Team Performance

9 Chicago Startups Putting Customer Service First

With a reputation for being the midwest’s friendliest big city, it’s no surprise that Chicago is home to some of the leading names in customer experience. Great customer service isn’t just important to The Windy City’s fastest-growing startups, it’s foundational.

By building their brands around customers first, these innovation leaders are turning entire industries on their heads. Just how are they doing it and more pressingly, which tools and techniques can your customer service team borrow inspiration from?

Let’s take a look at a few of Chicago’s best and brightest customer service leaders…which just so happen to be startups.

The company formerly known as ParkWhiz is now part of Arrive, an overarching brand that captures both the B2C and B2B sides of the business. At its core, Arrive is a tech company with a special interest in parking and last-mile mobility services. It offers consumers the ability to reserve urban parking spots through ParkWhiz and BestParking in addition to business-ready mobility services for brands like Avis, Gasbuddy, and Ticketmaster.

How do the Arrive brands keep their staggering 40 million customers happy from their West Loop offices? Great technology is the answer. The company has recently integrated cutting-edge cloud based technology into its product offerings to support mobile payments, seamless bluetooth entry, and other wireless communications. Data is the foundation of everything Arrive does, and it shows in the customer experience.

ParkWhiz itself relies on ample training to ensure both local and remote call center agents understand exactly how to handle feedback through phone, email, or chat. The company keeps very (very) close tabs on customer sentiment through immediate customer satisfaction surveys as well as constant micro-coaching for its front-line agents on moving targets like customer empathy and product knowledge. Better customer service means users Arrive satisfied.

Kin hopes to one day make buying homeowners insurance as simple as signing up for a new credit card. Since its launch in 2017, the digital-first startup has leveraged a variety of data sources like public records, satellite images, and even MLS listings to make insurance cheaper and easier for its customers. Well, those things and a steadfast commitment to customer experience.

Kin’s customer success team is a core component of its growth strategy. Says Operations Manager Liz Gutierrez, “It’s our job to help customers understand their policies and make informed purchasing decisions. To achieve that goal, we’ve built a culture of learning — our entire team is licensed, fully cross-trained on all our operations and engaged in monthly sessions to review what we learned.”

To accomplish this kind of group-learning, Kin customer success agents receive feedback after every call they field. They’re also trained regularly on information the brand gleans through annual “wellness checks” with customers, who offer their own suggestions on how to improve.

Explains Gutierrez, “We are always looking for ways to streamline our processes and deliver the highest-quality experience. One way we do that is by giving every consultant on our customer success team a project they own from start to finish. This type of structure empowers individual growth and improves our procedures over time. We are looking for forward-thinkers and problem-solvers who can quickly adapt to change. At a young startup, workflows can change in an instant.”

Peter Rahal and Jared Smith founded RxBar in the basement of Rahal’s parents’ Glen Ellyn home in 2013. What started as a mission to build a better, healthier protein bar is today a flourishing company that is technically no longer a startup. Although RxBar sold to Kellogg’s in 2017 for a reported $600 million, it still operates totally independently under the corporation’s umbrella of brands.

It’s not a stretch to say that the company’s unofficial motto might be “experimentation.” Even the brand’s shockingly simple, straightforward packaging (“3 Egg Whites, 14 Peanuts, 2 Dates, No B.S.”) aligns with its commitment to transparency with its customers.  

As the operation has grown from 85 to over 200 people in just two years, “The hardest part,” says Rahal, “has been the operational complexity of managing so many people, which makes it harder to maintain team dynamics and move quickly.”

While flavors and ingredients are a part of the experimental equation, so too are concerns like customer satisfaction. Customer experience is so important, in fact, that every new employee at RxBar is required to spend two weeks at the customer service desk in the company’s River Falls headquarters before assuming their regular role. It’s a novel approach to a omnipresent onboarding challenge, and one that more brands should be looking to adopt.  

Smokeball’s business exists at the intersection of law and tech, so the company feels right at home in downtown Chicago. The legal software company was founded with a mission to help small law firms succeed, and from day one exemplary customer service has factored heavily into that goal.

How do Smokeball’s 130+ employees deliver on that promise, and across three countries no less? By adhering to one of their core values: keep listening, keep learning. Customer service agents actively practice listening to clients during the software’s multiple-week new client onboarding program as well as during three and nine month check-ins after purchase. The brand’s messaging is accessible, it’s approachable, and since many of the customer service agents have a legal background, it’s also highly knowledgeable.

It’s not all about the customers. Smokeball also invests heavily in its own culture, celebrating wins and high-performing team members. There’s even a company Slack channel called “product love” where team members can share positive client feedback in real-time. Refreshingly modern!

Josh Tolan founded Spark Hire in 2012 after identifying a significant gap in recruiting industry software. What began as a streamlined video interview tool now offers additional functionality such as outbound messaging and interview scheduling, but the brand’s focus has never waivered. Spark Hire set out to deliver the best service in the industry.

Without long-term contracts to keep it’s 5,000+ customers locked down, Spark Hire relies on above-average customer service to ensure its clients stay loyal. The company’s obsession with service took off during early days when customer success agent Vince created an inner-office meme featuring a colleague and the tagline, “This is service.” It caught on. Today, you’ll find “This is service” mousepads, t-shirts, and posters scattered throughout Spark Hire’s Chicago offices.  

