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How startup Hello Alfred is scaling its people-first technology business

When best friends Marcela Sapone and Jessica Beck left their jobs in finance and consulting in New York City for Harvard Business School, they realized they both worked long hours, had no time to cook or clean, or to run errands while shops were actually open. The harried pace of life gave them a reason to pause—and ultimately led to an inspired idea.

“I think all of us can easily say that the most valuable thing in the world is our time, and it’s the only thing you can’t get more of,” said Sapone onstage at Zendesk Showcase NYC in May of 2019. “I think it’s the only real currency.”

They began to interview other women who were balancing as much—and more—to learn how it was possible to have a successful career, a family, and a fulfilling personal life. The answer was a resounding: You need to have help,

Sapone and Beck decided to hire and share a personal assistant, which led to the founding of Hello Alfred in 2014. That year, they became the first all-female team to win at TechCrunch Disrupt SF and have since given thousands of other urban dwellers back the gift of time, in the form of trusted help.

[Read also: The power of women-built brand experiences]

While Hello Alfred is officially a technology startup, Sapone says it’s really “a people business” at its core. “We’re building a new class of service workers who are distributed, who are empowered, who are loyal, who feel like they are part of your family, who are trained to act as detectives and anticipate you, and your needs, over time.”

"We're building a new class of service workers who are distributed, who are empowered, who are loyal, who feel like they are part of your family." - Marcela Sapone

A business built on trust

Hello Alfred currently partners with residential buildings in 20 cities around the U.S., and recently partnered with Greystar, the largest rental provider in the nation, to provide access to Hello Alfred’s time-saving and anticipatory home help services, free to residents. To date, the company has saved over 50 years worth of members’ time.

“If you live in an Alfred building, you get a dedicated home manager who visits you every week, who’s putting your groceries in your fridge, your dry cleaning in your closet, your packages on the counter, buying you flowers, doing your errands, and is a person you know and trust and is invited into your home,” Sapone said.

It’s different than the gig economy model, wherein strangers enter and leave our homes, and lives, to deliver food or build an IKEA bed, and we never see them again. We trust these gig workers to get the job done, but not to know anything more about us. An Alfred, on the other hand, assists with personal tasks and gains insight into a member’s private life. This is a big deal—and it matters to the success of the rapidly growing business.

[Read also: If you want customers to trust you, trust your agents to make them happy]

“Everything we do comes down to one question,” Sapone said. “Does this build or take away from our relationship of trust with the customer? That is the only thing that matters. Our entire product is a relationship of trust with the customer, at whatever level they’re comfortable with.”

Taking an Alfred-first approach

One of the reasons Hello Alfred is so successful is that every Alfred is a W-2 employee of the company. “Services in a gig format, to me, are not sustainable,” Sapone said. “You have to take care of your number one customer, and that is your employees.”

"You have to take care of your number one customer, and that is your employees."

For Hello Alfred, this means paying a livable wage and working with those who are underemployed, like stay-at-home moms who are looking to get back into the workforce. “We structured the company around supporting employees, making their life easier, giving them the tools and the processes to be able to support our customers,” Sapone said.

This means an Alfred isn’t hired until there’s a batch of customers ready and enough work to keep the Alfred employed for a long time. It also means that the company gives its Alfreds a voice in the next Alfred home manager it hires. Home managers are integrated across the business, weighing in on product design and marketing work, and also take engineers and executives out into the field. Building career progression is another key to employee retention, Sapone said. Alfreds can go on to become area managers or run whole markets.

[Read also: Changing the narrative on careers in customer service]

“These are smart, talented people, and if you give them the opportunity to grow, that’s how you get the energy,” she said. “You empower your front lines and the machine just starts to build itself.” Indeed, the proof is in the company’s high retention rate and low member attrition—approximately 5 percent, which Sapone describes as “insane.”

The role of customer feedback

The technology powering Hello Alfred learns from each customer request and begins to detect patterns. The Alfreds then take suggestions from the technology, but are ultimately the ones who see firsthand what’s important to a customer and can begin to personalize the service they offer. “It’s about making the technology the sidekick and the human the protagonist,” Sapone said.

"It’s about making the technology the sidekick and the human the protagonist."

Technology also helps to collect feedback, questions, and complaints—which, when used proactively, provides another piece of the puzzle and helps to uncover what makes each member tick.

Hello Alfred in home

“What do they care about? What is their story? We find that we really have this ability to [use customer data] to write the narrative about the customer,” Sapone said. Connecting Hello Alfred’s proprietary software to its customer service solution connects members to Hello Alfred’s Operations team by email and text messaging, and home managers to Operations by phone. With these interactions all housed in a single system, each home manager gains a complete picture

The company refers to this process as “a learning loop”—so that service is anticipated and then reviewed by the member, and that feedback is reviewed and passed back to the home manager, along with any other communication with the member, so that service is continually improved. This learning loop enables Alfreds to provide service that’s consistent and highly personalized, and helps to build some very real and even lasting relationships.

Scaling fast, and failing… well, only, sometimes

As the company continues to partner with new buildings and enter new markets, it becomes less a luxury service and more a reality for people around the world. To help scale rapidly, Sapone and Beck brought on Chris Haseman, who formerly helped build and lead UberEats, as its first chief technology officer (CTO). But he is a CTO, Sapone said, who rallies around the company’s people-first ethos.

“We’re trying to balance how you can be both excellent and compassionate,” Sapone said. The first thing Haseman did was to work with the engineering team to create an engineering code of conduct. This means they put the human experience first, when it comes to what they’re going to build, and always erring on the side of making the experience better for Alfreds.

The company’s executive team come from diverse backgrounds, and as Sapone put it, building “true diversity takes time”—when putting the team together, learning to communicate, and to understand the experiences that others are coming from. Inherent in that is conflict, but “you need conflict to build something real, and to build real relationships,” she said.

The most trust is built when something goes awry and the Alfred successfully handles and recovers the situation.

[Read also: The trust economy and why it's okay to get a bad rating]

This is often true with members—the most trust is built when something goes awry and the Alfred successfully handles and recovers the situation. When this happens in the first four-to-six weeks, Sapone said, they often find that they have a better customer relationship over the long term.

“You need to prove that you’re not going to be perfect,” she said. “We’re all humans. We just bring that human message of saying, ‘We’re going to make mistakes, but let’s learn from them and try to continue to change our business models to make sense for the people that we work for, and for the people we work with.”

Happy employees means happy customers

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