Broadband Technology Report recently sat down for an interview with Alan Coleman, CEO and co-founder of Sweepr, for a talk about the company and the need it fulfills for operators in today’s broadband industry.
BTR: Can you provide some background on Sweepr as a company?
Alan Coleman: The business was founded in late 2017, early 2018. The focus of the business is on how to transform technical support and the whole experience of requesting help and getting help and making that a lot less painful – a much better experience. And in so doing, removing a lot of the operational costs associated with providing technical support today by many of the telecommunications companies, cable operators and wireless companies that find themselves in the position of having to provide this support.
The business recently raised $9 million in a Series A funding round participated in by Draper Esperit and the Amazon Alexa Fund, and by another VC called Frontline.
BTR: Can you provide a thumbnail description of what Sweepr does?
AC: Effectively it’s a white-label technical support platform that’s contextually adaptive. What we’re talking about is, we need to be able to react to the specific nature of a given person’s problem. So, we need to understand that problem and understand the person, and if we understand those two contexts, we’ll do a much better job of helping them with the issue they have.
BTR: Can you fill us in on your history in the broadband industry?
AC: This is our second company in this space. Previously, [my partners and I] founded a company called BrightBill. BrightBill was focused on the customer experience associated with receiving a bill from a telecommunications provider. We effectively separated the art of explaining the bill to somebody from the science of calculating the bill.
We built a presentation platform that sat separate to the mainframe billing engine, and that allowed us to create much more intuitive and empathic bills that were more personalized to each recipient, and any particular issue on the bill that might raise eyebrows. We sold it to most of the North American Tier 1 carriers, wireless providers and cable operators. So, if you receive a bill from your wireless provider, and that wireless provider is AT&T or Sprint or T-Mobile or Comcast, they use BrightBill to present their bills.
We scaled that business until we sold it in 2016. When we sold it, we were doing 200 million bills a month through the platform. We sold the business to AmDocs, and that journey taught us a lot about the economics and the dynamics of a.) building a large enterprise, scalable software and b.) the effects of ‘bad experience’ on operational costs.
In fact, when we deployed BrightBill for one of our customers, they saved $50 million in the first year because they had such a material decline in billing-related calls to care.
BTR: How did the idea for Sweepr come about?
With Sweeper, we looked around and were thinking about doing something different, and I had a couple of experiences related to technical support, and we looked at that as a bigger and more intractable challenge. Billing was relatively static, but technical support is constantly evolving and the landscape’s constantly shifting. But we also saw the economic impact – people spend a lot more money on trying to handle technical support issues than they do on billing issues.
BTR: How would you characterize Sweepr’s market opportunity?
This is probably pretty obvious. With more increased use of broadband and proliferation of connected devices -- all concentrated and accentuated by the recent last 90 days or so when people have been more at home -- more work is being done on these networks, and what’s happened is you’ve seen this massive acceleration of people’s consumption of digital platforms.
With that comes more complexity and more dependency and more problems. And when problems occur, then people need help. So you’ve got a lot of growth in the use of self-service -- although as our survey showed, also questionable outcomes as to whether the self-service is able to meet the desire that people have to solve their problems.
There’s a serious amount of OPEX driven by technical support issues. With all of this in the mix, and based on our experience at BrightBill, it occurred to me, based on some of the experiences that I had had, that it felt like it was an inevitability that at some point in the future we’d be able to get technical support from a voice assistant.
That we’d be able to say, Hey Alexa, why the hell is my network so slow? Or why is my TV not working, or why is the fridge too warm – and that there would be this layer of care that could sit across all my connected products and services. And particularly those ones that are interdependent.
That’s probably one of the strangest dynamics occurring. That more and more of the things we do online are not simple tasks. Like playing a video game can be 7 to 8 different network products and services collaborating so that you can play that game. And those relationships are informal. So I buy an Xbox in the retail store but the supplier doesn’t know who my broadband provider is, it just works. But when it doesn’t work, then the only person responsible for solving the problem is me.
So that sort of complexity creates a real impediment to the proliferation of connected services and devices, and it felt to me like inevitably there’s going to a layer of support that sits on top of that. And I sort of figured that Sweepr’s opportunity was, is now the right time to simplify that, and to try to tackle that customer experience around technical support?
And I felt that based on where technology was, the proliferation of devices, and diagnostically rich knowledge about what’s happening in a home, that now was the time to build something that kind of humanized the care, in a self-care way. So that’s kind of where Sweepr came from.
BTR: What were some other key takeaways from Sweepr’s recent industry survey?
