Veteran founder-led Tuul raises $1.7M to reimagine customer service for the mobile era

By Michael Carney , written on July 1, 2014

From The News Desk

Ask a crowded room how many people like waiting on hold to talk to a customer service rep, and you’re unlikely to see many hands. The same is true of the number of people who diligently check and respond to unsolicited emails sent by large corporations like their bank or mobile carrier. Now contrast those consumer experiences with the ease of ordering an Uber or communicating with friends and family via a messaging client like Facebook or WhatsApp (now one and the same).

We live in an on-demand, mobile-first world. The problem is, most businesses have yet to catch up.

Tuul is a Santa Cruz-based startup that thinks its new business-to-consumer (B2C) interaction platform may be the answer. It’s a big problem to tackle, but Tuul is founded by a pair of proven entrepreneurs in former USWeb founders Toby Corey, most recently Chief Revenue Officer of SolarCity, and Wayne Tsuchitani, who spent the last several years in private equity investor.

The pair today announced $1.7 million in Seed funding from a syndicate led by Greycroft Partners and including Raine Group, Streamlined Ventures, and what the company describes as “several renowned, yet currently confidential media and tech angel investors.”

In other words, this isn’t two pimply faced kids in a co-working space. To borrow Greycroft partner Mark Terbeek’s assessment, “this is a baller team, targeting a giant market, looking to create major disruption around a big problem that hasn't kept pace with innovation elsewhere.” When you put it like that, you can imagine why investors were eager to back this nascent venture. Corey and Tsuchitani were inclined to bootstrap Tuul’s early development, they tell me, but the opportunity to partner with notable institutions in validating the idea and accelerating market entry apparently proved too attractive to pass up.

Corey, who describes Tuul as a next-generation way of “provisioning of customer service across all horizontal industries,” likes to point out that the average American spends some 13 hours per year on hold with customer service. “The phone is antiquated and no one has created a workflow standard for how consumers interact with businesses in today’s world,” he says. ”The average consumer has 41 apps on their phone but uses only five percent of them regularly. Consumers don’t want to interact with businesses through silos, which means they’re not going to download a dedicated app for each interaction.”

Make no mistake about it, Tuul is still very early. The founders have laid out a compelling vision for how the platform will work and have assembled what appears to be an elite 13-person (and growing) team that is currently sprinting to make it a reality. But, at the moment, there’s no finished product to speak of. The company hopes to launch a beta version of its platform in September, with several marquee enterprise brands already lined up to participate. A general commercial release is targeted for Q1 of next year.

As Corey and Tsuchitani envision it, Tuul will allow consumers to aggregate all their corporate customer service interactions into a single platform – mobile carrier billing, next to banking, next to landscaping services, while being as simple and efficient as today’s most popular mobile messaging clients. Businesses will be able to “push” custom widgets – such as those for scheduling, forms, contracting, payment, and feedback – to consumers through the app enabling easy, touch-centric responses.

For businesses – initially large enterprises, but eventually companies of all sizes – Tuul will be a TweetDeck-like online dashboard, according to corey, that will allow customer service departments to view and interact with inbound consumer inquiries. The plan is for the platform to interface with, rather than compete with, existing CRM (Salesforce) and help-desk (Zendesk) platforms. Businesses will also be able to set rules to automation elements of the customer service process – consumers just shuddered thinking of robo-operators – and will have access to rich analytics.

“No one’s doing what we’re doing,” Corey says. “The real magic is a set of service level configurations and APIs we’re developing to allow companies to automate workflow.”

Again, it’s a compelling vision. But turning that vision into a reality and then getting it in the hands of the various consumer and business constituents that need it will no small undertaking.

Tuul will be sold as a SaaS software license. The company is still finalizing its pricing structure but is leaning toward a per-customer interaction model, according to Corey, who notes that the current market rate for prior-generation solutions is $12 to $15 per month, per customer. “We think we can do better,” he says.

“People under 45 hate the phone and don't even want to talk to people that are important in their lives, let alone companies they're pissed at. It makes a ton of sense intellectually from consumer perspective,” Greycroft’s Terbeek says. “Companies win based on the cost savings [of reduced customer call center and other customer service staff] and improved customer satisfaction scores. The big challenge is to pull it off in a way for the consumer that its simple and elegant and you know you're in process of getting your issue solved is the big challenge. For businesses, they’ll need to overcome the big historical investments into legacy customer service infrastructure. But if anyone can pull that off, it’s this team.”

There is little doubt that there is a real opportunity to disrupt customer service, but Tuul has yet to prove that its idea is the answer, or that it can deliver on its early vision. For example, research from competitor Zendesk suggests that Tuul’s one app to rule them all strategy may not be the answer the company expects it to be. Companies receive the highest customer service scores by responding quickly to consumers wherever they are, which means interacting across Facebook, Twitter, email, phone, online chat, self-serve forums, and FAQ. Just listing out those half-dozen options illustrates why this category is in need of disruption. And yet, change is hard for both consumers and businesses. Tuul will not only need to deliver a compelling product but convince the masses to adopt it.

Greycroft and company clearly invested in Tuul based on the strength of its founding team. And as Terbeek noted, the market opportunity is huge for anyone able to deliver and, just as importantly, distribute a truly better mousetrap. We should have a better idea by Fall just how formidable Tuul’s product will be. In the meantime, chalk this one up as a calculated bet on a veteran team. There are worse ways to wager a few million bucks.

[Image via MarselVanOosten]