Innovation Junkies Podcast

Tim Houlne on Creating the Ultimate Customer Experience

Tim Houlne, CEO of Humach, and the Jeffs discuss how embracing AI and automation can help companies grow. They share benefits of AI for businesses in different industries, the Intersection between technology and customer experience, and how Implementing AI can increase employee productivity.

Tim Houlne(Intro): We really want to improve customer experience. We want to make it easier for companies to embrace some of the AI and automation and change the way they do business for the better.

Jeff Standridge(Intro): This is Jeff Standridge, and this is the Innovation Junkies podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies podcast.

Jeff Standridge: Hey guys, welcome to another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. My name’s Jeff Standridge.

Jeff Amerine: And this is Jeff Amerine. Happy New Year, Jeff.

Jeff Standridge: Hey, you too. Good to be with you, man.

Jeff Amerine: You too. Hey, we got Georgia as the national collegiate champions. They managed to beat Alabama, and I’m not quite sure how they did that, given the refs and the divine entity is on the side of Alabama, it seems, in every game. But what did you think of that game?

Jeff Standridge: You know, some pretty amazing plays in that ball game.

Jeff Amerine: There were.

Jeff Standridge: I thought the defense across the board was pretty amazing. Not many times that you get two quarters in, and it’s pretty nothing but field goals, pretty much.

Jeff Amerine: It’s like a baseball score.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, exactly. So it was good.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah.

Jeff Standridge: Well, hey, let’s talk about our guest today. We have Tim Houlne. Tim is the CEO of Humach, and Humach is a combination of humans and machines, taking the creativity and experience of humans along with AI and automation to create the ultimate customer service experience. In 2020, Humach received the MVP award for adaptive CX COVID 19 in your contact center, which recognizes leadership and how the work from home contact center model and digital agents provide business and competitive advantage. Tim’s been the CEO there for some time, and he’s always been focused on customer experience. He sits on the boards of directors of several companies and a charity and serves as part of an invited Forbes technology council. He’s a book author, an avid golfer, traveler, and sports enthusiast. Tim, great to have you with us today.

Tim Houlne: Thank you for having me on the show today as well. And yeah, the Georgia game, I’ll comment on that because my wife and my youngest son both went to Georgia. So it was a pretty exciting household here yesterday, so.

Jeff Standridge: I’m sure it was. I’m sure it was.

Jeff Amerine: I would imagine. And I have to tell you, not to spend too much time on that, but they looked like the team of the century the whole season, aside from the SEC championship. And it was almost like Nick Saban got in their head for that one game, but they definitely redeemed themselves in the championship. They proved to be exactly who we thought they were, which was an unstoppable team. Really amazing.

Jeff Standridge: Well, they proved they could beat two opponents at the same time.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah.

Jeff Standridge: So anyway…

Jeff Amerine: Alabama and the rest, huh?

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, yeah. Alabama and the rest. So Tim, tell us a little bit about you, tell us a little bit about Humach, and we’ll use that to kind of get our dialogue started today.

Tim Houlne: Sure, sure. So…

Jeff Amerine: But before you do that…

Jeff Standridge: Oh yeah.

Jeff Amerine: Before you do that, wait, that’s not all. This is the wait, but that’s not all point. We like to do a random musing at the beginning. So as you think about coming into a new year in 2022, what are you most looking forward to? And it can be anything at all.

Tim Houlne: For me, I think probably like most individuals, I’m looking forward to getting back to face-to-face meetings with everybody and traveling again. And I was fortunate to go to the Tournament of Champions golf tournament in Kapalua this last weekend. But looking forward to getting out to some sporting events and face-to-face meetings and traveling again. Back to the new normal, I guess you’ll say.

Jeff Amerine: Absolutely. That sounds great. Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, I’m looking forward to the predictability. So right now, we have to tentatively plan everything, right? And you tentatively plan a trip to here, you tentatively plan this gathering or that, knowing that if you have to postpone it, then what would be the alternate dates. And I’m just ready for the predictability and to remove the word “tentative” from everything we do.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. As I reflect on that a little bit, I mean, I’m optimistic. I really think that this latest variant, Omicron, is going to be the burnout for the pandemic. It’ll be endemic, and we’ll be past it. And had it recently, and it was about as severe as a cold. And I’m hoping that that’s kind of universally becomes the truth, and we get people past it, and therefore we can return to whatever that new normal is, but certainly not what we’ve had in 2020 and 2021. I think I’m optimistic, but it sure will be nice to get past this, for sure.

