721: Human Touch in Digital Age: Optimizing Customer Interactions | Alex Levin

Podcast Cover Image: Human Touch in Digital Age: Optimizing Customer Interactions Featuring Alex Levin
Podcast Cover Image: Human Touch in Digital Age: Optimizing Customer Interactions Featuring Alex Levin

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Dive into the Growth Mindset of a Go-to-Market Guru!

Alex Levin, Co-Founder and CEO of Regal.io, brings a wealth of experience to the table. His background spans product management at industry giants like Personal and Thomson Reuters to leading growth teams at high-growth startups, including the acquired Handy.

Alex has a proven track record of success. Join us as Alex shares his insights and breaks down the strategies behind launching and scaling businesses.

To learn more and access resources, visit the Regal.io doc here.

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Human Touch in Digital Age: Optimizing Customer Interactions


Jeff Tomlin: I’m Jeff Tomlin and on this episode, we’re pleased to welcome Alex Levin.

Alex is the Co-Founder and CEO of Regal.io, where he spearheads their go-to-market (GTM) teams.  Before Regal, Alex leveraged his product management experience at Personal and Thomson Reuters before jumping into the growth and marketing world as an early employee at Handy which was acquired by ANGI in 2018.  Alex holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard.

Get ready Conquerors for Alex Levin coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local Podcast.

Optimization, Marketing Journey, and Personalized Customer Engagement.

Jeff Tomlin: Alex Levin from Regal.io, welcome to the Conquer Local Podcast. Hey man, good to see you, and thanks for taking some time to join us here today. How you doing?

Alex Levin: Thank you for having me.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah, how you doing, man? Enjoying I hear a Colorado spring, a snowy spring.

Alex Levin: Yeah, it was 60 degrees on Sunday and then snowed eight inches since then, so it’s unusual for May, but we’re having fun.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah. Yeah, that is so Canada, it’s fun to hear that that happens in other places. Hey, I’m so happy to have you on the podcast here today, because some of the things that you guys focus on are at the top of everybody’s mind, especially when people are thinking about optimization. A lot of industries experiencing a little bit of downturn, and especially in the software space, people are trying to figure out how to optimize for their go-to markets. So a lot of things I want to talk to you about, but first off, you’ve got a background in product management, you made the jump to marketing. Talk to me a little bit about your journey, because a lot of marketers that I work with, they want to jump and go into the product space, become product managers, and they go the other way. So, tell me a little bit about your path to where you are now and tell me a little bit about Regal.io.

