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Girish Mathrubootham of Freshworks: Automate What’s Automatable, But Not at the Expense of the Customer Experience





Now that Labor Day is in the rear view mirror, the Fall conference season has already swung into full speed. For example, this week was Freshwork’s Refresh Conference… in Las Vegas.

While checking out the conference, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Freshworks’ CEO and founder Girish Mathrubootham.  He discusses why he sees himself more as a support guy who became a CEO. And less as a CEO who does email support. He also explained why automation should never compromise customer experience. And why he’s willing to give employees the time and opportunity to “find themselves” and their role in the company.  He also talks about hosting a fireside chat with Shaquille O’Neal during the conference. To me was the highlight of Refresh.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.  To hear the full interview watch the video, or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.

A Closer Look at Freshworks

Automation and Customer Experience

Brent Leary: How does your recent acquisition of customer success platform Natero help fill out your customer engagement platform?

Girish Mathrubootham: I think companies are struggling with this, and they are trying to integrate everything. And now that costs a lot of manual effort, time and money. And finally you manage to integrate everything, what happens? One of these vendors releases a new upgrade. And then the integration breaks. And then you have to call in the consultants again and then you do more professional services.

So this is the reality today. And that is what we are questioning as the big opportunity for a new player. We fully understand that large enterprises who have already sunk millions of dollars into all these different systems may not be able to throw away. So they have to still live with this stitching everything together. But what about customers who want to start fresh? No pun intended.

How to Communicate with your Customers

Brent Leary: I was going to say, that was perfect.

Girish Mathrubootham: Say you and I are starting a company tomorrow. Do we really have to buy a CRM and six different tools and stitch everything together? Or can we start off with the assumption that we are going to talk to our customers across the entire lifecycle. So we market to new customers, new prospects. Some of them will become leads. And then we will talk to them via email, phone. And some of them will become customers and they will talk to us via phone, email, social media. And then we will market more to our customers and then we will get them to buy more.

So this is a cycle. Can we design a new experience where all this technology already exists? Can we make it a seamless experience? That is what we spoke about and what I spoke about in today’s keynote in terms of the future of customer engagement being contextual, being predictive, being anywhere engagement because customers are anywhere today. And collaborative. How can we get everybody in the company to come in and do this?

Enter Freshworks 360

That completes the puzzle because when we announced Freshworks 360 last year, we were trying to integrate sales, marketing and support and present a single unified view of the customer. Then we realized, it’s not about only sales, marketing and support. It’s also, after they become a customer, how can we leverage more data signals that these customers are sending us by usage of product, by visiting our website, by the conversations that they’re having?

Can we understand our customers better? Can we differentiate our premium customer from our regular customers? Can we offer superior service to our premium customers? Can we extract, offer better service and extract more lifetime value from these customers?

Every business is doing it. They want to do it. You hear talking about an ad line with a frequent flyer program or a bank with a relationship manager. So, we are all doing it. But can this be automatic? So that’s the villain we are fighting. It’s not the software, it’s about the way software is supposed to be built, the way software is supposed to be delivered, implemented and consumed.

About Automation and Customer Experience

Brent Leary: One of the things you said during the keynote is, you don’t want to automate everything at the expense of the customer experience. Maybe you can illustrate exactly what that means.

Girish Mathrubootham: Today we are seeing this pattern where every company is struggling with the need to automate. The fundamental nature of, say, IT or customer support is that it is viewed as a cost center. And sometimes it is not linearly scalable. If you are a small company and you get, say, a thousand calls in a month and let’s say you have 10 people. Now if your business scales to 10,000 calls, should you hire 100 people? And what if it becomes 50,000 calls?

The business is growing but you cannot linearly scale the number of support reps just to handle the increased volume because sometimes what happens is the volume may drop, it could be unpredictable, the cost escalates more than the cost of the support ticket. The cost of a person is much more.

Automation is a Basic Necessity

So what I’m saying is fundamentally every business understands this. There is a business driver to automate the repetitive aspects of customer support or service, so that we can get customers what they want in a consistent, fast manner, but still be able to do more with these same people where you don’t have to actually keep hiring more and more people.

And that is where companies want to use technology. Now, we also have on the other hand, innovative new startups which are coming up with chat bots or AI/ML, they are going to large banks, they are going to large e-commerce companies and they are saying, “We can automate customer experience. You can turn on the bots and then go home.”

Looking at the Limits of Bots to Do the Job

The problem is, there’s only so much that the bots can do. Customers want to talk to real people. So the key differentiation or what the point to think about is, where do you draw the line? When will a customer prefer talking to a bot versus when will a customer want to talk to a human being?

Obviously if the customer can always talk to a human being, that maybe perfect, but it’s not ideal for the business. And let’s talk about business hours. If you are calling a company at 7 PM or 8 PM or 12 midnight, it is not possible for many small businesses to actually staff up like that.

Good Customer Experience — From a Machine?

So what happens? You are not talking to a bot but the customer is still talking to a machine. It’s called voicemail. So you call and then you reach voicemail, you leave a message and then you wait for a response until the next day when somebody comes to work and then they actually reply to you.

