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Show HN: FounderPhone – make customer support personal with SMS
106 points by parthi 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments
Hi HN! We're Parthi and Kunal from FounderPhone (https://founderphone.com). FounderPhone is a shared customer support inbox for SMS and calls in Slack.

We've built and shipped 7 products recently and if there's one thing we've learned, it's that your personal relationship with your customer is your secret weapon as a startup. Having customers email support@company.com or message a bot via Intercom doesn't feel personal. People are skeptical they will ever get a response. We've had a lot of success giving out our phone number to the top customers we really care about and telling them to text us whenever something comes up. Apparently, lots of great founders like Patrick from Stripe did this for their VIP customers while growing their startups.

The problem is that a single SMS inbox isn't sustainable at scale. So we hacked together a solution for ourselves where we made Slack a shared inbox. When a customer texts or calls me, our team can also see the messages and incoming calls. We can discuss how best to handle the issue in Slack and then anyone can respond via text. For calls, anyone available can redirect calls to their own number. From the customer's perspective, they're just texting a single number. They're not frustrated with messy tickets or being routed to 3 different people. They will always read your responses because it's in their SMS inbox instead of being lost amongst their 20,000 unread emails.

This is just the start! We're looking into building a whole suite of software to make customer support feel both personal and immediate. We're making an integration with Segment and Sentry to alert you when a customer has an issue so you can reach out to them about it before they complain to you.

Text our FounderPhone (510) 756-2522 with your name or email founders@founderphone.com if you have any questions. Thanks for checking us out!

I'm a little sorry to rain on your parade, but this seems like you're turning a personal contact back into a normal support system. "Hey, here's my direct contact info" works because it's not "our team can also see the messages and incoming calls. We can discuss how best to handle the issue in Slack and then anyone can respond via text". You've just reinvented a support phone number, and as soon as customers actually try to interact with it the whole charade will collapse.

For larger teams that aren't startups, we don't intend for this to be used for everyone. We think it should be reserved for your most important customers. In a lot of B2B businesses, a handful of customers account for the lion's share of your revenue. You want to build a personal relationship with them and make sure they are taken care of and happy. We think it's best to stratify support and give your most valuable customers direct access to your core team vs general support where they can get lost. It's worked well for us (we have 10s of customers) and we think it can work for just "VIP" customers at larger companies

So like an account manager, but a group of people rather than a single person? I suppose that could have value.

I use home depot SMS customer service, the response time is typically 1-15 minutes. Works perfect for me to do things async instead of fielding “Are you there?” questions when I get busy on live chat.

I’ll rain on your parade a bit; the only thing that’s going to matter is whether people will pay for it.

The “charade” and the “reinvention” is irrelevant.

If it’s a good product and people use it, then they’re in the clear.

My point was that it's not a good product, at least from a customer's perspective. It's the latest in a long line of corporate attempts to convince you that they're totally human and totally care about you individually. In any number of forms; "Dear $NAME" form letters, "your call is very important to us", Twitter accounts, the ... charming little chatboxes asking if you have any questions, etc. It's just another attempt to pretend that you're interacting with a human who will pay attention to you individually, and I'd be very surprised if it works out any better, because customers have seen all this before.

These systems are only as good as your ability to hide them.

Recently I did a trial of https://www.diffchecker.com/, and when I didn't buy, got an email from "Nick from Diffchecker [admin@diffchecker.com]" saying, "If you're still undecided and have questions or concerns, please do let us know at: admin@diffchecker.com" and it was signed by this Nick person.

So I emailed back briefly, politely explaining why I didn't buy.

A week later, I got an email from the same email address saying "If you decided that Diffchecker Desktop wasn’t a good fit, we’d love to hear why. We’d appreciate if you’d answer these questions below to help us learn why didn’t you upgrade your subscription" asking me to fill out a survey.

Outta here with that shit. Either you're being personal or you're not. You can't have it both ways.

Our thesis is that it should be authentic.. i.e., the company should know who you are. It's terrible to contact support and have them have no idea about all your past interactions with a company. We want to prevent situations like the above from happening down the road

I think this is a great idea. It seems like it’s getting a lot of resistance due to the dishonesty.

