What happens when startup companies make customer service part of their cultural DNA? They grow fast, disrupt the status quo, and put establishment brands on notice.
We’re seeing this happen all around us. NYC-based startups of all kinds are becoming household names by not only listening to their customers, but enlisting them to help shape the brand experience. With each new round of feedback and customer-inspired idea, these startups are finding new ways to amaze.
So what are these brands doing differently on the front line? And what strategies and tools are they using behind the scenes?
Here’s a look at 13 of the coolest NYC startups that make outstanding customer service look easy.
Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna founded Birchbox in 2010 to make it easy for women to change up their beauty routines. Subscribers receive monthly home deliveries of samples chosen just for them, with the option of buying full-size items online. Today, Birchbox has more than 2.5 million subscribers.
Just as Birchbox personalizes each selection of beauty products, its team makes a big effort to personally engage customers on social media channels. Birchbox’s annual Customer Appreciation Day is an all-hands-on-deck effort to not only resolve customer issues, but also look for opportunities to create memorable moments.
“Our main goal this year was customization and personalization. It wasn’t just about questions or comments, but outreach whenever anyone mentioned Birchbox. We wanted to reach as many customers as possible over the course of the day, and respond with personalized offers based on what they’ve bought in the past or what type of messages they responded to. [ . . . ]
We’re making it a focused moment when you can really do a lot about it and gather the company around it and really engage with customers.”
–Kima Cooper, director of social content
Founded by Chieh Huang in 2013, Boxed is an online retailer selling everything from bulk groceries and home goods to computer accessories and small appliances. In just five years, Boxed has grown to become a $100 million enterprise. Earlier this year, Boxed rejected a $400 million acquisition offer.
Boxed’s largest, most reliable customer base is millennial moms. Earlier this year, the brand launched its “Momcierge” service just for them. No matter when moms go online to buy, a human Momcierge is available to chat and help with buying decisions. Momcierges also predict future needs based on customer purchase histories and order refills of household essentials.
“We would love a chatbot to be able to understand everything that a mom is going through, but the reality is that the technology isn’t there right now, and new parents are going through one of the more exciting yet craziest times in their lives. We see a real opportunity to support and simplify through personalized technology.”
–Ashish Prashar, VP of communications
Brooklinen was founded in 2014 by Rich and Vicki Fulop, who were on a mission to make luxury bedding more affordable by developing their own products and selling them directly to consumers. In its first three years, Brooklinen’s revenues grew from $2 million to nearly $48 million. This year, Brooklinen ranked 25th on the Inc. 5000 list.
The cost and quality of the company’s products are appealing enough, but there are other reasons customers remain fiercely loyal. First, Brooklinen pays close attention to customer data and responds by adjusting its product offerings.
From the very start, the Fulops have been obsessive about collecting as much data as possible from customers. They’re able to assess which products are most popular, then break down their analysis by region, gender, and time of year. All of this helps them determine how much of each product to make and how to market the product.
But more interestingly, they boost their numerical data with qualitative data. More than half of their staff is involved with customer service of some kind, and when a pair of sheets is returned, these employees ask the customer what products they would have preferred: Was there a particular pattern they would have liked better? A color selection they were looking for?
Second, Brooklinen customers like the way they’re treated on the front line, thanks to Brooklinen’s hands-on customer service training and gamified call center environment. Whether they’re in house or outsourced and remote, Brooklinen customer service agents are given a five-star welcome and treated like part of the brand family.
In 2017, Stephen Kuhl and Kabeer Chopra launched Burrow, an online retailer that delivers foldable couches and armchairs that require no assembly (customers need only attach the legs). The furniture is a hit with millennial customers, who have pushed the company past $500,000 in monthly sales.
Burrow offers “fast and free” shipping for all purchases, but there have been hiccups in the fulfillment process. Fortunately, the Burrow team is committed to quick, transparent service recovery, which has the power to turn disappointed customers into ardent fans.