Alex Levin: Sure. So, I’d say my co-founder and I have very similar backgrounds. We went to liberal arts undergrad, I studied philosophy, she studied English. She thought she’d be a comedy writer, and I think we realized relatively quickly that we weren’t going to become academics and that every business was going to be a technology business, so we had to go learn technology so we became product managers. Over time it was very organic in terms of taking over more responsibility for not just the product we were building, but how you’re going to get users to use the product we were building, because in the end, if nobody uses it, it’s not a very good product. So that’s where marketing came in is less in terms of, hey, what is branding, and let’s buy an F1 team and put our logo on the car, but more in terms of how do you get people using the product, understanding what it can do, getting value out of it. I think in the end, the last company we were both at was in the home services industry and in the states we built big brands like HomeAdvisor and Angi’s List where I think we really needed to make sure people understood they could trust us online for these very complicated services in their home, whether it was a remodel or redoing a roof or an emergency water main that broke or something. So we had to make sure that it was a trusted brand, but I’d say the more complicated part actually was how to get them to actually buy something online. So, a lot of what we do now at my company, Regal, came out of our experience in those days where we found that a digital-only experience in something as complicated as local services wasn’t enough. People have heard of search engine optimization, they’re thinking about, “Oh, how do I make my digital experience better for the search engines?” Well, then there’s conversion optimization, right? The person’s coming to your site, but how do you get them to actually buy the service? It’s not enough to have a website, what most businesses have found is that even when you go digital, you still have to engage the customer, have a conversation. It could be over text, could be over the phone, could be over chat. I’m not going to get into the debate on channel, but having a conversation does drive a lot of trust and ultimately drives higher conversion. So when we saw that, light bulb went off for us and said, “Hey, a lot of people have been telling us customer service is a cost centre. You shouldn’t talk to your customer, how come this is working so well for us? Why are we talking to our customers?” We realized from talking to businesses that there was a new set of businesses moving online, and what was happening is everyone who shops online was starting to say, “Hey, I also want healthcare online and insurance online,” and all these more complicated things. As these high consideration industries moved online, a new sort of playbook was slowly evolving where it wasn’t about deflecting every inbound and not talking to your customer, it was actually about figuring out what is the right moment to talk to your customer and what do you say to them to build that trust? That’s where Regal came out is we said, “We need a better tool to help these businesses use what they know about the customer online to drive personalization.” So, I’ll give you an example. My wife’s friend grew up in a small town in Colorado and is an insurance agent. When everybody showed up in-person in her office, she did fantastically well. She eyed them, and you have kids, you have a dog, you have whatever, and she would give them the right product. Today, 90+% of her leads, ding, the computer has a phone number. Doesn’t know anything about them, and she’s got to cold call them and try to figure out how to see what they want. It’s really hard to do her job. So, what we do for these sorts of let’s say life insurance organizations is help them understand who is that customer, right? When they’re a digital customer, are they a homeowner? Do they have kids? What do you know about them? What pages have they visited on your website? What have they said in the past to your customer support team? And how do you use that to figure out when to reach out, in what channel and what to say, so that my wife’s friends can go back to doing a great job, instead of trying to get you to even answer and then not knowing what to say? I think a lot of businesses feel this today where their customers are demanding they move online, yet if they only do the digital thing, they’re not seeing as much success as they used to when they actually met the person in-person face-to-face and had that personal touch.

Optimization, Marketing Journey, and Personalized Customer Engagement.

Jeff Tomlin: I love talking about this stuff, because every company has to figure out their go-to-market so that their metrics work for the business, right? A lot of business that I see, especially ones that we work with, they stop short of optimizing the full buyer’s journey. There’s the marketing pieces upfront, your awareness, your consideration, your decision stages, and as you start engaging your sales professionals, it’s a lot of different activities that you can incrementally improve on that ultimately drive much better conversion rates. So you’ve got some data on some activities, specific sales activities like phone calls and texting around their effectiveness. Maybe you could share a little bit of that to provide some insights here.

Alex Levin: Yeah, look, I’ll start by saying a lot of people we engage with are ashamed to be calling customers, and they go, “Oh yeah, I know that I’m not supposed to, I know that I should be doing digital only.” I go, “No, no, don’t apologize to me. You shouldn’t be ashamed for calling your customers. One, you figured out what works, and two, you should be proud that service and a human touch is differentiating you versus your competition. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

In fact, if you’re in a business where financially it makes sense, you can make enough money to have that personal touch, then don’t make it go away, right? Don’t decrease the service to the customer just because some person on the internet is telling you it’s better to deflect and don’t talk to your customer. That’s silly. You know your business better, so don’t be ashamed. I think in terms of channels, even within that, businesses that know that talking to their customer drives higher customer lifetime value feel like they have to move away from phone, and they feel like, “Oh, the kids, the kids don’t talk on the phone anymore, I’m going to have to have SMS. Oh, how do I get to digital and away from?” You know what’s fascinating to your point is what we see is when a business, so as an example in healthcare, Roman is one of our customers or an insurance, AAA, or in banking like a SoFi, when we see them trying to reach a customer who hasn’t signed up yet, they email them about 3% click on an email. They text them, okay, it’s better, 5% to 10% will actually go and click and do something. If they call them, we can get up to 30% of people to answer a call.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: Okay, we have some tricks and, yes, there are things we do, but people are kind of shocked when they hear that and they go, “Wait, I thought phone was dead, I thought this …” They go, “It must be just the older generation or something.” I go, “No, no, no, this isn’t a generational thing. It’s how important is this thing to my life?” If I’m going to go apply to a new school and I can’t visit it in-person and I want to know more about it, I want to talk on the phone, right? If I’m going to open a bank account, I’m going to put the majority of my net worth in that bank, I want to talk on the phone, right? It is something about how important these services are to us that actually having a conversation is critical to that flow, so don’t be ashamed of talking to your customer and definitely don’t go to SMS just because you think it’s the right thing to do. We highly recommend adding multiple channels so you can choose should you email, should you SMS, should you call, but there is a real reason why phone calls work so well. If you can get a third of people to talk to you when they didn’t do it on their own digitally, that’s a great opportunity.