On the website it looks like the message is purposefully withholding the information that A) the text went to everyone, and B) the person who replied wasn’t ‘Richard”

But the value is the customer received a personal-feeling experience even though it wasn’t actually what they probably thought. And you showed that by having the customer say, “Yo Richard!” as to imply that they had their guard down and were being informal.

I could argue that even though it is dishonest (in that withholding information can be regarded as a form of dishonesty), it is still ensuring greater success by creating a perceived personal relationship. And that’s also psychologically beneficial to the customer and their success with whatever product is being supported.

It seems like you will have to be very careful in how this experience is portrayed, marketed, and worded to get around the subterfuge aspect.

A technology approach could be to have it automatically say, “I forwarded your text to John and he replied “I restarted the server for you. Everything should be working.”

You’re in a delicate position where the value in your startup is due to a psychological perception that’s based in withholding information. You’ll need to trot down that path very carefully so that you still can maximize the psychological benefits to the customer while minimizing the appearance of deceit.

But I think it definitely provides for a great customer experience.

Thank you for your thoughts! Yeah, technology is making everything more distant and impersonal. We're trying to figure out how we can make business to customer interactions feel like you're actually cared for by a real person instead of a nameless entity. We definitely have a lot of work to do to figure out the right way to scale that while keeping it authentic. This is the first step

Neat product, we rolled something similar to this using Slack where we manage the phone system, etc. I especially like how you can reply within Slack and text back the customer. Seems like your major problem with this startup is usage costs as text messages and phone calls can quickly add up. We are a small team of ~7 people and our monthly Twilio expense is twice your price here. I.e., not priced high enough.

I might prefer this product with a slight change: instead of trusting you my business phone number, maybe I could simply point my Twilio endpoint to your servers? That way you are not soaking up passthrough costs of customer usage; plus, I don't have to worry about getting my number from you after all my customers are familiar with that number. Anyways, it's a neat concept. I have provided our phone system to other businesses and can totally see the value in this product.

We can do that for you. We can give you the API endpoints to hit from Twilio. Want to shoot me an email at parthi@founderphone.com or text at 510 756 2522?

> We've built and shipped 7 products recently and if there's one thing we've learned, it's that your personal relationship with your customer is your secret weapon as a startup. Having customers email support@company.com or message a bot via Intercom doesn't feel personal.

Agree with the personal relationship with the customer part. But if the email is <realname>@company.com, wouldn’t that be personal? I do see giving a phone number as way more involved with the customer.

> From a customer’s perspective, they’re just texting a single number. They’re not frustrated with messy tickets or being routed to 3 different people.

Isn’t that what happens here in the backend — some messy ticketing system in Slack (which I gather isn’t a ticketing system) and several people handling responses for the same customer/issue and a potential lack of coherence in responses?

I don’t mean to pick on you. I really see value in providing a phone number to customers and telling them they can text or call anytime. But somewhere your marketing message seems a bit off to me, and doesn’t make sense on the points you’re railing against.

All the best!

Thanks for the feedback!

A phone number is a lot more personal and immediate than email. We intend for this to be used with your most valuable customers, where you want to give them a direct line to someone senior at the company.

We started with Slack since it's an easy way to get your team on board without them having to adopt a new tool. We've already started speccing out a web-based tool to handle more complicated triage tasks.

The point on marketing message is appreciated. FounderPhone has worked well for us and our customers right now, and we think it can work for keeping account managers or founders close to their VIP customers, where you really want to be on top of any of their issues. We'll think about how to message that more carefully.

Hey, man! I run a small web agency, and deal with A LOT of clients texting me and my account managers.

Hate on here aside, I think this is a solid idea. Keep up the good fight.

Thanks for the support! Would love to chat to see if we can help or what you would want. parthi@founderphone.com or 510 756 2522

This is cool. You may already know this but Talkbin [0] was building this for physical locations back in 2010/2011. I remember them having a "text the owner" sign in Coupa Cafe off of University Ave.

They were acquired by google 5 months into it [1] and after that I remember seeing the signs in Crate and Barrels for a while, then google shut them down after dwindling usage [2]. I always thought it was a cool idea.

This was all pre-slack and the focus was physical locations vs. other tech founders so will be interested to see if now is the right time vs. then. I've certainly noticed more and more companies relying on text to stay in touch with me from a comms standpoint (HealthIQ comes to mind from recent interactions, but even our doggie day care primarily communicates with me via text now).