“Some things you can solve, and some things you have to accept that you can’t solve right away. Do your best to communicate that to your customers and let them know, ‘Hey these are the challenges we’re facing, we’re doing our best to make it right by you.’ People become a lot more understanding and appreciative.”
–Stephen Kuhl, cofounder
Founded by Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider, Harry’s debuted in 2013 as a higher quality, less costly alternative to Dollar Shave Club. In 2015, the company grew at more than twice the rate of all online shaving clubs (DSC included). In 2017, Target officially signed on as a Harry’s distributor.
Harry’s laid the foundation for its success in two important ways. First, the company uses VoC data to fuel innovation.
Gillette, historically the most innovative of the razor companies, has released, on average, a couple of unique product lines every decade. It took Harry’s only two years to turn all of its customer data into a new release. The hope is to speed past Gillette in the next decade.
Second, Harry’s has made great customer service a core value and strategic priority. This testimonial from a happy customer captures a defining moment in his relationship with the brand.
“Earlier this year, curious to learn firsthand what all the Harry’s hubbub was about, I decided to try it myself. After submitting my order, I received what I was certain was an impersonal email, even though it appeared otherwise. I responded by (politely) accusing the sender of being a robot, to see what—if any—response that elicited.
Here is what wound up in my inbox a few hours later:
Hey, I’m not a robot either.
(E-mail shared with permission)
Now, scaling deeply human customer service like that is difficult. Chatbots are certainly part of the future, but will they ever have that good a sense of humor? For the moment, however . . . Harry’s made for a great experience.”
6. Hello Alfred
Inspired by Batman’s butler, Marcela Sapone and Jessica Beck introduced Hello Alfred in 2014 as a concierge service for busy apartment dwellers. Hello Alfred’s “Alfreds” take care of everyday tasks—cleaning, grocery shopping, pet care, simple installations, party planning, and more—as assigned by customers via mobile app. Hello Alfred now operates in eight U.S. markets with plans to expand further.
Rather than using independent contractors, Hello Alfred relies on full-time employees—both the Alfreds who perform tasks and the Alfred Home Managers who manage schedules and keep things running smoothly. The brand’s leadership team is focused on hiring the right people, developing them fully, and empowering them to take ownership of the service experience.
“Our long-termist approach to labor: Well-trained employees create better service and, in turn, happier members who promote our company to future members. Invest in skills that will serve your employees even after their time at your company.”
–Marcela Sapone, cofounder
When they founded Hubble in 2016, Ben Cogan and Jesse Horwitz—who made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2017—were looking to disrupt a $10 billion global market by making a more affordable daily contact lens and speeding up fulfillment. Inspired by the success of Harry’s (Cogan’s former employer), the duo partnered with an overseas manufacturer and began selling their own lenses.
Since then, Hubble—now 120+ employees strong—has managed to grow by 20% month over month and expand its subscription service to Canada and the U.K. Earlier this year, consumer products giant Colgate-Palmolive announced its intention to invest.
Hubble has continually focused on refining and perfecting their model for keeping their team motivated while providing great customer service. They allow agents the chance to shadow each other and provide peer feedback, giving them insight into how to continually succeed and improve.
Lemonade, the property and casualty insurance company for “urban dwellers,” was launched in 2015 by Daniel Schreiber and Shai Wininger. Thanks to its unconventional business model (no brokers and 80% of premiums set aside for claims), Lemonade has taken the insurance industry by storm with highly competitive rates and a casual vibe. In just three years, the company has expanded its coverage to 19 states.
Lemonade’s AI-powered mobile app is particularly appealing to its 75% millennial customer base. The app allows users to get a quote from Chatbot Maya in less than two minutes, and file claims with the help of Chatbot Jim—all from their phones. The company also offers a “Live Policy” self-service feature, which customers can use to make changes to their policies.
From day one, Lemonade has valued customer centricity, starting with being honest with customers about its failures, outlining its new strategy, and sharing the results.
