did you have limited resources? And if so, how did you get by?

Matthew Caron
Yeah, well, we did. And maybe this is because I started my career at a BPO where it’s by definition, limited resources, right. And then when I got the opportunity to move to more own and operate, I thought, Hey, we would have an abundance of resources. And that was a misconception.

All customer support organizations will always be limited on resources. So that’s a constant state of reality. So how do we succeed within that? So for us it was at first it was headcount

that we were limited on but not in the CSR. It’s on the operational side. So the goal before was, as we gain efficiency, sure, I could reduce my cost and I could look good on my my p&l to my bosses. But what I am more convinced of is we gain efficiency, we reduce the need for 10 CSRS. No, I don’t want to bank it and pocket it and put it towards forecasting your next year. I want to invest that because I think we can reap an even further reward with going down deeper. And whether it be specializations for an experience or more. So investing in products to really enhance that experience. And fortunately, the company has a position we’re like, yeah, we can afford to do that. Let’s go ahead and do so with COVID. And it made it to where I lost that budget surplus of being able to keep some heads to to really try and invest and see how it goes. And when we went through furloughs and some layoffs, that’s where that left us so now it’s we’re in the technology side. That’s the side that is more of the return that we’re looking to grow on. So we’re we’re we do struggles in the systems. Now what makes open tables support organization a little bit different when I said when I say that we’re all short on resources that were a four year old organization and a 21 year old company, they had outsourced it for years and when they brought it back all in house, you basically you’re starting a new business again. So I feel like we’re limited resources is just an internal emotion, the fact that the expectation of the company for definingData wide success is going to be equivalent to that of your sales teams, your marketing teams, your engineering teams are all 21 years of growth, failure, growth, failure and adoption, whereas we’re at four. And so we have to cover up a lot of ground. And that’s where we feel limited compared to the others within Open Table. But you will always be limited resource and support organizations. So I think the biggest thing that you can do back to my prior answer is empower your agents. They know the answers to the questions.

We just got asked a better question to elicit veterans from the agents that’s more scalable. And that’s something that we’re trying to do, we’re trying to not only educate them on thinking differently in, not outside the box, I feel like that’s a little bit of an overused phrase, because let’s make sure we maximize everything inside the box. Do we know what works? And so that’s what we’re trying to really teach your agents to do is use the box for all of its intent. And when it fails, you speak up. How did it fail? What consistency, what rotation? What was that experience you experienced, or even going down to the line of leadership. And then empowering with voice and then action. And so when we do that, and that’s how we got again, the reduction in hours. Oh, that makes a lot of emotional sense. Does that take business sense? Yep, validate that. And let’s make that decision.

Because that doesn’t require resources that just inquires empowerment of speech and reward for being involved. And ultimately cultivating a culture where everybody cares, not only about the individual, but the customer in the business. So many times you hear they just care about themselves and the individual. And we hire people that don’t do that. I hire for team fit more than I hire for aptitude. So that has helped us during this period of time where you’re not going to get that additional cost. Well, we got a team, and the team cares about each other. So it’s ensured that they have their voices heard even louder than before. And then it’s just about prioritizing and execution at that point. 

Andrea Palten
I’ve worked at many organizations where it was the opposite, where it was not about the team and the employees, and they were so cranky, they didn’t want to be at work, and their customer service was bad. Of course, their support was bad. So it just makes sense. I like what you’re doing. That’s really, really good. So you mentioned failures and success. Let’s talk about that a little bit. How do you measure the success of your customer service team? 

Matthew Caron
Yeah, I love this question, because my answer is not what others usually do.

And I think this is a little bit where customer support organizations are being archaic. And this is where they need to turn, it’s a people business, you will succeed by your people, even if you’re all based on technology, a person needs to make sure that it works. Well, a person needs to calibrate it. But ultimately, a person does need to solve the answer. So I measure my organizational success based off of my quarterly and yearly negative turnover, if it’s minimal, then everything else is going to grow in a positive direction, your cost is going to be in line because you aren’t exceeding your tenure is going to be in line, your knowledge, your training, all of that, as well as your team’s ability to commit to the solution versus being part of the problem. It all stems from where your faucet is dripping, that’s why your tub is overflowing, fix the faucet. So it’s the people that come in, and if they want to stay, then you’re not going to replace them, it comes down to your negative turnover. Furthermore, if you’re coaching your people, you’re developing your people, you’re consistently holding everybody accountable, so that the exception is much larger than the exception.

