Alexander Holtappels, SABIO
„The telephone calls were “bad” then, says Alexander Holtappels. At that time, he was a consultant for an SME which had commissioned a call centre. “And the phone calls weren’t bad because the agents were stupid, but because they hadn’t been given a proper briefing, just a five-page Word document. So naturally they weren’t able to answer the customers’ questions.” Holtappels began to search for a system which would facilitate the retrieval of information. His vision: a customer calls the company or starts a chat. The agent opens a mask which provides the most probable questions and answers. With one double-click, s/he can then transfer the necessary text modules and forms to the chat box. But Holtappels found nothing of the sort. Promptly, he and a colleague set themselves up as self-employed consultants. That was in 2000. To demonstrate for their customers, they built a small tool – a tool that, over the years, has become SABIO.
SABIO software provides a central knowledge source for companies with more than 20 employees. From it, editorial information flows optimally into different channels: telephone conversations with customers, chats and emails, and also websites, apps and social network accounts. “Drawing information from a single source saves process costs in many ways and increases quality”, says Maximilian Thost, who together with Holtappels is a managing partner, as well as being responsible for marketing and distribution. However, SABIO is much more than just a Wiki or SharePoint. The software is set up in close coordination with the call centre agents, and is managed by three levels of hierarchy – agents, editors and managers. The result for the often tedious induction process: the company’s information flow is an effervescent yet structured, rapidly retrievable knowledge source which is constantly renewing itself, also when it comes to maximum user-friendliness. “Bad” phone calls are a thing of the past.
Letting go of non-essentials and concentrating on clarity – SABIO itself has experienced this process during its history with the company. The software was given its characteristic tree-like structure back in 2000 when the first prototypes were built. But Alexander Holtappels and his team also made a serious mistake: they built what customers wanted. “It started off like a cosy little cottage. And then we kept adding in little things that had nothing to do with the original idea.” Once they realised this, they pretty much had to start from scratch. Between the third and the fourth versions, they finally adapted the technology to equip the software for a larger number of users. This would allow not just SMEs but also large corporations such as Telefonica, E.ON and RWE to become customers. In addition, SABIO now offered the option of integrating customers’ applications of choice via the API interface. Since then, agents do not have to log into Twitter, Facebook, the website, and the app, but instead can control from SABIO what information flows into which channels.
The company proves to offer as much support to its employees as the software offers its users: as a life goal, Holtappels has set himself the task of creating fulfilling jobs. It is no coincidence that SABIO employs a large number of highly qualified workers, many of whom came on the recommendation of others. In October of this year, the entire team will move into type of glass palace complete with roof terrace offering views of Hamburg, where they can also hold private parties. This focus on the employees’ quality of life pays dividends: “We are the underdog; intelligent and inventive. We can achieve a lot with not much money”, comments Thost.
With this company philosophy, it was clear that “Engelhardt Kaupp Kiefer” would prick up its ears when approached by SABIO in 2008. The eventual deal, however, was preceded by protracted discussions, as the ideas of the two parties hardly overlapped at all. “It was really tough”, remembers Holtappels. Tobias Engelhardt also remembers the negotiating phase with the Hamburg-based company. Compared to its other portfolio companies, SABIO was “very self-confident in a typically Hamburg way”. But time and again, both parties succeeded in pulling apart the lawyers who occasionally butted heads, understanding the intentions behind clauses, and meeting each other on a human level. They finally came to an agreement that all were satisfied with. “There was good chemistry. We had a feeling that it would work, both on a personal and on a professional level. They are very Swabian and we are very Hanseatic”, says Holtappels, and continues: “The intensive negotiation phase led to us building a lot of trust. We noticed that even when things weren’t working, we could always discuss the content.” After that, there were no more clashes, “not even minor ones”.
Since then, SABIO has benefited from the experience of the holding company and its “family”. During regular meetings, the managing directors have gleaned a lot from the intimate atmosphere and the knowledge of “the great and the good”. For their part, they are more likely to pass on their knowledge of “innovations”. Engelhardt Kaupp Kiefer’s know-how and expertise have remained valuable constants of their everyday business. “They are not intrusive, but take the helicopter view and think about our strategic direction”, says Holtappels, adding dryly: “They are often right with their questions. Quite frustrating.” It is precisely this reflection, looking at SABIO from a long-term perspective, that constitutes the relevant part of their collaboration for Tobias Engelhardt and his team. “Alexander Holtappels is a racing driver and we are the guard rails”, is how he describes their cooperation, with a note of affection. Providing support to a growing company without this resulting in significant friction – once again, the holding company has demonstrably proved one of its core competencies. When it came on board, SABIO had twelve employees. Now it has 70.
But neither SABIO nor Engelhardt Kaupp Kiefer intend to limit their success to the D-A-CH region. Rather, they are now ready for global growth, more customers, and combat with international competition. SABIO’s new motto is e-learning instead of on-site support. Engelhardt and his team are focusing on support and finance. Their joint vision: thanks to the type of scaling, growing number of customers and optional integration into other systems, in the next three years the software could be managing 1,000 times as many calls as it is now. Which in turn means that employees from Hamburg should be trained to deal with calls to the Philippines, India or Canada. Technology, organisation and advertising must also keep pace. In addition, even although the software is already very streamlined and almost ascetic, it will continue to be simplified.
“We are actually doing less and less with more people. This is what enables us to become more and more focused”, says Holtappels. Over the last two years, hardly any new functions have been introduced, and existing functions have been continuously improved. The first steps have already been taken: as of very recently, SABIO is now available online. The licence entitles customers to free introductory webinars and guides. The marketing material, standard documents and self-help videos have been largely reworked or completely re-created, and translated into English. Alexander Holtappels is looking forward to the new challenge of preparing SABIO for the global market, in order to save considerably more call centre agents from “bad” phone calls as soon as possible.p>