Unlike bots, which can scale to infinity and beyond, our human team was struggling to keep up. Despite the fact that we received very few complaints, we should have done a better job of communicating and getting claims settled quicker. [ . . . ]
Instead of focusing on damage containment, we decided to shift our focus to customer happiness. But that’s easier said than done. Eventually, we were required to do a complete rethink of how we handle claims.
As part of this focus, Lemonade has instituted a number of important changes:
Training front-line agents to provide “a high level of empathy and radical transparency” to policyholders and advocate for their interests, freeing claim adjusters to focus on managing claims, and dividing them by specialty so they can become “domain experts”
Designating KPIs that reflect the company’s new service priorities (customer experience, speed, and efficiency.)
As a result of these changes, Lemonade saw its NPS® score rise to 70 in a matter of months—a number that’s unheard of among digital insurers, and much higher than average for industry-leading brands.
Founded in 2012 by John Foley, Peloton began with a breakthrough fitness concept: indoor bikes outfitted with interactive technology that allows users to experience studio spin classes via live stream or recording. By 2017, the company had reached $400 million in revenue—double that of 2016. Guinness World Records recognized Peloton for hosting the largest all-time live cycling class, with more than 10,000 people in attendance.
Some call it the “Cult of Peloton”: 1 million + exercise enthusiasts, whose enthusiasm for the brand is due in no small part to the company’s outstanding customer service. With half of customer contacts coming via phone and the rest split between email and chat, Peloton’s CSAT scores remain above 90%, and the brand’s NPS score is 91.
How does Peloton equip and empower its front-line team to deliver outstanding CS? By providing agents with a leading-edge tech stack. With customer and performance data at their fingertips, managers and agents have everything they need to simultaneously improve serve performance, service outcomes, and the customer experience.
“The Peloton Community is incredibly engaged, so having access to as much information as we can about our members helps our team to personalize every interaction.”
Laura Mundell, Director of Member Support
10. Proper Cloth
For men who struggle to find dress shirts that fit, Proper Cloth—founded by Seph Skerritt in 2008—offers a pain-free solution: custom-made shirts, designed and ordered in minutes. The entire process, including home delivery, takes less than two weeks with the help of AI technology. Once a customer’s initial order is altered or remade to perfection, that data is stored and referenced for future orders.
Although Proper Cloth has automated much of its operation (except the sewing, which is still done by hand), its well-trained service team continues to go above and beyond to wow its customers.
I received a response from a stylist named Jonah within 24 hours. He offered a number of suggestions and advice for how we could alter the shirt for a better fit. After noticing the watch in my photos, Jonah even asked if I normally wear one on my left wrist so that we could adjust for a watch allowance on the cuffs. I was impressed by his attention to detail and trusted that they would be able to accurately alter or remake my shirt.
Typically, making online returns is a total pain, not to mention returns involving custom-made clothing. But because of Proper Cloth’s Perfect Fit Guarantee, exchanging your shirt for a better-fitting option is super easy and straightforward. As I was going through the return process, I never had to contact customer service because everything was spelled out so simply on their website. That said, Proper Cloth made sure to reiterate that if I ever needed to chat with someone, they were always available to help out and talk through the process over the phone.
Olga Vidisheva revolutionized an industry in 2011 when she introduced Shoptiques, an online retailer that provides local brick-and-mortar boutiques with a global ecommerce platform. The company’s website hosting service, email marketing services, and point-of sale solution have helped more than 6,500 local boutiques market and sell their wares and manage inventory, employees, and customer relationships with ease. More than 1 million shoppers frequent the Shoptiques website, which displays 100,000 unique products at any given time.
To keep its customer service agents engaged, improve their performance, and personalize the customer service experience, Shoptiques continuously collects VoC data on the front line via Stella Connect. It also uses personalized emails—triggered automatically following customer service encounters—to engage customers, thank them, and entice them to spend with special offers and promotions.
