Building the leading cloud-based phone system – Interview with Aircall founder and CEO Olivier Pailhes

Aircall-CEO

Founded in 2014, Aircall today is the leading cloud-based phone system in Europe. Aircall is headquartered in Paris and empowers companies of any size with an online phone system specifically built for modern business. In May 2018, Aircall raised $29 million in a Series B funding round led by Balderton and Draper Esprit. This brings their total amount of raised capital to over $40 million. Most recently, Aircall launched Aircall Now, a native Intercom integration that combines messaging and voice to transform the way experience-oriented brands interact with customers and prospects.

In order to learn more about the impressive growth story of Aircall and the company’s future plans, we sat down with Aircall co-founder and CEO Olivier Pailhes for a little interview. Here it is:

Olivier, please tell us more about Aircall’s founding story and how you have built it up to where it is today.

Back in 2014, we noticed that there were a lot of complications for businesses taking calls from customers. As a solution, we founded Aircall, a cloud-based solution that uses smartphones and internet telephony to reinvent the traditional business phone.

We’re aware that, for many businesses, creating a dedicated customer support office takes time, is expensive, and isn’t optimised for today’s environment. We wanted to bring the customer service or sales call into the digital era and simplify the process of talking to clients, partners, and employees.

Since then, we’ve empowered thousands of businesses to improve their communications, replacing outdated systems with a collaborative and efficient platform that provides relevant customer data and agent-facing tools at the onset of every call. In addition, we’re continuing to enable seamless integrations into all the tools used by modern businesses, enabling collaboration and flexibility.

In April, Aircall decided to partner with customer feedback tool Intercom, and you’ve already reached a key milestone of 300 installations. What benefits do you think these types of partnerships bring to businesses?

Intercom is a business messenger tool that allows instant communication between customers and businesses to help them grow. We decided to launch our integration with Intercom, Aircall Now, because we wanted to make it as simple as possible for customers to interact with businesses in whichever way they want to, and transition seamlessly between messaging and phone conversation.

Customers nowadays expect options, and it is vital that we give them as much choice as possible depending on how they feel like interacting that day. This is exactly why we have also partnered with other sales and customer support software such as Salesforce, Zendesk, Hubspot and Zoho among others.

Aircall recently raised $29 million in funding, led by Draper Esprit. What are your plans for this capital, and how have you been achieving your goals?

Back in May we were very excited to secure a Series B funding round, led by Draper Esprit, with participation from Balderton Capital, Nextworld Capital, eFounders, Newfund and other existing investors, bringing our total funding to $40.5 million to date. We plan to use the new funds to accelerate the buildout of our cloud-based phone system and continue to integrate with all the software growing businesses use. We also have been dedicating portions of the fund to secure top talent in our teams in both Europe and the US.

Aircall is one of the best known French tech companies. What is the French tech ecosystem looking like at the moment and how does this compare to ten years ago?

In recent years, the French tech ecosystem has seen astonishing growth, driven by a new generation of entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, and other talent. In 2017, France ranked second behind the UK on tech investment activity, and between 2015 and 2016 investment in French startups rose by 84%. Aircall is proud to be part of this growing ecosystem alongside other well known startups like Doctolib or Algolia.

There are many driving forces behind this rapid development, and in my view two of these are particularly important. Firstly, the shift in focus of French engineering and business schools towards entrepreneurship as the most successful career option. Ten years ago, the most successful careers would start in fast-moving consumer goods, banking or consulting. Today start-ups effectively compete against companies in their sectors for the best talent, and many new graduates start their own business just after school.

Secondly, the growth in European venture capital with a world-changing ambition. Behind Aircall and many other French start-ups, you’ll find top-level, ambitious investors who push entrepreneurs to think bigger and project their venture beyond French borders. Balderton – our Series A lead investor – or DraperEsprit – our Series B lead investor – are good examples of this, and are even more interesting as they started off from a UK base but are now very active within the French tech community. Ten years ago, the funds and resources available to start-ups were much shallower.

What are the biggest challenges facing the sales and customer service industry and what do you think it will look like in ten years’ time?

One of the most important developments to both the sales and the customer service industries is the growth of customer expectations and the absolute necessity of making every interaction customer-centric. As Jeff Bezos says ‘We see our customers as invited guests to the party, and we are the hosts’. Research shows that 64% of customers will switch to a competitor following a negative experience, so it is our job to do everything we can to make the customer service experience as positive as possible.

The overall level of customer demand has dramatically increased, and will continue to do so, whether it’s for sales or support purposes, people know –  and expect – that companies are able to connect a lot of data about them, in order to anticipate their needs and make every interaction as relevant to them as possible.

Take a customer support interaction as an example: no customer will stand having to repeat his personal data or repeat an issue twice. Every method of interaction – whether that’s emails, tickets, in-app messages, chats or phone calls – must be consolidated so that support agents can leverage them to save their customer’s time. In the future, AI will help speed up low-value interactions and free up manpower and time for high-value problem-solving matters.

We can see a similar pattern in sales processes, where large scale cold-calling is progressively being substituted for highly targeted outreach moments in which prospects really benefit from being sold to. In the long term, as markets become more and more liquid and competitive, the quality of human interactions will become even important as a differentiating factors against competition.

In the past few years there has been a general move towards text-based communication and businesses are increasingly communicating with their customers through chatbots and messenger systems. Does the telephone still have a role to play in customer service?

The phone call definitely still plays an important role in customer service. Messaging and chatbots can save time and manpower, but customers are still looking for the efficient and personal experience that only speaking to a real person can deliver. Calls need to be intuitive, flexible and integrated into modern communication tools such as messengers to provide a seamless and personalised experience for every customer.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned as a founder?

From a very long list of lessons I have learned as a founder, I’d pick the power of teamwork as the most important one. Having worked in larger corporations before, where success depends on the strength of the organisation and its brand, I wasn’t aware of how powerful can teamwork be. When we started Aircall, I had a tendency to seek success through my own intelligence: I’m an analytical person and I’ve always thought problems can be solved by analysis and creativity.

However, Aircall’s success is not a result of analysis, creativity or intelligence by themselves: it was in fact driven by a suite of small decisions that created a founding team (Aircall has 4 co-founders), then a small core team of about 20 people, then our current team of about 100 people. The relentless dedication to teamwork has allowed us to overcome impossible hurdles, something I never thought possible before co-founding Aircall.

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