Jeff Epstein of Comm100: “Your pedigree will only get you so far”

“Your pedigree will only get you so far.” My undergrad institution and my MBA got me in the door for sure, but that benefit fades quickly once you’re on the job. Nothing can help you move forward better than hard work. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do […]

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“Your pedigree will only get you so far.” My undergrad institution and my MBA got me in the door for sure, but that benefit fades quickly once you’re on the job. Nothing can help you move forward better than hard work. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do have to know how to work with them.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Epstein.

Jeff Epstein is Comm100’s VP of Marketing & Strategy. He’s a B2B marketer with 20+ years’ experience creating compelling messaging and content for sales enablement and demand generation. He holds a BA from the University of Waterloo and an MBA from Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Like their peers, my paternal grandparents — first generation Canadians born in the early 20th century to Eastern European immigrants — were taught that hard work is the only path to advancement. They raised their children on the lesson that education combined with hard work is the best path. So, you can imagine where that left me! I set my sights on an MBA and a career in marketing when I was 18. I moved into the technology field 16 years ago and am now a certified addict.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

So many to draw from. I’ll go with an early moment in my tech career when I was working a trade show booth for Sophos at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. I was chatting with a reseller partner of ours, and when I learned that he was from Argentina, I expressed how much I’ve always wanted to visit and that I actually had distant family there. He looked at me and stated emphatically, “If you want to go, go. Stop talking about it and go!” The simplicity and candor of his response struck me like lightning! I still haven’t gone to Argentina, but I apply the gist of his advice — “Do” — all the time, never hesitating to try something new, explore new ideas and opinions, and generally shake myself out of my comfort zone. I can still hear his voice today whenever I waver on something.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The famous Jewish scholar Hillel was once asked by a non-Jewish person interested in converting to explain all of the five books of Moses/The Old Testament while standing on one foot. He replied with, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation, so go study!” I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better rule for self-conduct. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Can you imagine what our world could be if we all lived by this tenet? I try to live by this rule every day — to varying degrees of success. It takes practice and discipline, but to me it’s probably the most worthwhile advice to live by.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many people, in my private life and my business life, who have helped me get to where I am: my parents, my wife, my teachers, my children, some of my first managers. If I had to pick one, it would be my very first manager at IBM when I was on my first co-op work term while studying at the University of Waterloo. He was your classic first-level manager, running a small team of business analysts responsible for inventory and shipment tracking to IBM retailers (I’m dating myself, but this was for the electric typewriter group). To make a long story short, he left me to my own devices to solve a perplexing data inconsistency problem that was messing up our weekly reports. I had to find a data contractor and convince her to help me, a lowly co-op student. I’ll never forget the very first time I approached her — she literally ignored me as if I wasn’t standing right there. I eventually figured out how to get her attention by appealing to her need for recognition, and together we solved the issue. What an experience for a 19-year-old during the first few weeks of his very first real job!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Not enough! Trying to raise my kids with strong values and ethics, being active in local non-profits, and at work paying it forward to charities and good causes whenever I run advocacy programs for our customers. For instance, whenever a client of ours agrees to do a case study or join a webinar to help us market our software, we make a donation to a charity of their choice rather than give them a gift card. These are little things, but hopefully they add up.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Comm100 is an award-winning global provider of omnichannel customer engagement solutions powered by automation, AI and a friendly interface that’s fast and easy for both visitors and agents to use. We have been helping large companies connect with their customers through live chat and other digital channels like email, social media, and messaging for more than 11 years, providing our solutions to brands like Fitbit, Canadian Blood Services, HomeTrust Bank and IBM. In 2020 we realized that for small businesses, customer service operations were undergoing extreme stress. We heard reports of small businesses being inundated with more customer requests than their operations could handle — clogging up phone lines, falling behind on social media inquiries, and more. As a result, we decided to pivot our business model to offer a version of our solution for free to small businesses — making it easier for businesses to support their customers during this intensely challenging time. Right now, any small business can set up their own digital customer engagement platform that helps them serve their customers on live chat, email, social media, mobile text messaging and a self-serve knowledge base.

How do you think this might change the world?