AC: One, preventing engineers needing to cross the threshold – self-install and that kind of thing. And two, commentary about way more people are depending on the network and, hence, needing to provide more care for those customers. There’s been this acceleration of demand for more care, but the efficacy of what’s on offer in relation to self-serve is pretty questionable. And that’s the core focus of what our survey basically concluded.
BTR: Can you give us a walk-through of how the Sweepr platform actually works?
AC: We call it contextually adaptive – there’s two contexts we’re focusing on. One is the technical context; and the second is you, the customer, what’s your context, what kind of person are you? And we combine those two things to try to make the support experience way more effective and more appropriate for your level of technical competency.
Effectively with Sweepr, you can ask for help through any number of different channels. You can talk to Alexa, you can talk to Google Assistant, you can talk into an app, type into a chat box -- and we sit behind all of that and we take what you’ve said or typed and we parse it and dig for the intent or the need.
We then also combine that with all the available diagnostics for the home. We look at the strength and health of the network layer, we look at the devices sitting on that network, and we look at the services that might be being consumed on that network. Combining what you’ve said with what we see, we then identify what we think the problem might be.
There’s really 4 pathways that Sweepr delivers. One is, we know what the problem is, so we’ll just go ahead and fix that, we’ll make an adjustment on the radar or reboot something, et cetera, to get it working. The second pathway is: we know what the problem is but we can’t do anything remotely, but we can guide you, the customer, to fix the problem, or maybe we can just educate you, explain to you why something is working the way it is. Like, the WiFi won’t go to your loft, because it’s too far away, for example. Or you’re trying to do too much stuff at the same time, and that’s why your network is slow. So this is all kind of instructional information.
The third pathway is commercial. It might be we need to suggest you need a different data plan, or you need an extender to get the right WiFi coverage. And then finally, there’s what we call Context-Assisted Intervention, that’s really our “graceful failure” pathway. So when we don’t understand what you’ve said, we just couldn’t quite pick it up, or we don’t know how to help you with the problem you’ve described, then what we do is we take what you’ve said, we capture what you’ve said or typed, we take what we saw, we take a snapshot of the diagnostics at the time, and anything we did, anything we attempted to do to fix it, and we raise all of that as a ticket on the queue for a human agent to work the problem.
And in that way, the customer, once they’ve expressed their problem in some way, they’re now unburdened effectively -- it’s with the carrier or provider to work the problem offline and hopefully address the problem, and either message you to say it’s been fixed, or maybe initiate an outbound call to walk you through whatever has to happen.
BTR: So the platform is fundamentally concerned with improving technical support processes?
AC: We looked at what makes technical support good today, and there was two things that make it good. One is, if eventually you do get to speak to a good agent, the agent has all of the technical tools to look into your home and figure out what’s wrong and make an adjustment. So they’re enabled.
The second thing they do is, they listen to you as you ask your question. As you speak to them, they’re making maybe even subconscious decisions about how technical you are. So when they start talking back to you, they adjust the vocabulary they use, the pace they use, and how they talk to you. So my mother who’s 75 gets a different experience then I might, because I’m slightly more technical.
In reshaping how support works and making it more effective, making self-care more effective, we had to make sure that we reflected on the fact that not everybody is as technical as everybody else. We have to be able to help the non-technical people, arguably more than the confident people. Because it could be argued that confident people could solve many of the problems themselves. And indeed, much of the self-care that’s available has kind of got a selection bias, in that it’s naturally technical in nature, so therefore it’s more amenable or more acceptable to a confident technical person.
BTR: It seems like quite a bit of human psychology analysis went into devising the Sweepr platform...
AC: Avoidant people tend to be the people who are most prevalent in calling call centers. The non-technical types. They’re also the least likely to try self-care and the least likely to persist with self-care. If it doesn’t work, they lose confidence, they stop and they ring.
But when we’ve designed our resolutions and our care journey specifically for avoidant people, we’ve found that we get them to try it more often and persist with it for longer.
A lot of that has to do with psychological encouragement. So, it’s not to do with the simplicity of the instruction, but it’s oftentimes to do with more like, hey we’ve got 5 steps to go, you’ve done 2, you’re doing great, let’s keep going. And we guide them and hold their hand through the process.
Today, technical support help is at the end of, digging for your account number, digging out what number you should call, waiting in line to talk to an agent, speaking to one agent, hoping they help, getting escalated, etc. All of that time spent is distance between the problem happening and the solution happening. So we’re trying to narrow that gap as much as possible.