A CEO Manning the Phones Each Day?

What sounds like a customer-service gimmick is helping the co-founder of a personal finance Web site build trust

Wesabe's home page invites users to reach CEO Jason Knight by phone during a four-hour period seven days a week.

When Alden Kellogg discovered a glitch on Wesabe, he went to the personal finance tracker's home page, looking for a tech support number or e-mail. Instead, he found a link labeled "Talk to Jason, CEO of Wesabe."

The page invites users to reach CEO Jason Knight by phone during a four-hour period seven days a week. Kellogg, a 35-year-old attorney in New Orleans, called the number in July, and Knight picked up.

"It basically was like calling member services or technical support of a company," says Kellogg. "You were talking with someone who knew how to deal with a customer and get to the issue you wanted to talk about, rather than [feeling like] I'm on the phone with an executive."

The call is one of hundreds that Knight, 37, has taken since he and co-founder Marc Hedlund launched Wesabe in November, 2006. The site encourages users to upload their financial information to track their spending, set goals, and get tips from other users relevant to their specific purchases. But Knight and Hedlund recognized that, as an unknown startup, Wesabe needed to establish credibility before people would trust them with financial data. Inviting users to call Knight directly would help build that trust.

Now, as the bulk of questions have moved from concerns about privacy and security to reporting bugs and requesting new features, Knight says he can't imagine not spending part of his day taking calls. He sees it as the perfect opportunity to push the brand and get customers to evangelize about it.

"A lot of times people think customer service is just selling, but it's not. It's about helping people make good decisions, and then they'll come back," Knight says.

Matter of Credibility

Wesabe is one of a growing group of personal finance Web sites that have emerged over the last two years as free alternatives to software such as Quicken (INTU) or Microsoft Money (MSFT). Although few of these companies are making money, some plan to profit with subscriptions to premium services or by selling targeted advertising. All make it clear they will not sell data. Knight's 15-person San Francisco company has attracted more than $4 million in venture capital from Union Square Ventures and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. And the evangelism appears to be working: Knight says registered users are approaching 100,000.

Establishing credibility is key for Web sites in this space, says Jim Bruene, editor of trade publication Online Banking Report, who tracks the growth of online personal finance sites. "There's trust issues on any site, but once you get into the financial services, it just multiplies a thousandfold," he says. Bruene predicts companies such as Wesabe will either have to partner with existing financial brands or invest heavily in building their own brands before taking off. "The question for those companies would be, 'can you afford to build it yourself?'"

Building Relationships

On most days, Knight's iPhone rings two or three times with a call from a Wesabe user. Callers ask about security, how to use the site, and whether the service fits their needs. Some offer feedback or suggest features. If Knight can't answer a technical question, he'll hand the phone to one of Wesabe's engineers.

At the core of Knight's approach is his belief that the relationship is more important than the sale. If committed Quicken users call and ask whether they should switch to Wesabe, he tells them not to if Quicken works for them. His bet is that the caller will tell friends about the experience.

"A really good salesperson is not going to treat you like a prospect. They're going to treat you like a human being," he says.

"And if they believe in their product, they're going to see a good fit between you as a human being they should care about and this product they believe in. If it's not a good fit, the ideal outcome is to get somebody into a service that will work for them."

It's a philosophy Knight takes in part from his wife, who owns a women's clothing store. She trains her staff to make sure customers leave the shop with clothes that flatter them—not necessarily the most expensive item they try on. Knight says all businesses should focus on good outcomes for customers, but small firms are ideally positioned to build those relationships. "At the end of the day, the one fundamental differentiator is that you care more and are more invested than any company that has achieved that kind of scale," he says.

Involve Upper Management

So how can businesses replicate the focus on customers that Knight espouses? He says top managers shouldn't shy away from talking to the people who use their products and services. He suggests, at a minimum, executives read customer e-mails. "If you're a CEO that's so busy you don't have time to hear what your customers think about your service, then there's maybe something wrong."

Knight admits he might have to modify his direct line approach if he starts to get more calls than he can handle. If necessary, he says he could cut the time allotted for calls down to an hour. But so far, he hasn't needed to. During an interview or gathering at a friend's house, he has no qualms about picking up his iPhone—which signals him that the call is coming through Wesabe's line—to chat with his users.

"The only time that I have learned to not take customer calls is during board meetings," he says. "My board does not appreciate it."

Success In a Competitive Niche

Still, Knight's relationship with users does not guarantee success, and Wesabe is in a competitive niche. He says the company doesn't plan to sell advertising or generate targeted leads for financial-service companies—the business model several other similar sites employ. Wesabe plans to roll out a fee-based premium version, although Knight is quick to say that all features available now will remain free.

Knight's unusual openness has helped Wesabe clear the first hurdle of reassuring wary users, at least if Kellogg's experience is any indication. The bug he noticed was fixed within days and he was left with a memorable experience. Says Kellogg: "I think that slight personal touch, no matter how brief that contact is, might be enough to tip the scales in that company's direction, because now I have a face to put to the name."

Check out this slide show for a look at how similar sites build trust.

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