On a granular level, “This is service” translates to customers in several ways. Every customer is matched with their own “Customer Service Hero” from day one, and customer support is available 24/7. Clients can also expect proactive, periodic outreach from their success team. In a crowded SaaS market, Spark Hire sees people – not just tech – as its differentiator.

Suitable for brands of all shapes and sizes, Sprout Social was founded in 2010 to streamline the process of social media management and optimization. As social media marketing began to play an increasingly critical role in the decision making process for customers, Sprout’s proverbial stock took off. Today the brand works with over 25,000 companies including big names like American Express, GrubHub, and Hyatt, among others.

Sprout Social has always seen the relationship between its brand and its customers as essential to each customer’s entire journey. Says Ali McAnaney, Manager, Enterprise Customer Success, “We are not just helping sales close big deals but truly investing in the customer relationship from the start. Sprout’s customer success team nurtures customers through every part of their journey, fostering ongoing growth and retention.”

That perspective doesn’t just create a better customer experience, it informs brand decisions, too. A new customer costs Sprout Social over five times to procure what an existing customer costs to retain, so the investment in customer satisfaction is never up for debate.

Continues McAnaney, “We’re looking for customer success managers who not only celebrate change but thrive in it. We need team members who communicate with empathy, approach challenges from a solution-oriented mindset and truly enjoy delivering exceptional customer service.” For a company with over 500 employees and growing, having measurable data to use as a measuring stick against those kinds of nebulous goals is essential.

When famed restaurateur and Chicago favorite son Nick Kokonas launched Tock in 2014, his goal was to change the entire restaurant experience. Today, the Tock system is being used in over 100 cities in 23 countries and has accounted for over $402,000,000 in pre-paid restaurant reservations. That’s million with an “m.”

How did Tock break the mold? While the integrated software platform’s early endorsement by restaurant heavy-hitters like Thomas Keller (French Laundry) and René Redzepi (Noma) didn’t hurt, it’s the company’s obsessive commitment to improving customer experience that’s really been the driving force behind its growth.

When Tock began hearing about limitations that casual eateries were facing with their platform, they listened. The Tock reservations app, a direct competitor to industry juggernaut OpenTable, was born. In line with Tock’s goal to become a comprehensive software solution for all restaurants, its restaurant customers today can use the system for ticketing, reservations, and so much more including POS, marketing, and analytics.

For a startup that offers 24/7 customer support and hands-on training to its ever-growing customer base, investment in the right people is key. Says COO Jeff Kaplan, “The people at Tock are so passionate and take such pride in their work, which enables us to deliver the best software and customer support in our industry…Our customers will refer other restaurants to Tock without any incentive and without us asking. When that happens, you know it was because we’ve delivered above and beyond their expectations.”

Since 2004, Neon has been dedicated to providing nonprofits with the technology they need to grow their mission, inspire their audience and scale their organization for success. Its flagship product, NeonCRM, is a leading donor database software that has helped over 3,000 nonprofits raise millions. Neon Web Studio, their in-house nonprofit web design service, offers beautiful website solutions that keep donors engaged and invested.

All of their services are designed to help organizations deal with the unique challenges that face the nonprofit sector. In fact, NeonCRM was created when their co-founders Lei Zhang and Jeff Gordy met at the Kidney Cancer Association — a nonprofit organization in Chicago, where they worked at the time. Since then, they’ve been committed to delivering personalized services for nonprofits of all sizes. And with the best-rated tech support in the nonprofit sector, they always have their back.

Successful use of a strong donor database can lead to a greater overall success for nonprofits — the support team behind Neon knows because they’ve been there. In fact, almost every member of their Professional Services team has worked as staff or volunteers at nonprofit organizations. They understand the challenges these organizations face, and are now working to help solve them.

In 2018, Neon joined forces with Rallybound, an industry leading peer-to-peer fundraising tool, to create Neon One. Established with the mission of becoming the most comprehensive and authentic technology ecosystem for nonprofits. The current Neon One product suite now includes Neon, Rallybound, CiviCore and Arts People.

Zoro exists in a crowded space – ecommerce – and it’s, frankly, crushing it. In less than a decade the online equipment, tools, and supplies retailer has grown from a team of only six people to more than 350. Today you’ll find over 2,000,000 products on Zoro’s website in addition to lightning-fast load speeds and over-the-top customer support.

Zoro believes that great customer experience starts internally. The team spends a lot of time identifying its strengths (and weaknesses) and isolating solutions that ultimately improve the process for the consumer. The company even proactively performs regular business reviews with its large technology partners like Google and Oracle to ensure everyone’s on the same page – and that if they’re not, that the customer’s not getting the short end of the stick.

And because Zoro understands how critical happy employees are to positive customer experience, they invest heavily within. Team members are eligible for a dizzying array of benefits that even include performance-based bonuses, allowing every team member to share in the company’s success.

Pulling Ahead Through Exceptional Customer Service

How are newcomer brands making their mark in legacy industries? By providing the kind of service established companies only dream of implementing. When an unparalleled customer experience is the thesis statement for everything your business does, growth comes naturally.

Agile startups listen to their customers. They use their nimbleness as an advantage, shifting, training, and even developing better products in response to customer feedback. Collecting that feedback accurately is essential, as many of Chicago’s hottest brands already know. Reach out to find out why Crate & Barrel, Factor 75, and Shipbob think Stella Connect is the absolute best tool for those who are serious about getting customer service right.