Human Interaction Boosts Conversions Significantly over Full Automation in Banking and Services.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah, I can see the allure in automating as much of your client interactions as possible, because it makes you feel like you’re making money as you’re sleeping, right? But do you have data on the difference in performance between companies that are heavy on the human interaction versus full automation?

Alex Levin: Yeah, I can give you well-known examples by industry. So as an example in banking, as banking moved online, they started allowing you to open a bank account online, and that was seen as fantastic. So Citibank is a great example where they only had branches in New York, and all of a sudden by having it online anybody in the country could sign up for Citibank, so great distribution. What they saw, however, is that when somebody came in the branch, 90% funded the bank account. When somebody went online, 20% funded the bank account.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah, think about that.

Alex Levin: So even though that distribution feels good, your business is going to get crushed if you can’t figure out how to actually get people to fund the account, it’s not enough to sign up. We saw a similar thing in home services where a lot of leads would come to our sites, to HomeAdvisor, to Angi’s List, and so we had millions of leads, but the percent that converted to actually getting the service was half in a digital-only flow what it used to be for paper and pencil mainstream providers.

So again, distribution is great, but that’s going to crush your business if you can’t figure out how to get the conversion back up. So each industry is slightly different, but education is another great example where sure, if you’re selling a $25 class it’s fine to do it digitally, but when somebody’s signing up for a $40,000 online education, that’s an emotional decision. You’re thinking about stopping your job or taking as much time as possible and instead doing something to better yourself. That might be a decision over six months, so having a human being on the enrollment or admission side help you through that is invaluable.

Event-driven Personalization Boosts Engagement; Virtual Agents Enhance Contact Centre Efficiency.

Jeff Tomlin: There’s some magic in finding the right time to talk to people too, right? Talk a little bit about event-driven approaches to figure out when do I trigger an SMS versus an email, versus when is the right time to call? How do you guys think about that and set that up, optimize it for businesses?

Alex Levin: Yeah, the story I usually start with is to say in marketing, a long time ago, 20, 30 years ago, people realized that instead of sending everyone the same email, if you use what you knew about the customer to personalize the subject line and the content and what you were selling, that you would have more luck. That’s now become the standard everywhere, every marketing team is doing that. What’s fascinating is in contact centres, the opposite what’s happening. Contact centres are being taught, managers are being taught, you are a cost centre, reduce the number of interactions as much as possible, and the way to do that efficiently is treat everybody the same. It doesn’t matter who they are, what kind of customer they are, when that inbound comes in, create rules to treat everyone the same, ’cause that makes it formulaic and it’s now the assembly line that Ford invented, and it’s all going to be easy and efficient. It’s shocking when you compare the two and you go, “Wait a second, it’s the same customer, the same customer experience, why is marketing so proud of the fact that they’re personalizing everything, and contact centres are so proud of the fact that they’re not personalizing anything?” It’s crazy.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: So a lot of it comes down to not having the right tools, and now part of what we do is go into these contact centers and try to educate them and say, “Look, you are very smart, you know what you want to do, give me an example.” They go, “Oh, I wish that when there’s an inbound customer, I could tell is it a new customer, an existing customer, and send it to the right team.”

