Skip navigation

EE grads' firm receives $750K NSF grant

A company started by two Purdue University graduates to help high-end retail stores improve customer service through automated coaching of sales associates has received a two-year, $750,000 federal grant to continue improving its software.
Perceive Inc. has received a $750,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue to develop a business to help high-end retail stores improve customer service through automated coaching of sales associates. The Perceive staff (from left, Anuraag Rajasekhar, Kyle McNulty, Aaron Michaux, Odilia Lirani, Matt Woenker, and Everett Berry.

Perceive Inc., based in the Anvil, an entrepreneurial co-working space at Purdue, was awarded a National Science Foundation Phase II Small Business Innovation Grant. Perceive was previously awarded a $225,000 Phase I SBIR grant.

“This will help us to further develop an automated coach to help improve retail customer service by providing feedback to store associates about how they interact with shoppers,” Perceive CEO Kyle McNulty said. “Our goal is to empower the store associates by giving them constructive feedback aimed at improving the customer experience.”

Customer experience is always a priority in the retail industry, but it is particularly important these days as brick-and-mortar stores compete increasingly against online retailers. Customer service is where brick-and-mortar stores have the advantage over online stores and where specialty stores have the advantage over big-box stores, McNulty said.

“Traffic into stores has been declining for several years, so it is becoming more and more important for stores to differentiate themselves on customer service,” McNulty said. “Because the one thing a website can’t replicate is one-on-one human interaction. And when you have fewer customers in the store, you need to convert as many as possible.”

Perceive plans on first targeting high-end specialty retail chains, because those retailers place the highest priority on the customer service experience.

Perceive uses easy-to-install video and audio sensors to monitor interactions between customers and sales associates, and its software measures how well the sales associates interact with customers. The software can measure what percentage of customers are greeted by a sales associate, how much time a sales associate spends talking and listening to a customer and whether a sales associate is able to answer customers’ questions. These measurements are turned into feedback that is sent to associates and store managers through a mobile and web application.

“The goal is not to turn every associate in America into a pushy salesperson because that ultimately is going to backfire on the retailer. The goal is to ensure that when a customer does want assistance, that assistance is incredible,” said McNulty, who received an electrical engineering degree from Purdue.

McNulty and Everett Berry, Perceive’s chief technology officer, hope the federal grant will lead to software improvements so even more in-depth feedback can be provided.

“Computers certainly don’t have a human level of understanding, but recent advances in machine learning and other technologies are enabling us to do a better job of measuring how associates are interacting with shoppers,” said Berry, who earned a degree in computer engineering from Purdue.

McNulty and Berry said they are unaware of any other companies providing similar software. Retail stores primarily depend on store managers and mystery shoppers to evaluate how sales associates interact with customers. But those associates may behave differently when the store manager isn’t around, and mystery shoppers measure only a fraction of the interactions involving those associates.

“The mystery shopper is only capturing what is happening once every two to three months,” McNulty said. “The retailer wants to ensure their customer service is excellent for every single customer, so you need to capture information about every single interaction with a customer. We can offer that.”

Perceive is currently working with one store in Indianapolis and hopes to move into two or three more stores by the spring. McNulty and Berry said they will then look to raise more funding before hopefully moving into a nationwide store later in 2018.

McNulty and Berry said they have received help in starting Perceive from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurship and commercialization accelerator at the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship at Purdue’s Discovery Park, including advice on how to attract investors and connecting them with the Silicon Valley Boilermaker Innovation Group, an alumni group that assists new ventures in the Purdue community. McNulty, Berry, fellow Purdue alumni Andrew Blejde and ECE Professor Yung-Hsiang Lu founded Perceive in 2015 after working together in Dr. Lu’s HELPS research lab.

Source: Purdue Newsroom