Helpshift: The mobile CRM that's betting big on AI and machine learning

CRM services have been reduced to database and forms. They are filled for posterity, which has made the process mundane. So what will define the next generation of CRMs? “Automation,” believes Baishampayan Ghose, Co-founder and CTO, Helpshift — a SaaS-based company that provides a mobile customer service platform for businesses to integrate mobile applications and communicate with customers. In short, a mobile CRM company? It’s actually much more than that.
Baishampayan Ghose, Co-founder and CTO, Helpshift
Baishampayan Ghose, Co-founder and CTO, Helpshift

AI is the future

California based Helpshift, which has a back-office in Pune (India), sees a huge potential in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. “Most of the B2B products today are old, antiquated and need re-modeling. So, the future of CRM is automation but not rule-play based automation, which already exists. And that is why AI and machine learning will have a big role to play in bringing about that change we require in CRM market,” says Ghose. A dedicated and small team at Helpshift has already started working on it. While ‘customer service’ can actually help a company differentiate itself from its competitors, it has its own set of limitations. If it becomes an expensive proposition for the company, it shows. Customer’s ease of interaction gets affected. And taking an e-mail or query call route, only makes the company lose the context and personal touch. If it is an e-mail, the personal touch is amiss and if it is a query call, the context is lost. So, what’s the middle ground? Chat! “In fact chatbots can solve a lot of problems that might erupt in dealings between an agent and customer. We have already integrated chat in our in-app services and we are working to bring bots into the picture. Also, we are looking at a machine learning program or algorithm that suggests answers to FAQs helping agents, serve customers better,” adds the CTO.

Web to mobile: Rejigging the code

The Co-founders, Ghose and Abinash Tripathy — the latter, who is also the CEO of the company, started his career at Oracle where he was part of the team that wrote the first in-house CRM solution — are not new to developing a Question-Answer product. It was in mid-2012, when Helpshift came out with its web-based CRM product. But a couple of years before, when the Co-founder duo were brainstorming on a product for a global audience, they’d come up with a “Quora for enterprises,” before Tripathy’s CRM background zeroed them down to CRM. Can we ever replace human interaction? “The aim is not to replace agents but to augment their work in enhancing user experience, that’s the purpose of AI,” says Ghose.

Mobile-first to in-app

The journey so far has been full of learning and unlearning. Mass mobile adoption, and enterprise mobility meant that the team ended up throwing everything it had built and re-coded fresh to help businesses ‘shift’ to their desired positions. It started with building mobile SDKs and addressing the constraints that came with it. Today, Helpshift has ventured beyond being just a CRM company to innovate with customer retention and marketing automation. It is in the process of re-defining the purpose of the company of being mobile-first to in-app. It doesn’t matter where the app is running, it can mobile or desktop. Helpshift’s CRM product is now embedded in the application to “make it a coherent and homogeneous experience.” Ghose says, “The business model is in-app. The story we are trying to tell is: your support experience lives inside the app.” The in-app model certainly gives the company an edge over its competitors. “Zendesk for example, which is a public company and is coming from the web, is also coming up with its SDKs; while we are enjoying the phase of offering services to app-builders as well as companies who are entering the mobile domain,” says Ghose. To rule out any complacency, he adds, “But we have to keep innovating to retain our leadership.”

Turning competition to investors

Having said that, Helpshift recently turned its customer and competitor into investors when Microsoft Ventures and Salesforce Ventures led its Series B funding for $23 million. After the collaboration, in a subsequent step, Helpshift now supports Salesforce integration where users can access Helpshift from within Salesforce. Collaboration with Microsoft Ventures surely will take the mobile CRM company places, with deeper involvement into Microsoft portfolio applications like Skype. “We’re already on Microsoft Outlook,” Ghose states. From a team of four, in 2009, when the company came into existence, Helpshift, today has over 100 employees across offices in India, US and Europe. For the records, the company’s first venture in 2009 was, a consumer finance website to assist people in stock markets. The resources to invest wisely were limited and the Co-founders thought the Indian stock experts deserved a better platform. Despite being a great product, the company didn’t generate much revenues. Moreover, it was far away from the Co-founders initial goal and was too local against their ambition of building a global product.

Geography neutral

Having said that, the CTO, clarifies that the company doesn’t look at geographies. “We look at app stores. Our target audience is basically every big app, which has a crying need to offer exemplary customer service. If you look at the gaming market, out of top 10 games, five are our customers.” He claims that Helpshift’s SDKs have been installed on 1.5 billion devices worldwide. “Almost as close as Facebook’s user base which is 1.6 billion. So we are targeting apps, which have a good user base; and it is not difficult to track them. Be it in gaming, productivity or travel and transport,” Ghose adds.

India vs Silicon Valley

So why did the company choose Pune as its back-office? “It (Pune) has educational institutions for training, an industrial background and proximity to big cities. Also, we looked at niche and avoided anything that is crowded. Almost all our investors are US-based but we took to ourselves to build a base in Pune,” he says. Where Silicon Valley, according to Ghose, has an edge over India is that it has a matured startup ecosystem with founders and VCs, which unfortunately, India does not have. But then, “it is very difficult to hire an engineer in San Francisco; and you don’t want to be an employer competing the likes of Google.” India accounts for only 5% of the company’s revenues. “We do not have major apps in India. And the apps that do, let’s say call centers cannot be your customer service strategy,” Ghose states as a matter of fact. Despite the odds, he sees a lot of potential in India as a market, which has skipped a generation of technology. “People went from ‘no internet’ to 4G right away. India, also probably has one of the largest base of mobile subscribers worldwide. Another boom is the whole ‘app economy’ where companies are investing in building mobile apps,” Ghose concludes.

Abhinav Mohapatra

An author who has a keen interest for the ‘off-beat’ <!--more-->An author who has a keen interest for the ‘off-beat’, he has covered and explored multiple facets of the marketing, advertising

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