In recent years, and especially this last year at home, there has been an increased craving and demand by customers for instant gratification, primarily via online channels. Customers of all ages and demographics are becoming more tech-savvy and they are embracing digital communication. In a time where ordering and receiving a package within a day is available, the expectation for accessibility and speed has seeped into customer service. Customers expect quick and easy support, and this is exactly what live chat and digital channels offer. Customers can receive answers in real time with minimal effort — all within a digital medium that has become so integral to everyday life. The world is already changing, and companies need to invest in the technology necessary to keep up.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

There has definitely been a lot of conversations around AI regulation and ethics in the media recently, the biggest example being the Microsoft chatbot that pulls data from a person’s social media, dead or alive, and base the bot off that specific person. While this all feels very “black mirror”-esque, the kind of AI and NLP-powered chatbots we’re seeing success with today — especially for small businesses — are more practical versus controversial. For example, our customer Tangerine recognized that a large portion of questions being asked on live chat were repetitive, common queries which were taking up a lot of their agents’ time. Their bot Peely could quickly and accurately answer these questions, helping to tackle the skyrocketing chat volume, as well as providing their agents with more time to focus on complex issues and ‘VIP’ customers. In December 2019, 84% of chats routed directly to the bot were resolved without any agent involvement. On some days, this figure rose as high as 91%, representing over 6,400 chats.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

The tipping point was two-fold. First was the realization that small businesses were struggling last year, as I mentioned previously. But it’s not all altruistic. We also recognized that the freemium business model could give us a competitive advantage and help us grow our brand awareness through rapid adoption of our solution. We knew we had a robust solution that was a lot stronger than other ‘free’ products on the market, so we could offer a lot more to earn that business. Then, over time, those free customers would convert to paid as they experienced growth and saw value in what our technology can do.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption

According to our 2021 Live Chat Benchmark report, live chat teams around the world experienced a 7% increase in average monthly chat volume from 2019 to 2020. The emergence of COVID-19 undoubtedly played its part in this rise, but we’ve seen adoption increasing steadily every year since 2016 when we began tracking. Now that organizations are beginning to see the success and improved efficiencies of live chat, we only expect to see adoption continue to rise. Widespread adoption is already underway. We just have to maintain the right balance between capability and ease of use, because people don’t have a lot of time to spend learning new systems. They just have to work!

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic? According to a Broadridge 2021 CX and Communications Trends Report, 56% of consumers agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how they communicate and engage with companies — for good. At the beginning of the pandemic, people complained — rightfully so — about hours-long wait times on the phone with customer service, and organizations quickly recognized that changes needed to be made. As employees shifted to work from home in early 2020, reconfiguring legacy phone systems for a remote setting posed huge issues for more traditional, centralized contact centers. On the other hand, live chat is an instant set up in a work from home environment. Facing the increased volume and technical limitations, many customer service teams shifted their operations away from phone and towards live chat to take advantage of the scalability, efficiency and ease of use. While an agent can only take one phone call at a time, live chat agents can manage several simultaneously. By using live chat, agents can also take advantage of efficiency tools such as canned messages, AI-powered Agent Assist, pre-chat surveys and intelligent routing — all of which help agents to answer and resolve questions more quickly and accurately.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “Your pedigree will only get you so far.” My undergrad institution and my MBA got me in the door for sure, but that benefit fades quickly once you’re on the job. Nothing can help you move forward better than hard work. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do have to know how to work with them.
  2. “You think you know, but you don’t.” A blunt way of saying never be arrogant and assume you have all the answers. Always listen and learn.
  3. “Not knowing is never a reason to not try.” Most people learn by doing, so do. Feel out of your depth? If you can swim, you’ll survive.
  4. “Not every adult acts like one.” You will run into pettiness, ego, spite and more ugly traits. Figure it out, never stoop down to that level, and you’ll be fine.
  5. “Marketing is the hardest job there is.” Everyone thinks they can be a marketer (but no one says that about Sales, Accounting or Engineering), so you’ll constantly be faced with challenge. There is never one right way to market, so you’ll need to keep trying and keep learning.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Honestly it would have to center around what Hillel said as I mentioned previously. Just treat people like you want to be treated. Imagine how that could eliminate road rage (don’t cut someone off, and if they cut you off, be graceful in your reaction), clean up our rivers and lakes (if it were my lake, I wouldn’t throw trash in it), help us rear healthy, resilient children (people thrive through abundant care, protection, love and security). Small, simple acts that ripple.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

LinkedIn (I don’t really do Twitter, it’s too noisy)

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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