[0] https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/talkbin [1] https://techcrunch.com/2011/04/25/google-acquires-talkbin-a-... [2] https://techcrunch.com/2014/06/28/google-shuts-down-talkbin-...

Thanks for pointing those companies out! Really appreciate it. I actually know two of the TalkBin founders

I built something like this for my own texting needs, though it was app-based. The biggest killer is that Twilio doesn't yet support group texting.

Unsure how many people will attempt to group text a company founder, but that part ends badly. It's surprisingly good for MMS/etc handling.

Yeah, we're actively trying to figure out group texting. Right now it looks like the individuals in the group are texting you

Yup. I ended up blocked in the same way. You might want to reach out to Twilio and get another vote for this feature on their roadmap.

We currently use Front to achieve something very similar:

A few questions:

- Do you support MMS (photos and videos)?

- Do you support creating auto-reminders to follow up with specific customers?

- Can you set up an autoresponder that responds when users sends a specific key message? Eg if the customer sends "Start" then can you autoreply with a canned message?

Yes on #1. We dont have auto-reminders or an autoresponder, but could certainly build them!

Or, if you don't want to use Slack, but still want to use SMS to communicate with your customers, check out https://www.switchboard.chat.

This use case really resonated with folks in the real estate and educational spaces.

> you don't want to use Slack

Thanks, I was hoping someone would share something like this.

Congrats on launching!

How does this compare to something like OpenPhone (https://www.openphone.co/)?

They're a great company competing Google Voice. We're really trying to focus on customer support and success. We don't want to be a general purpose business phone since other companies like OpenPhone are doing a great job there already

I still don’t understand the value in this. How is this different from Apple Facebook Zendesk et al. contact platforms which provide certain level of anonymity to the customer ? Also is this a matter of simple Twilio to Slack hook integration ?

This assumes you want to build a personal relationship with your customer. Think high value customers. You would want to provide a concierge like service in that case vs making it anonymous and distant

It's a Twilio/Slack integration, but it's actually a fair amount of work to get the nuance right. We handle calls, text campaigns, etc. We're also looking into a web based shared inbox for teams not in Slack

Hi Parthi, It sounds like a helpful product you've built here. I think you're right that it works best for early startups that want to have a direct relationship with their early clients but find it impossible to manage as it scales. I just wanted to reach out since we came up in this thread. If you'd like to consider using our product at Signalwire, we'd be happy to help you switch over and test out our services. Feel free to email me directly if you're at all interested. We can help you with switching over and it's extremely easy to do. travis.stoliker@signalwire.com

Have you taken a look at SignalWire instead of Twilio? Syntax-compatible XML, less price gouging so might be able to help offset some of the costs to make these products even more affordably awesome.

Hi Startledmarmot, I happened to notice this post. I’m Travis Stoliker and I’m a VP at Signalwire. I don’t want to interrupt the thread but I wanted to give you my direct email so you can get a hold of me anytime. Travis.stoliker@signalwire.com. Thanks for the shout out on here. If you need any credit to try out our service if you haven’t already done so, just shoot me an email! If anyone else would like some credit just let me know. Take care.

The channel is the value. It's simple and every mobile phone has SMS. No need to keep a browser window open during a chat with support, nor is there a chance you'll miss a chat alert only to discover that the agent, after having waited x minutes, has disconnected, forcing you to start all over.

This is precisely where the value is. More companies are allowing to "move" your online chat session to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and SMS.

If this takes off its gonna accelerate the sms app becoming a feature rich email-like client with folders, send-later, fwd/delete rules, etc.

You're thinking a step ahead. Yeah, I think businesses are going to start using SMS for marketing because it's not a saturated channel like email. We're trying to do customer support which doesn't deal with high volume of spamming. If SMS does take off, iOS and Android will beef up iMessage and Messages to handle spam and separate business from personal texts

is support for RCS in the roadmap?

As a customer I would never use this. I'd much rather email someone than have to chat with them. I always look for the email contact option.

I like the idea alot.. but not in the US

We can technically support non-US. It just would be prohibitively expensive right now. But we can keep you posted!

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