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VIDEO  •  HOW I DID IT

Kayak.com Co-Founder: 'I Wanted to Transfer Empathy Directly to the Engineers'

How Paul English motivates the programmers at his Kayak.com travel site to respond to customer complaints.
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Video Transcript

00:07 Paul English: I did that just as part of my obsession to say that, "If you're a customer, you should be able to talk to the company you're doing business with."

In 2004, Paul English co-founded Kayak.com, a travel search site.

For the first nine months, Paul handled all customer complaints himself.

00:25 English: I initially set out to be that person that if people wanted to call. There's a phone that they call, I would answer it or if they send an email, I would answer the email. And after a while, as the site got more and more popular, the work became a lot. So, I started having a lot of emails that I would personally answer. But I think more important than that, when I would answer a customer email and see a problem with the product, I would then go to the engineers and say, "People are having problems with this way of sorting hotels. I think we should consider something different." The programmers would say, "Well, we disagree, that doesn't make sense". It was very frustrating for me. They didn't feel this customer pain. And so, more importantly than me, not being able to keep up with the volume as we grew, it was more that I wanted to transfer empathy directly to the engineers. And I figured out if the engineers were talking to the customer, emailing with the customer, talking to the customer on the phone, then they would feel the pain the customers are feeling and then the programmer was more likely to overhaul the design to be something that would make the pain go away for that customer.

In 2005, Paul decided to fully implement this new setup.

Kayak.com's computer programmers took over customer support, and began fielding complaints from users.

01:39 English: Some of the engineers doubted that this would work, that it would scale, and they found it... They just thought it was just a terrible idea. And then, they would say things... The other criticisms I would get is, "Well, some of these programmers are pretty nerdy and they don't have great communication skills, what if they say the wrong thing to a customer?" Or, "These programmers are really expensive, you know why would you pay someone a buck 20 or a buck 50 a year, when you can hire someone in Tucson, Arizona for $8 an hour. But to me, it's one of the great secrets of KAYAK, of our product design process and how integrated the customers are. So, having the programmers and other designers engage directly, I think gives us that empathy to make sure that what we're building is something that any customer can understand.

Today, Kayak.com programmers still handle customer service.

Paul continues to take as many calls as he can.

02:34 English: When we have engineers come in to KAYAK and they're interviewing and we tell them, "Oh, yeah, by the way, part of your job is going to have to take customer support calls", initially, they're pretty negative about it. And saying, "Are you crazy? This seems ridiculous." But I think once they take those calls and realize that they have the authority and permission to give the customer their opinion of what is going on and then to make a fix and release that fix, it's a pretty motivating part of the job. If you think about why people went into engineering to start with, it's to solve problems. And the fact that unlike, I would say, most tech companies, at KAYAK you can demonstrate this everyday that you can see a customer email, you can figure out, "This is how I, as an engineer, think about this problem, let me try this solution, and then get feedback from that customer that worked or not." It makes for a pretty exciting design process.

Kayak.com's revenue per employee is now $1.3 million.

Paul says that's higher than Expedia's or Google's--and it's at least in part because of how Kayak.com handles customer service.

In 2011, users made 899 million travel searches on Kayak.com, and its revenue was $225 million.

Last updated: Oct 25, 2012




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