Tim Houlne: Agreed.

Jeff Standridge: All right. So I had jumped ahead. Now I’ll back up and jump back and say, so Tim, tell us a little bit about you and about your company.

Tim Houlne: Sure. So I grew up in the banking and finance industry and got into cellular and its infancy stage, which led to contact centers and call centers. But you didn’t actually call it that. You had 40 people in a room providing customer service and sales. And that later became known as a call center. So spent time in a contact center. And then later in my career became CEO of Working Solutions, which was one of the original pioneers of the home agent call center models. So back in the late nineties, we were putting people to work in a home for customer service and sales. And I joke about spending almost 20 plus years preaching the benefits of a work-at-home model when most people, most companies, said we’ll never work from home. And COVID hits, and the entire globe works from home in 30 days.
But I spent 16 years there. And then, about six years ago, I rolled some underperforming assets out of that group into a new company called Humach, which really focuses on customer experience and AI and automation around customer experience. So we make it easy for companies to create exceptional customer experiences using our skilled workforce and digital agent solutions. And that’s where we are today. So COVID actually helped us grow. People respond to this virtual service business, and certainly, AI and automation could take the place to help improve customer experience when there weren’t agents to be able to support a company’s brand.

Jeff Standridge: Very good.

Jeff Amerine: So is it chatbots? You have chatbots and intelligent AI-driven responses that will default to a human under certain circumstances?

Tim Houlne: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of myths about AI. So we look at digital agents as a conversational, kind of an artificial intelligence customer experience solution to help companies. I used to say, “automate high volume, low complexity transactions while delivering a better customer experience.” And my team, they continue to correct me in like, “Tim, we can complete some fairly complex transactions using APIs into customers data and payment gateways. So don’t say that anymore.” So it is a chatbot, I think chatbot was hurt by people who would just automate FAQs and say that it was a chatbot. True AI has, back to what Jeff said earlier, predictive. So we use a chatbot for customer support, but we also use it for agent assistance. So help humans access more information quicker and improve employee satisfaction. So when that transaction gets to an agent, the machine already knows the customer. They can create a personalized customer experience, predictive. They know who you are, what you like, how to help in advance of getting to the agents so they can make recommendations for that agent to help resolve the issues.

Jeff Amerine: Very cool.

Tim Houlne: And actually, one more point is the natural language voice. I think people are used to IVRs, but technology, and I’ll single out Google because I think their natural language processing engine from a voice perspective is one of the best. You have IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, they all have them, but you can truly have a natural language conversation with the machine. And if that conversational design is in place, it’s actually a great transaction. So people, if they can get their issues resolved, they really don’t care if they’re talking to a machine, a human, or whoever it is who can help solve their issues.

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks, we’ll be right back with the episode. But first, we want to tell you about a limited opportunity to take advantage of our strategic growth diagnostic. For a short time only, we’re offering a free strategy call to see whether or not our unique diagnostic tool is right for you. Go to innovationjunkie.com/diagnostic to learn more.

Jeff Standridge: So give us an example, maybe, that our listeners might be familiar with of one of the most, call it innovative input implementations of the work that Humach does, that we may or may not be familiar with.

Tim Houlne: Yep. I would say for most companies, any AI and automation is innovative. That’s why we like Innovation Junkie. We target innovative companies with forward-thinking executives, and you guys are helping companies embrace this digital transformation. So I don’t even think, Jeff, it has to be that completely innovative. I look at companies today that don’t have 24 by 7 by 365 support. And I ask why. Your customers can reach you day in, day out, nighttime, anytime. Why can’t you at least attempt to resolve a transaction? Do they need to reset a password? Do they need to update their credit card? Do they need to update their address? Can you try, at least attempt to automate a transaction? Maybe start with a 20, 30, 40% containment rate, and go up from there. But you’re at least attempting to resolve an issue instead of saying call back tomorrow at nine o’clock.
And so if you’re not able to resolve it, if you could dump that into a trouble ticket and tell the agent, “Hey, we’re going to work on this, and we’ll get back to you tomorrow by noon.” You, as a customer, feel like that’s a pretty good experience. They heard me, and they logged my issue. I might be able to log in and see that ticket and see the evolution of that ticket. But I think it is a better customer experience. And so is that innovation, or just applying some of the technology that’s available out there to help customer experience?