Sounds simple, right? But in the current contact centre world, what happens? Well, press one if you’re a new customer, press two if you’re an existing customer, and then it goes to the wrong place anyway. So instead we can know who that customer is, figure out who the last person was they talked to, and route them to the right person so that they can have a good experience and make sure that person is educated on what that person is struggling with on the website. So it’s just without the tools, these people who are very talented and very creative in contact centres weren’t able to do what they wanted. So I don’t blame the managers in the contact centres, I blame the tools that were built for them. A lot of our job is just educating people about new tools that are available to drive this personalization so they can get more engagement out of these customers. Ultimately, we use the line often, treat millions of customers like one in a million. That’s the goal. How do you make everybody feel special no matter who they are and no matter what their experience was with your brand?

Jeff Tomlin: There isn’t a person in the world that loves navigating those phone trees, so when you talk about a smartphone system that automatically routes to you not only to the right team, but the person that you already talk to, almost sounds like magic to me, because I can’t think of an-

Alex Levin: Oh, it’s going so fast that when we started, people would ask us about AI and we said, “Oh, it’s not ready, it’s not ready.” We’ve always played with it. Even six months ago, it wasn’t good enough, now we’ve started pushing our customers to start using our virtual AI agent.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: Not for every use case on the phone, but for a lot of simple use cases it’s become so good, that yeah, you can use that instead. So when customers come to us and they even ask for some improvements to IVR or improvements to the agent experience, we say, “Well, guys, sure we can do it for you, but would you rather we work on that or would you rather we work on improving the virtual agent? Because then you won’t need an IVR, you won’t need an agent interface at all, because these virtual agents are going to take over.” So today, I’d say recently we’ve gotten virtual agents to the point where they’re good enough in terms of speed of response, interruption handling, change of conversation. It’s not the LLMs, it’s everything else that you need to get good at that we’re pushing it into production. I’d say a year from now, probably we’ll start talking with our customers about significantly reducing their head count and changing over to virtual agents. So to me, that’s not saying it’s not a personal touch. It’s still a personal touch, it’s just going to be a virtual agent rather than a human being, and that means they’re more available, they’re probably more knowledgeable and more on top of what you need.

Effective Personalization requires Real-Time Data, Technology, and Customer-first Mindset.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah. Yeah, we’re finding a lot of the same things when we’ve added AI components to things like AI chatbots on landing pages that people are now using with advertising campaigns. It’s amazing how sophisticated the AI really is and the differences that it can make in the customer experience.

Alex Levin: Yeah.

Jeff Tomlin: Now, I’ve seen a lot of people really screw up the personalization components when they’ve tried to do it. In your estimation, why is it that so many people are really bad at it and then some people seem to do it almost magically?

Alex Levin: Yeah, look, my usual answer is basically that your data and technology strategy dictate your capabilities. So I remember a long time ago when we first started, I was talking with one of the Ivy League colleges about how they did their enrollment outreach and it became really important during COVID. They were blushing, and I was like, “What is going on?” Well, they were embarrassed that basically they wanted to be able to call somebody when the admissions decision went out. Because of how their systems work, they couldn’t call them until three days later, and then they had to do weird things to even make that happen, and half the time the call didn’t even happen, ’cause it was half broken. It wasn’t that, again, people running those teams didn’t want to do creative, nice personalized things for those customers, is that the tools they had didn’t allow it. So, that’s where I start with is if you’re going to think about personalization, start with the tools. Do you have the customer data? Do you have it in a way that you can stream it in real-time? Do you then have systems that allow you to do orchestration? So in email marketing, most systems can now do real-time orchestration, so Braze, Iterable, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, even responses has updated a lot of their tools to allow it, so that’s more common. Phone, it’s not common. Very big companies that you would think are on top of it, they literally can’t get the customer data to the phone system fast enough to actually do the personalization, it might be two days before that happens. So, that’s where I’d start. The second piece then after the data and tech strategy is you have to change your mindset a little bit from how do I do things in a way that’s easiest for me, the brand, to doing things that’s easiest for the customer? I’ll give you a simple example. Historically, the way brands thought about this is I have my most staffing on Wednesdays, so I’m going to do my most calls on Wednesdays. Okay, I get it, but does that make any sense for the customer?