“In an incredibly saturated market, I believe it is vital to offer the best customer service. It starts with your team being ready and excited to engage with customers. Our WOW Team loves using Stella Connect and receiving constant customer feedback. It humanizes our team and drives positive reinforcement for them.
Once that support is offered, it is important to continue to re-engage the customer. The Personal Connection Marketing part of Stella Connect allows us to scale the personal touch, which drives up the lifetime value of our customers.”
–Olga Vidisheva, founder and CEO
12. Warby Parker
Warby Parker has become a household name in affordable fashion eyewear in the eight years since company founders Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt, and Jeff Raider brought their vision to life. Warby Parker fulfills every customer order with a newly custom-made pair, whether the order is placed online or at one of the company’s 65 brick-and-mortar locations. This year, Warby Parker is valued at $1.75 billion and looking to go public in the near future.
From the company’s earliest days, its founders worked on defining their company values and building a culture of service.
“One of the things that we take most pride in is our customer satisfaction scores and we regularly measure customer satisfaction through net promoter score, which is sort of the standard for measuring customer satisfaction. [ . . . ] And we found that we’ve been consistently in the high 80s, most recently at 88, whereas Apple and Zappos are at 78 and 82, respectively. So it’s something that we take a lot of pride in. I think that it goes back to sort of the early days, when Jeff, Andy, Dave and I were sort of sitting in my apartment, thinking about, what does this company stand for?”
This service-oriented mindset—and the fact that every Warby Parker employee from the top down shares it—is reflected in customer testimonials like this one:
I just experienced possibly the very best customer service of all time. A few weeks ago, I accidentally left my beloved Warby Parker reading glasses on the Acela. Annoyed, I bought myself another, identical, pair the following day. Today I received an unexpected package containing not one, but two pair of those same reading glasses, a copy of “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac and the following note:
“Hi Michael, This might be odd… but you sat across from me on the train ride from NYC to Boston a few weeks ago and left your glasses on the train! As luck would have it, I happen to be the GC of Warby Parker, and there is nothing I like more than a good mystery… I hope these find you in good health! (also, we noticed your lenses were scratched so we made you a fresh pair!) Sincerely, AK”
I am so impressed! What a remarkable person and company. They have a customer for life!
What began in 2013 as an online wedding registry has become a wedding planning destination, thanks to Zola founders Shan-Lyn Ma and Nobu Nakaguchi, their leadership team, and more than 100 dedicated employees. Zola now offers a full suite of wedding planning services: websites, checklists, guest lists, printed and addressed invitations, RSVP tracking, and more. To date, Zola has served more than 500,000 couples.
Zola’s motto is “anything for love”—a vow to do whatever it takes to ease customers’ stress and make them happy, especially when complex issues arise. The customer service team is focused on delivering a seamless service experience across the brand’s email, phone, and chat channels.
With the help of Zendesk’s CRM platform, Zola groups inquiries from couples and their guests and gives everyone on the front line access to the same customer data. Customer service agents are cross trained but focus on the channel that suits them best. Team leaders prepare agents for the types of contacts they can expect during peak seasons and hire temporary agents to help with seasonal call volumes.
Our motto, “anything for love,” aptly describes our approach to compassionate customer service. We’re privileged to participate in one of the most important events in our customers’ lives: their wedding. Or, the wedding of someone they love. Our goal is to make this time even happier by bringing the disparate parts of wedding planning and execution together.
–Rachel Livingston, director of operations
How Do Cool Brands Take the Lead? They Put Customer Service First
Great customer service isn’t defined in the C-suite, and it isn’t an arbitrary set of behaviors. It’s what your customers say it is. Are you capturing your customers’ point of view? Are you using it to improve performance on the front line? Are you uncovering opportunities for game-changing innovation and market dominance?
Leading brands listen to their customers to improve service quality. And they enlist their customers to help shape the customer experience and the future of the brand. With these two data streams feeding your culture and operations, there’s nothing your business can’t accomplish.