If you can actually talk to a machine and leave voicemail, why can’t you actually talk to a machine and get the answer immediately? So that is where the questions can be answered with confidence and immediately and consistently. Those are all areas where a business should look at automation. But also, there are cases where the questions are complex. It requires human interpretation.

Make Humans Part of the Experience

It requires somebody to break the process. A lot of times a process is not set in stone. You have to do the right thing for the customer. So when you want that, then you want the bot to fail. As a business you want the bot to fail and say, “Hey, I am sorry about that, but I cannot help you with this. But you know what? Let me connect you to a human being on my team, my colleague, who can help you with that.”

And the beauty is, we can seamlessly transfer and the customer does not have to repeat themselves, the human can now see the entire conversation that the customer has had with the bot, the context is fully transferred and the human can do the right thing. So whenever it’s a straightforward, simple answer following an established process where the customer needs consistent, quick responses, bots are great. Whenever you need empathy, when you need processes to be broken, where humans can do the right thing for the customer, I think handover to the human.

Not automating it may not be affordable for the business. Fully automating it may be bad for the customers, so the fine line is automate what is automatable but then fall back…

CEO on Support

Brent Leary: Four years ago we talked and you had set up this site called CEO On Support. And, in addition to you, because you were jumping on as the CEO and founder of the company, you were still handling first-line support calls and you were putting a call out to other CEOs to do the same thing. That was four years ago and your company has grown a lot bigger since then. But do you still try to keep your hands sometimes involved in those first-line support activities?

Girish Mathrubootham: Yes. I always monitor Twitter and Facebook or social media. So when customers reach out for help, I am responding to customers and copying our teams to come and do the right thing. So I also do email support. I would like to say I am not the CEO on support, I am the support guy who became CEO. I started my career in support as a presales engineer, so I think that would be the right term for me.

Key to Better Automation and Customer Experience is Better People

Brent Leary: Tell us about Anna and why it’s important to understand her story with respect to the Freshworks corporate culture.

Girish Mathrubootham: Anna is a girl whom I hired fresh out of college in 2012. But the story of Anna could be the story of any employee. So, let’s look at it from that angle. I was the person who interviewed her in 2012, so when we went to an off-campus location and we got some of the students and we made 12 offers I think in that year. So when I interviewed Anna, she had good communication skills, seemed like a smart engineer, so we decided to hire her in marketing because usually in SMB product marketing you want people who can write well.

Most of our product marketing in SMB was on the website content. So we put her in content marketing team in product marketing. It turned out to be a failure, bad move because she could not do creative writing. At that time, during the interview, one thing I had promised her was, I don’t know where you will fit in but we will try.

What You Need to Know About Employees

My fundamental belief was there are no bad employees, there are only bad fits. We had a situation where the employee, the manager was unhappy with the employee and the employee was really feeling bad because she was not doing well in her job, but I remembered my promise to her that we’ll try different things.

So we moved her into SEO. It’s still marketing, still I was hoping I could make use of her communication skills. But, again, she was not cut out to be an SEO marketer. And this is all happening between 2012 and 2013. So very, very early days. So when we had our first customer support team, you have to remember, in those days, we were operating out of Chennai in India and we were supporting customers globally.

And it meant that people had to work in the night shift for the US customers. In India the law does not allow us to hire women employees for the night shift if we don’t provide a cab facility for picking up and dropping them and we should also have a security guard in the car to take them. So this is the law.

So we couldn’t hire any women engineers in the early years for the night shift. But then we decided, okay, let’s set up a European shift. And I wanted to try her in customer support because she still has good communication skills, writing skills, her English was good, her articulation was good so she was not doing well in marketing so we thought, okay, let’s give her a chance in support.

How to Unlock an Employee’s Potential

I think that’s when we probably unlocked her career in 2013. Anna came on to be one of our rock star customer support reps. I think in 2014 she won an award in San Francisco for the Customer Service Champion award; she won because her customers voted her for that award. Then she became the first customer success manager in Freshworks and she was, until very recently, handling European operations. Many of her European customers just go to Anna. She is the go-to person. She is their voice inside the company. She would just take care of the customers and they love her.

And we have announced a new community, a Fresh Community, which Anna is going to be in charge of as the community manager. The reason I’m telling you this story is, as a CEO with a fundamental belief that if you find great people, especially young people, sometimes people have to figure out who they are, what makes them tick.

A Manager’s Responsibility

It is an equal responsibility for the manager as well as for the employee, because, especially when you’re young in your career, you don’t know yet. So it’s important to keep trying stuff, as long as the employee has a great attitude, you have to be patient to wait for the results to come. And if we had operated where we give a performance appraisal to Anna and said, “Okay, you didn’t do well in marketing so… We could have destroyed a star. We would’ve lost a star.

So the story of Anna actually shows… and we have many more stories, but I’m just using Anna’s story as an example where fundamentally we believe that you have to find the right fit. And when you find the role that really taps into the core talent of the employee, that’s when work becomes play.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary


Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

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