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: Well, no. For the customer, if the customer comes in on a Saturday, they want to talk to you on a Saturday, not on a Wednesday, ’cause that’s when your staffing is. So, shifting to a customer-first mindset is a critical piece of this stuff. You could want to do personalization as much as possible, but if your staffing is on Wednesday and you’re calling on Wednesdays, you’re never going to be able to reach the Sunday customer.

AI Rapidly Improves, Transforming Customer Service and Creating New Jobs.

Jeff Tomlin: These problems that you’re talking about, you’re exactly right, this has not been solved, it sounds like until now, for the phone-based services. I can’t remember how many phone trees just in the past couple of weeks that I’ve been stuck in, and I can’t ever remember calling a company that’s got a phone tree that would route me back to the person that I originally talked to that I’m calling back and looking for that has all the context of my conversation. It really does sound like magic. Going back to that comment that you had about AI or the comments about it, is AI going to replace a lot of functions or is it going to enhance what we’re already doing?

Alex Levin: Yeah, look, my answer changes monthly at this point.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: I remember a year ago, I was interviewing one of our investors who’s put a lot of money into these AI companies, the head of go-to-market for OpenAI, and I was sort of the stick in the mud going, “It’s not good enough yet. It can’t do this, it’ll be years before this change.”

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: I’d say our investor was in the middle and the guy was the head of go-to-market for OpenAI was going, “Guys, you have no idea. This is going to just shock you how fast this moves.” Broadly he’s been right. I’m sure regulation will slow things down a bit, but broadly, yeah, it’s amazing how fast this has progressed. So, sometimes people put it this way and they say, “Hey, which bet do you want to take, that the AI will continue to be at the same level and not change, or that the AI will keep improving at the exponential rate that it’s been improving at?” Probably should take the second bet between those two, it’ll be closer to that one. So, it’s not that I don’t think there are AI assistants that are great. Glean is a great one for workforces. In contact centres, there’s a number that sort of … AASAP, A-A-S-A-P suggests what to say next, or in coding, there’s one called Copilot I think is what it’s called.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah.

Alex Levin: Copilot, which allows you to do better coding. I’m all for those, don’t get me wrong, but I just think it’ll be more transformational when people think faster. What’ll happen is not that jobs will unilaterally go away, what’ll happen is all of a sudden new jobs will be created. I believe in AI as a deflationary force, meaning it’ll massively reduce the cost of the things we’re buying today, ’cause fewer human beings will have to be involved in it, even though what we’re going to be able to give is better personalized conversation as part of it. And then at the same time, it’s going to create all these new jobs that are going to be much more interesting than the ones before. So instead of a person having to sit in a call centre and answer the same five questions, have AI do that, and have the person teach the AI how to do the next thing. So, I think it’s going to be a fascinating period.

The reason we’re so optimistic as a company is that one of the things we’re best at is staying on the edge of what’s possible in terms of marketing and sales technology and building that into our application for our customers. So when there’s change, that’s great for us, because we move much faster than the incumbents to bring in that change. When nothing changes, we’re at a disadvantage, because the incumbents have the distribution already and they have a product that hasn’t changed in years and is more stable. So, this period of change is going to be fantastic for us as a business.

Technology can Vastly Improve Human Interactions in Sales Organizations.

Jeff Tomlin: Sometimes have people on the show where the topics that we might necessarily be talking about aren’t 100% applicable to the entire audience that we have listening to the podcast. I would say to 100% of the people listening, a big takeaway here is that the way that you thinking about, especially in your sales organization, the way that you have human interactions can dramatically be improved with technologies that are available today, and we can rethink a lot of the ways that we do interact with our customers. It’s really, really fascinating.

