Ultimate.ai, a virtual customer service agent builder, has closed a $20 million Series A round of funding, led by Omers Ventures with participation from Felicis Ventures and existing investors HV Capital, and Maki.vc — bringing its total raised to date to more than $25 million.
The European startup’s flagship claim for the data-ingesting bot-builder platform is it’s capable of automating up to 80% of customer support interactions.
The focus, as tends to be the case for all these customer service conversational AI plays, is freeing (human) support agents from dealing with dull, repetitive stuff — so they can apply their (less limited) skills to more complex, consultative or emotionally demanding customer queries.
When we last spoke to the Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup, back in 2018 for a $1.3 million seed round, it described itself as a “language-agnostic” conversational AI — having started out with the hard (linguistic) challenge of Finnish — claiming that gave it an edge in a competitive space with customers in non-English speaking markets. (Though it did also tackle English too.)
Two years on the startup’s marketing focus is broader; today it talks about its customer service automation platform as an “AI-first” ‘no code’ tool — sating it wants to empower b2c users to get the most out of AI by helping them design virtual agents that can usefully handle complex customer interactions.
ultimate.ai will hand-hold you through the process of building a super savvy customer service robot, is the pitch.
Co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen claims it’s always been “no code and intuitive” — though there’s now a handy reference label to align what it’s doing with a wider b2b trend. (‘No code’ or ‘low code’ referring to a digital tool-building movement that aims to widen access to powerful technologies like AI without the need for the user to possess deep technical know-how in order to make useful use of them.)
“Everything we build is to guide users to creating the best virtual agents. The whole user journey — discovery, design, expansion — is all within ultimate.ai,” Kainulainen tells TechCrunch.
“In the past two years, we have been laser focused on building a very deep customer service automation platform — one that goes beyond simple FAQ answers in chat — and enables brands to design complex, personalized workflows that can be deployed across all digital support channels.
“We believe that customer service automation will be its own category in the future and so we are working hard to define what that means today.”
As an example, Kainulainen points to “one click” integration with “any major CRM” (including Salesforce and Zendesk) — which lets customers quickly import existing customer support logs so ultimate.ai’s platform can analyze the data to help them build a useful bot.
“Immediately, you are shown a breakdown of your most common customer service cases and the impact automation can have for your business,” he goes on, saying the platform shows templates and “best practices” to help the customer design their automation workflows — “tailored for your cases and industry”.
Once a virtual agent is live users can run A/B tests via the platform to check and optimize performance — and, here too, the promise is further hand-holding, with Kainulainen saying it will “proactively suggests new cases and data to improve your virtual agent”.
“Where we are very strong is in large-scale customer support organizations, who are looking for a holistic, advanced automation platform that can be managed and implemented by non-technical users,” he says.
“The bigger picture is that each of our competitors views the opportunity more narrowly than ultimate.ai does: Our best competitors are either focused on chatbots only, or otherwise limited to the ecosystem of their mother company. Our vision has always been the big picture: Of automation becoming one of the primary means of providing customer service.”
Having multilingual smarts remains an advantage, with ultimate.ai’s virtual agents able to handle interactions in over 20 languages at this point.
“Our market — the customer service automation market — has a lot of players,” Kainulainen goes on, name-checking the likes of Ada Support and Einstein Bots (Salesforce’s own solution) as key competitors.
“This is because it is new and, until recently, solutions were so early that there were virtually no barriers to entry. But the market has changed a lot in the last four years. There are now only a handful of players globally that are worth paying attention to and we are one of them.”
The 2016-founded startup is hitting the nail on the head for a growing number of customers — with close to 100 signed up to its platform at this point, including the likes of Deezer, Telia, Footasylum, and Finnair. Per Kainulainen, it works best for “b2c brands with large (and often repetitive) customer service volumes”.
“This is where automation can provide a huge impact from day one and really free up people to take on more creative and challenging work. We have a broad customer base of close to 100 great brands… and do particularly well in industries like retail/ecommerce, telecommunications and travel,” he adds.
It’s enjoyed a major growth spurt this year, as businesses of all stripes were forced to ramp up their attention to online customer interactions as the coronavirus pandemic became an engine for digital activity.
Customer retention has also risen in priority for many businesses, as a highly contagious virus and public health safety measures put in place to reduce its spread, flipped markets into recession — which Kainulainen points to as another growth driver.
Overall, he says it’s tripled ARR over the last 12 months (albeit, it was the same growth story last year too). Plus it’s tripled headcount to deal with the COVID-19 effect.
Now ultimate.ai is gearing up for fresh growth — saying it’s expecting major developments next year.
“COVID-19 has… prompted one of the most accelerated periods of change in the customer service industry,” says Kainulainen, predicting 2021 will bring “immense innovation” in the space — and that “booming” automation technologies will take “center stage”.
Of course it’s a convenient narrative for a customer service chatbot maker to tell.
But COVID-19 is clearly accelerating digital transformation of consumer focused businesses — a movement that, logically, pumps demand for smarter tools to handle online customer support. So those positioned to harness new momentum for customer service automation — by being able to offer an accessible, scalable and effective product (as ultimate.ai claims it does) — are sitting pretty in the middle of a pandemic.
“We believe that the best product will win this market,” adds Kainulainen. “We have a big vision for what we want ultimate.ai to be. Market maturity for our technology has accelerated massively in 2020, achieving in one year what could have probably taken five. We will capitalize on that by building more, faster.”
The Series A funding will go on sales and marketing, with a planned market push in North America and a desire to go deeper throughout Europe, as well as being ploughed into further product development.
And while — clearly — not every potential b2c customer will be able to ‘automagic’ away 80% of their customer support pings, Kainulainen argues ultimate.ai can still offer a compelling sales pitch to businesses with more “consultative” customer support needs, where automation will only be able to play a far more limited role.
“There’s often a strong correlation between how consultative a customer service organization needs to be and how highly trained and experienced their team is. In other words, it is often the case that organizations with ‘lower bound’ automation potential also only need 10% automation to still drive a huge ROI,” he suggests.
“For example, one of our customers is a large national pharmacy group, where customer service agents are qualified pharmacists who provide prescription medical advice. Here, the goal isn’t to achieve a very high automation rate but rather to automate basic, repetitive processes to free up the pharmacists for more challenging tasks that better use their capabilities.
“For this customer, in addition to the automation of simple requests (which alone provides a huge value) our real-time answer recommendations help pharmacists respond faster and easier.”
Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Omers Ventures managing partner, Jambu Palaniappan, dubbed the startup’s growth “truly spectacular”, as well as lauding its “world-class team” and founders “with a strong vision and unrivalled knowledge of AI”.
“There are numerous chatbot companies out there but ultimate.ai represents something much bigger because at its core is an automation company with massive potential,” he added. “We look forward to working with Sarah, Reetu, Jaakko, and Markus as they expand internationally and advance their deep product capabilities even further.”
“The customer service industry is undergoing an automation revolution. In ultimate.ai, we saw a vision that’s bold enough to lead the way,” added Aydin Senkut, founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, in another supporting statement. “We believe that, just in the same way that category leaders have defined marketing and sales automation, ultimate.ai will do the same for customer service.”
Jambu Palaniappan, managing partner at Omers Ventures, will join the ultimate.ai board. Aydin Senkut, founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, will join as an investor, alongside former head of Airbnb for Business Mark McCabe, and former EVP global sales of payment giant Adyen, Thijn Lamers.