It then goes down to your turnover and that they’re not going to want to leave, they’re going to allow you to make a mistake as an organization because they have this great experience that ultimately the goal of our managers is to help our agents have the best life they can. My expectation is your role is to provide the feedback, the resources, the environment to be the best version of yourself. That’s more of a reward than just your simple paycheck. And so if you’re measuring your success to an employee, by the fact that well, I paid you on time, you should be here on time. They don’t care about you as much as you don’t care about them, and then the customer gets lost in between. So everything comes down to me on how my employees are treated, and how do they respond to that treatment. And then they say so loudly, whether or not they stay or they leave. Because what I found is I’m chasing a handle time. That’s seasonal. That’s based on your tenure, your training, your operational onboarding, you know whether or not there was a weather storm or a holiday that’s a little bit off season. Like there’s so many things you can’t control, including your market, including your business and your product. Everything else is subjective.

Negative turnover within your organization is to me the driver of every other number. So let’s just go right to the root cause, which is your staff. 

Andrea Palten
That’s a different answer that I’ve gotten when I asked this question. I like it. You mentioned something about coaching your teams? Are you the person in charge of that? Or do you hire outside classes, courses, bring people in to train them, or are you the coach, the head coach in charge?

Matthew Caron
I don’t like the label saying, I’m the head coach, because I’m not gonna drive it. But we do as an institution own it. I think you can do a blend of both, but I would definitely not over index institutionalized lessons and classes. Because most people out there do not learn, have the highest retention of knowledge from online learning. That’s why classroom training is so important. But more so it’s that mentorship, it’s that coaching, it’s the fact that we don’t live in a black and white world, so much of it is gray, and an online course can help you with that. Now, a solid coaching plan based off of a measured and observed behavior, validated through data, as part of that coaching plan can go attend that class. But what we focus on is the conversation, and that is the human human element, and therefore the relationship. So we really drive a lot of that. It really to me comes down to again, coaching leading business, it’s about asking a better question. So one of the major philosophies we have behind our coaching is personal accountability, and that the supervisor takes personal accountability to ask the difficult question. The CSR takes first accountability being honest and the answer. No. Why did you disposition the call this way? Well, to be honest, it was the first selection and I felt pressured, but my handle time, you know, if without having an environment where someone feels comfortable to have that type of interaction, you’re not gonna get to the root of it? Well, great, it’s not that I have a problem with my employee to have a problem with my disposition selection list, I have made it too complicated or a problem with my goals have made them too specific on efficiency, and on experiences. And that I think only truly comes up through the individual coaching conversations, the relationship building, and is lost within a lot of the programs or having somebody come out as an outside. Now, I do think that was bringing in that extra sauce, that extra flavor of like, you know, having somebody that I have faith will take the information back to the organization and not hold me accountable. If I do say something silly, you will get some information that’s solid, and it’s viable, and it can really help you. But that type of investment in an employee, I think, is more of like that extended longer career journey type experience. And a lot of what I think gets missed within corporate coaching, is, how do I succeed not in my day, not within my hour, but within every transaction I’m being asked from, if you take it down to that micro level, it allows a lot more growth opportunities. Instead of wanting to be an engineer, well, I have to learn, you know, tons of coding. So let me go to a coding class, well, you learn all the coding you need. But your deductive reasoning skills is where you’re ultimately struggling, your ability to time manage within multiple tasks is why you won’t succeed in that role. You know, and those are things that I believe what’s beautiful about the contact center industry, is that if you want to go on and do other things, which 99% of people do, they settle for being in contact institution, that you can practice those skill sets and those behaviors and master them in a controlled environment as crazy as a call center. And so that when you move on to the higher end, more aspirational career, teaching architects, wherever it may be, you’ve practiced them in a place where you can fail, because you get to practice them so many times over. And that reinforcement comes from that individual coaching experience. 