Alex Levin: Yeah, so we work with contact centres and that’s our world, but an investment my co-founder and I made recently in a company called Slang. It’s kind of interesting. They work with restaurants, and you know when you call a restaurant, either they don’t answer or maybe they answer and they put you on hold? It’s a terrible experience for us, and it’s actually really hard for restaurants to do that well. So Slang replaces that with a virtual agent, and it’s gotten really good at basic things like ordering, booking a table, giving you the information you need. It’s a perfect use case where you don’t have to have the most sophisticated artificial general intelligence to handle that, you just need something that’s going to be better than the human who didn’t want to do that job anyway. So for restaurants, that’s a boon, right? It’s more revenue, more bookings than you had before.

Leverage Technology, but maintain Personalized Service for Business Success.

Jeff Tomlin: Huge. If there’s one takeaway you want to leave people with, what would it be today, Alex?

Alex Levin: Yeah, look, in these local businesses, like I was saying at the beginning, don’t be bullied into believing that digital-only’s the way forward, that’s not the case. I think you as a business owner know your business best, you know what customers appreciate, lean into those things and figure out how to continue to differentiate on service, on gauging your customers, on doing things in a personalized way. Sure, will you need technology to enable you to do it at more scale? Yes, one-man shop can’t do it for everybody without technology, but to what we’re talking about between the orchestration technologies available now, like Regal and the virtual agents that are becoming available in different industries, it’s going to be amazing to see what a one person shop can do. I remember when we were at Angie’s List, I would sort of do a quick back of the math thing. I’d say, “Oh, how many guys do you have in your garage installation company?” They’d tell me, and I could kind of do the math about how much revenue they ran a year. It’s not going to be the case anymore, right? A one-man shop with a couple contractors that he shop farms out jobs to is going to be doing $100 million in revenue soon, because of all this new technology and AI. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Reach Alex at Regal.io or email hello@regal.io for more Information.

Jeff Tomlin: That’s unbelievable. The company is Regal.io. Alex Levin, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the Conquer Local Podcast. Hope we can tap you to come back in the future and chat a little bit more about the trends, because I see this space moving so, so fast. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks again for taking time out of your busy day to join us here and have a quick chat. If people wanted to get ahold of you and continue the conversation, how do they reach out?

Alex Levin: You can always come to our website, regal.io, or email me at hello@regal.io. I’d say particularly if you’re big enough now that you have a contact centre, you’re starting to do outbound calls and figure that out, we’re happy to be a resource as you think through what to do.

Jeff Tomlin: Alex, absolute pleasure. I wish you the best and hope to see you again.

Alex Levin: Thank you.


Jeff Tomlin: What an insightful conversation about customer experience in the digital age. 

Here’s a couple of Alex’s takeaways:

The first takeaway is Don’t be afraid to use a variety of channels to reach your customers. While digital marketing is important, it’s not the only way to connect with customers. Use phone calls, texts, and other channels to personalize the customer experience and improve conversion rates. Our world today isn’t just all about online and self-serve.

You know, when we were talking about some of that, I couldn’t help but to think about the self-serve iPads at airport bars. One of my pet peeves now, but it’s one of my favourite things is to belly up to a bar and strike up a conversation with a bartender. The new trend of not talking to your customers is the ruin of everything. Just my 2 cents.

Another key takeaway is to Embrace new tools and technologies to improve personalization. AI virtual assistants can help you better understand your customers and provide them with a more personalized experience. These tools can also help you to automate tasks and free up your employees to focus on more complex issues.

Believe me, at Vendasta, we’re seeing crazy results from AI tools – especially with their ability to engage and generate leads. Shameless plug there to check out the AI chatbot here – and of course all things going on at Regal.io.

If you’ve enjoyed Alex Levin’s episode discussing the Importance of human interaction in sales, keep the conversation going and revisit some of our older episodes from the archives: Check out Episode 633: Transforming Sales Coaching with AI with Michael Miranda or Episode 628: How to Craft Successful Cold Emails with Frank Sondors 

Until next time, I’m Jeff Tomlin. Get out there and be awesome!