Jeff Amerine: No, that’s great. And as to follow onto that, how far do you see some of this going? We’ve got clients out of Asia that have some pretty interesting technology that they would call AI humans, in that it’s an interactive human on the screen and not computer-generated. I mean, it’s somebody they’ve taken photographs of, and then they manipulate. Some would call it deep fake technology, but it’s not used for that sort of purpose. It’s really intended to make it a more human experience, with visual customer service, responsiveness, and natural language conversations. How far do you see some of that going in retail and banking and all these different sectors?

Tim Houlne: You know, I’d say that’s a great question that we’re going to continue to follow. And I’ll tell you my opinion of it is. To date, people have not embraced avatar type, or the visual graphic of that agent more than a typical phone call. Now, will that change with Facebook turning into Meta? Probably. I think you’ll start to see these avatar-type characters. I think you’ll see that in the Meta universe, you’re going to be able to resolve issues by going up to basically a machine that has some type of persona that you can ask questions and log tickets and get resolution. And at the end of the day, that’s really what customer support is. It’s not only to resolve my issues but to fix the underlying issue that caused my problem in the first place, whether by redesigning that product or making it easier and more seamless to interact with my company.
So I think Meta will drive some of that avatar adoption, but we really haven’t seen a big difference to date. If you have a visual avatar, which we’ve tested some of this, and then you have just a voice call, you haven’t seen anybody migrate to that visual as a better customer experience yet. But I think with the Meta environment changing, that’s probably going to change.

Jeff Standridge: So Tim, I know just looking back as we were preparing for this conversation today, over the course of the last several months, you’ve added a number of veterans from a variety of different areas to the company. What’s on the horizon for Humach?

Tim Houlne: Well, I think we really want to improve customer experience. We want to make it easier for companies to embrace some of the AI and automation and change the way they do business for the better. And in order to do that, you have to change the mindset of some of these people. And again, I don’t say that lightly when I say we target innovative companies with forward-thinking executives because they’re really trying to change the game. And we’re confident they’re going to control the market share in the future if they improve customer experience. And actually, I’d love to see this from a publicly-traded company perspective, where you could actually have some type of metric, maybe it’s Net Promoter Score or a new metric that’s more reflective of how a company treats their customers.
But if you were able to measure that, would you see a direct correlation with their underlying stock performance or competitiveness in the marketplace? And I’m pretty convinced you would. I think customer experience is the underlying denominator that’s going to help companies grow in the future. And so on one side, I used to say it’s effortless experiences for customers. But I think what’s equally as important now is effortless tools and navigation for employees to get that information and empower them to get a resolution for that customer. And so you see a change on both sides. One, it makes it easier for the customer to do business with you. It also makes it easier for your company and your employees to deliver a better, more improved customer experience.

Jeff Standridge: So what, when you think about customer experience and the application of tools and technology, AI and machine learning, and natural language processing and what have you, what do you see in the clients you do business with? What do you see in terms of the intersection of technology and customer experience culture that they have there? You see a big dependency there? How does that look from your perspective?

Tim Houlne: Yep, I do. I think where companies get caught, and again, I’ll go back to Innovation Junkie, because I think you guys help alleviate some of this pain, is they want to make that change, but their legacy IT platforms make it difficult for them to make a change. So they’re talking about, “Yeah, we’d love to do that, but we put it in IT, and then now it’s on our 2023 roadmap.” Well, you’re a business owner internally, and you don’t have time to wait for Q1 or Q2 of 2023. You literally want to test that technology. And if it’s right, you want to roll it out. If not, you want to fail fast and select another technology. And I think the limitation of some of the legacy IT has really been a hindrance in this. We actually, to the point we created Humach Labs, which allows companies to incubate some of this technology within their ecosystem without sticking their stake in the ground where they can test this and see if it works for their business.
Now, in order to get into our Humach Labs, you have to have open published APIs, and you have to be able to integrate with other technologies. Because so many of these companies, especially large enterprises, have silos, one department selected this technology, and it doesn’t work with this other department’s technology. You really have to come together. You need that kind of unified strategic initiative right from the top that says, “Listen, we want all of our technology to work together. We want to bring all of this together and focus on that customer experience.”

