From a physical kiosk business to a software services firm, Intouch Insight (TSX-V:INX) has survived in Ottawa by pivoting at the right time to remain relevant. The decades-old firm is revitalizing itself again, this time hoping that hiring dozens of employees and raising millions of dollars to develop a new customer experience platform will set it apart from the pack.
Intouch Insight develops software to help more than 300 brands including General Motors and the Beer Store track customer engagement and satisfaction. Though it’s recently adopted a SaaS model, the fundamental business isn’t terribly distinct from where the firm started in 1992 – putting kiosks in restaurants and other businesses to collect customer feedback.
“It was known as the kiosk company,” says CEO Cameron Watt, who first joined Intouch in 2011.
Back then, there weren’t reliable internet connections to siphon data from the physical machines. It seems cumbersome and archaic by today’s standards, but Intouch would have to ship the machines out to clients and arrange to bring them back just to extract the information.
Of course, the advent of the internet shook the firm’s foundations significantly, but it was a shift in management around 2004 that represented a more substantial pivot. It was then that Michael Gaffney – today the CEO of Ottawa-based Leonovus and executive chairman of Intouch’s board – stepped into the chief executive role with a new leadership team.
“To be honest, it was in a little bit of trouble back then,” Watt says. “They really took the company, resurrected it and made it a really strong ... on the services side of things.”
Still in the engagement business, the firm built out a series of tech-enabled services that could provide clients with insights on their customers’ experience such as co-ordinating mystery shoppers or arranging satisfaction surveys.
Fast forward to 2013, and Watt says the firm kept getting the same question from clients: Could we get access to the software and dashboard analytics you’re using?
The answer, back then, was no. But Watt and the company leaned into that SaaS demand and built out a series of mobile apps that let clients take their data into their own hands.
Today, brands have quite the opposite problem, Watt says.
“Everyone out there is saying, ‘I have enough data,’” he says. “What they really want is the ability to distill that information and then take action.”
Intouch set out to develop a new customer engagement platform that could, with the help of artificial intelligence, tell clients where gaps existed in customer’s journeys.
Over the past six months, Intouch has hired 40 new people, the majority of whom are Ottawa-based. The firm also raised $3.5 million across two private placements last fall. The firm’s aggressive development spending led to a net loss in 2017, but Watt says the company is ready to cash in on its investment.
LiaCX, released this week, is the fruit of Intouch’s past year of labours. The platform is a “higher-ticket item” than Intouch’s other products, Watt says, that aggregates data from across clients’ interactions with customers to determine exactly where the “journey” is falling short.
For example, if a hotel is tracking customer satisfaction at booking, check-in, dining and check-out, LiaCX could point to where the issues are and suggest actions to improve the overall experience.
It’s this piece of the puzzle – the action advice – that Watt says sets LiaCX apart from other market offerings.
“The product is targeted (at) a real market need that it seems nobody else is addressing the way we are at this point.”
Eventually, Watt says the platform’s artificial intelligence will be able to predict where customer issues will pop up before they happen, putting clients a step ahead of any potential impact on the business.
Around 50 of Intouch’s 80 full-time employees work in Ottawa. The firm has had to expand its physical space twice to keep up with its hiring plans, a pace Watt hopes to continue.
The chief executive is blunt, however, about the difficulty of finding top-tier talent in Ottawa.
“Was it easy? No, it was not.”
“Was it easy? No, it was not,” he says.
Watt says with the “little tech boom in Ottawa,” bigger firms are coming into town with high-paying jobs and brands that look good on a resume. Intouch has had to work harder, then, to find the talent it needs to execute on its own growth plans.
The Ottawa firm has been able to achieve this, the CEO suggests, thanks to the culture it’s built over the past few years. Smart, entrepreneurial hires are bringing in like-minded talent, Watt says.
After 26 years in business, the publicly traded company is hoping to cultivate a startup-like excitement. Investors caught a bit of that fever late last year, with Intouch’s stock shooting up to its highest points in 15 years after the firm’s fundraising rounds.
The share price has dropped back to traditional levels in recent months, but that hasn’t rattled the firm’s leadership. With his belief in the firm’s new product, Watt took the opportunity last month to purchase more than 300,000 shares of the company himself.
“As far as I’m concerned, it was on sale,” he says.