Andrea Palten
All right. Let’s switch a little bit and talk about artificial intelligence. So as a leader in the customer support field, what do you think is going to happen to customer service in regards to artificial intelligence?

Matthew Caron
I think it’s the next wave. It’s the distinguishing point between organizations.

I kind of like to equate those types of things. I think AI is similar to going back, like personalize it, like 15 years like an iPhone or Android.

Right now, it’s just a cell phone. But that singular decision you made 15 years ago really dictated where you’ve gone with other technology decisions further on. And companies that are similar with chat about 10-15 years ago, are we going to embrace it. Is it going to be all bots? Is it going to be one on one experience? Is this going to help us gain efficiency this year?

To help us differentiate ourselves, the next evolution that is AI, and you can do all of that, you can take it as a tool to say, we’re automating the spirit experience. So humans never have to interact with the customer, which is still in itself a pleasurable experience, because it’s fast and efficient. Although there’s breakage, there’s a lack of that human connection. Or we can take it to be as a screen and a filter to prioritize our contacts to scrape information so that it’s clean, it’s efficient, and the customer never gets asked to repeat their story ever again.

It all comes down to cost and the balance. But this is to me where if you’re a leader, and you’re not in support organization, you’re not investing in where technology is today, where it’s not, and where your holes within your organization are, and how they can be fed by that you’re, you’re missing the boat, the boat of change as it comes along. Because that’s the other part is that as our society becomes more and more inclusive of every human’s experience, whether it be the group, the community, or the individual, that means the individual still wants to have that, that unique experience. And it’s just no longer financially viable to do it, human human, it’s scalable through AI. And the other part too, is that we have a growing audience and millennials and younger generations that are accepting the fact that AI is not perfect. So it has that clunky thing. It’s not because the company doesn’t care, you know, so it’s, I think it’s definitely the future. And it’s where I’d be, I’m investing my time, my resources. But what is also interesting about it is

the millennial generation is doing a ton to business, and that they’re willing to pay more for better experience. But they’re not just the consumers anymore. They’re also the drivers of B2B purchasing decisions as well. And support is now not just a cost, but it also like I said, the marketing, but also potential sales leads as well, because I’ll pay more for that better experience. So now you’re getting a lot more investment into AI technology for support, versus just AI technology and this lead generation, I think COVID is going to cause that to double down, because more and more the need for support, and less than less the ability to afford it. And how are you going to differentiate the experience? So it’s figuring out earlier in the game as possible, how to get more out of AI? Because it is one of those things where you invest in early, you will get a better return because it’s learned technology. Right? So get into it now, before you’re trying to pay way too much money and get caught up to where everyone else’s. 

Andrea Palten
Exactly. Everybody, listen to Matthew! All right, we’re gonna finish with one, your number one top advice for customer service departments. What is your top number one advice?

Matthew Caron
I think one of the mistakes I’ve made throughout my career is one that I saw others making as well. And that’s why it was so ingrained to me, and that you’re hired to a role because they think and you think you have the answers. I don’t have the answer for the problems of tomorrow. I don’t have the answers for most of the problems of today. I’m definitely not gonna have the answer for the problems several years out. So don’t hire me expecting to.

I need to ask the questions, the right questions, the real questions that drive better decision making, and better answers from the organization from the community. So go in with questions, not with answers. That’s why I think the most full hearted business tactic is –what’s your 90 day plan?

To ask questions for 90 days and learn the business and for what it truly is, and what it truly isn’t. Because like I said before, this is a people business. You have a call center in Dallas, you have a call center in New York, you’re gonna have different problems, because it’s behavioral based, and every person and community is unique. So go in, ask questions and get to know your people. And from there, the answers come a lot easier. 

Andrea Palten
Yes, that was so good. I love it. Go implement AI and treat your employees like gold, not just your customers. Thank you, Matthew, so much for being here. I really appreciate your time. 

Matthew Caron
Thank you so much. It was fun to be on.

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