Jeff Standridge: Very good.

Jeff Amerine: You know, you’ve been wrapped into this whole customer experience area and figuring out how to make that frictionless and better. But I gather as you think about going into a client and you’ve got an opportunity to do some automation and put AI in. The message, and correct me if I’m wrong, is not we’re going to allow you to reduce a bunch of headcount. Isn’t it more of you’re you’re turning that headcount into a situation where it’s more productivity? They’re able to be more efficient and happier, is that what I heard you say before? Talk about that a little.

Tim Houlne: Absolutely. Actually, you hit on what’s critical right now. Companies are not able to hire people, and it’s not just the services industry. You have that in the retail and the hospitality industry. Minimum wages are going up. And so we’re not trying to displace humans. Humans are required. Humans are in the loop in AI, especially for the conversational design, the intent, the editorial review, the ethical review of that AI. Somebody has to review this to make sure that those responses are accurate. And I think companies are having a hard time hiring. So if you can replace some of those, I’ll say more simplistic transactions, can you train and elevate that human workforce to do more, be more efficient so that ultimately you could pay them more. And so, is there a balance from an economic perspective that allows you to pay those people more and still deliver a better customer experience? And I think that’s key, what you just said, Jeff.

Jeff Standridge: Well, Tim, tell us where our listeners can best find you, and best find Humach.

Tim Houlne: Well, we try to be everywhere. So, LinkedIn, we have the website humach.com. We love having conversations with companies, even if they’re not ready to deploy today, we want to work with these forward-thinking companies, whether it’s today, tomorrow, or next year or in three years, because we know that it’s impossible to stop this train. Digital adoption is here, companies need to embrace this digital transformation for their business, or they’re going to lose market share. So we love having conversations. We love scoping out something innovative and creative, and for some reason, we’re attracted to this business. I don’t know why. I think it’s because we think it’s still broken. There’s just fruit on the ground. It’s not just low-hanging fruit, actual fruit on the ground. So yeah, I appreciate being on the show.

Jeff Standridge: Talk a little bit about who those ideal customers are, the ones where you have the conversations, and it fairly quickly transitions into a jointly productive and a jointly beneficial relationship, or mutually beneficial relationship.

Tim Houlne: Yep. I’d say the biggest growth that we’ve had, and we’ve experienced over 700% growth since pre-COVID, and that wasn’t just driven by AI and automation. It was driven by our ability to run a virtual service business. So what comes with that? You have to put people in the home. It has to be a secure environment. You have to have all the security compliance. Then you have to have the engagement tools to keep those agents. You have to prep these agents and train them in a virtual environment, then measure the performance and monitor the agents in a virtual environment. I think companies struggled when they just threw people in the home because of COVID. And now everybody’s coming back saying, well, wait a minute, I need security compliance. My attrition’s up higher. How do I manage these people in the home?
And so I think that’s a big growth area, ideal customer for us. And companies that operate contact centers, that’s a sweet spot for us because we look at a lot of those businesses. We might do some speech analytics and come back and say, “Okay, you have 600 agents. We think we can automate 60 or 80 FTEs worth of agents and deliver a better customer experience. So there are cost savings there. And if you look at their attrition, you’re probably not displacing any agents, just augmenting their attrition. So that becomes an ideal customer, allowing them to focus that workforce and keep those agents longer. And it’s just providing some of the tools that would be hard for them to get through their enterprise and provide them on a per-usage basis so that they can try to accomplish that AI adoption or remote work from home needs.

Jeff Standridge: Excellent. Tim, it’s been a pleasure having you with us today. We appreciate you for taking the time to spend it with us.

Tim Houlne: Thank you. Thanks for having me on the show, and you keep doing what you guys are doing.

Jeff Standridge: Well, you bet. If there’s anything we can do to support you, give us a shout, and we’d love to serve you in some capacity. So thank you so much.

Tim Houlne: Thank you much. Have a great week.

Jeff Amerine: Sure thing.

Jeff Standridge: This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. Thank you for joining. See you next time.

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks, this is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the Innovation Junkies podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now, and please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

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