Thanks to the technological miracle of cloud scalability, Tara Kelly can drive her software service business into international markets at full throttle. But the truth of the matter is that the founder of Calgary-based Splice Software Inc. is not only temperamentally inclined to conduct business at high speed. As the head of a company that seeks to encourage people pay more attention to automated telemarketing calls, Kelly knows she’s got no more than two or three seconds to “earn the moment.”
The crux of the company’s “personalized human voice solutions” offering is a sophisticated splice-and-dice digital audio technology that allows companies to precisely tailor both their inbound and outbound customer service messages to the person at the other end of the line. Drawing on customer information, Splice can produce a call that addresses the individual by their given name, anticipate the person’s service request and even use local accents and languages.
Kelly, who launched three companies before Splice, had the idea for the firm after enduring what she describes as a “horrible” phone interaction experience with her bank back in 2006. The bank’s interactive voice recognition system was not merely robotic; it didn’t make use of any of the information she knew the bank collected about her. For example, the fact that she regularly calls in to pay bills. “There was zero contextual awareness of who I was,” she says. “They were doing nothing to make my life better.”
Kelly’s father was in the music industry so she knew it was entirely possible to improve that kind of experience using existing digital splicing technology. Struck by the opportunity, Kelly figured she could develop and sell an improved voice experience system and even began pitching potential customers before she’d finalized a business plan.
The first nibbles came between 2007 and 2009 from the retailer Fabricland, as well as a unit of Telus, The Brick and financial-software maker Intuit. Those early customers took a bit of a flyer on Kelly’s concept: As she notes, “Would it actually be better? Somebody has to write a cheque.” But she was able to demonstrate the viability of the service with surveys showing significantly improved metrics for out-bound calls.
The company blazed past its initial growth target—$1 million in revenues, with five key household-name clients in its customer roster—by early 2009. (With revenues in the $3 million to $5 million range, Splice ranked 53rd on the 2014 PROFIT 500.)
The company’s international breakthrough came the next year when the former Brick executive who’d retained Splice’s services ended up at the helm of Art Van Furniture, a U.S. retailer based in Michigan. At the same time, Intuit asked Kelly if she’d be prepared to provide Splice’s services to its U.K. and Indian operations.
Kelly doesn’t sugar coat the company’s export experiences (65% of its revenues currently come from outside Canada).
The U.S., she says, was ripe for the service, but Kelly won big south of the border by adopting a strategy that challenged conventional wisdom. Her contact at Art Van was so eager to offer Splice’s voice services to his customers that he asked for a territorial exclusive. “Everyone says, ‘never do an exclusive,’ ” Kelly recalls. But she decided to try a variation on the theme: unless a very large customer came along, she said Splice would agree to an exclusive, but with the proviso that Art Van would pass on referrals and business leads. “By giving them some reciprocity of the deal, they were motivated to do it,” she says. “It made everything faster.”
The U.K. expansion, in turn, proved to be an exercise in pedal-to-the-metal growth. After Intuit invited Kelly to provide Splice’s services in that market, she marshalled her team to do a high-speed roll out. In less than a week, the company pulled together the legal and banking infrastructure, all while leasing cloud-based servers capable of delivering outbound calls to ten times more customers than Splice had served with its North American clients.
Amazingly, the Intuit service in the U.K. was up and running a month after the company approached Splice about the expansion. “When you decide to do something,” Kelly reflects, “you block out everything else and get it done. If you want to have those opportunities to scale and grow, you have to go ahead as fast as you can.” The pay-off is a solid, trust-based commercial relationship.
But, as Kelly concedes, mistakes happen. When Intuit used Splice in its telemarketing in India, the audio techniques that allowed the company to build more personalized telemarketing messages—using first names, varying tone of voice and employing user profiles—didn’t quite take as it had in the U.S. and the U.K.
The reason? As Kelly later discovered, Hindi has all sorts of nuances and variations that Splice’s software couldn’t anticipate—for example, the differences in the way people are addressed based on their age and station in life. The problem, she said, could be distilled into a two-word phrase: “Cultural sensitivities.”
The failed India venture, however, didn’t produce lasting harm. When Kelly asked Intuit if they’d lose the entire global account by pulling out of the India relationship, the company said no; Splice’s U.K. success with Intuit, she says, had established enough trust to protect the relationship from potholes.
Indeed, Kelly says Splice has lined up another customer in India and is preparing to take another run at the huge market, this time with more insight into what’s required to deliver an effective service. The company this fall is hiring staff and lining up enough financing to allow it to withstand the cash flow shocks that occur when a business sprints out of the starting gate. “We’re totally in scale up mode,” she exclaims. “We think we’re about to kick butt.”