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20 Questions

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20 Questions

20 Questions with Aaron Lee

Founder and CEO of Smith.ai

Originally published
Originally published: 11/2/2023

Managing Editor, Heather Langone sat down with Aaron Lee, Founder and CEO of Smith.ai, to discuss the necessity of the human factor in AI, lessons learned as the former CTO of Home Depot, and the importance of immediacy in customer service.

1. What does a day off look like for you? 

Time to relax – I love hiking, skiing, and spending time with my family and friends. I have three girls – twelve, eight, and three. So, it’s fun.

2. What is your definition of service?

If you order a book on Amazon, a book is a book. For me, service is personal. 

3. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? If so, what does the day look like for you?

Yes, my family loves to cook and eat. It’s a day to be together. Everyone brings a favorite dish. It’s a non-stop eating event!

4. What makes you happy? 

Of course, if I go out with friends, I'm happy. But that's transient. Bringing joy to other people makes me happy.

5. Who do you consider the most influential business leader(s) of the decade? 

My mentor, former CEO of Home Depot, Frank Blake, a lawyer by trade, understood the business and worked harder than anyone. He knew all the associates' names. A true leader who led by example. 

6. What is the mission of Smith.ai?

To transform the customer experience for every business. 

7. How do you combine the two? It’s not just chatbot AI or FAQ?

Humans are part of the experience. If a customer has a question about your specific business, personalized AI provides answers. We boast a 99.7 % accuracy rate.

8. Why is data management and analysis important in the HVACR Industry?

A small heating and air conditioning business, for example, needs data to be more efficient and increase productivity. Who is the target customer? Should there be extra staff on Thursday afternoons and less on Mondays?

9. What do you think is the most common customer service oversight of business owners?

They don't realize the importance of immediate engagement.  No one would disagree that good service is important, but immediacy is the number one factor customers need to have addressed.

10. Has AI changed the role of CTOs. 

Yes. AI is the new and essential programming language every CTO must learn now. 

11. As the former CTO of Home Depot, why the move to this start-up? 

My obsession with customer experience. At Home Depot, I talked to thousands of different businesses and customers, different pros, verticals, and industries. One problem arose repeatedly – the pain of not being able to get back to customers quickly enough. 

12. If you could advise a business owner who hasn't caught up to technology, what are good first steps? 

Don’t think you need to understand how AI works. You only need a willingness to adapt. If you want to keep up with technology and keep up with innovation, you need to work with companies that deliver AI. 

13. How do you think AI will benefit the field service industry? 

HVAC companies not only employ service technicians out in the field daily, but they must keep up with increased demand seasonally. AI provides the knowledge to the human agent to answer questions quickly and expedite service. And no algorithm can replicate human empathy. You need both. If a mother calls in during the hottest summer month because her A/C is broken and she has an infant for instance, then time is vital. She needs repair now and she needs a CSA to empathize. Not only does AI speed up the service but the agent can then escalate a call like that. 

14. The idea that AI will eliminate jobs for service workers – is that a fair assessment? 

I don’t think so. Will there be jobs eliminated? Yes. But I don’t perceive we will ever eliminate the human element. AI simply makes businesses more efficient which is good for business.

15. Where do you see Smith.ai in the next five years? 

We will become the de facto platform for handling any inbound or outbound omnichannel communications. Most companies are building a system that I call “a thin wrapper” on top of the Chat GPT. The way we build AI, with eight years of experience, no one has the amount of data we do or has built as much infrastructure. In a very noisy market, we plan on continuing to lead in the space.

 16. How did being a CTO at Home Depot help you transition to this role? 

Home Depot is one of the companies I admire most because the human experience is deeply rooted in their culture. It is one of the few companies that promotes from the most entry-level position up to Senior VP. The amount of training and promotion opportunities they provide is unprecedented. I modeled my company around that culture. It is our secret sauce. 

17. Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”  What is your opinion on this as it pertains to business?

This is my second startup, so of course I learned a ton from the first one. I took a lot of risks because I didn't know anything. As l learned more, I discovered that there are risks you cannot foresee. Starting a business is incredibly challenging. Kudos to all of you who took the risk. I have profound respect for anyone who dares to throw a hat in the arena. 

18. Do you think AI will level the playing field in terms of equality in the workplace? 

People who are willing to embrace the new technology will have an edge over the people who don't want to learn about this new thing. Being adaptable will provide the edge.

19. What is the overarching objective for Smith.ai in 2024? 

To drive more innovation and enhance what we call the magical experience for customers. So, our clients say, “This is unbelievable. She is as good as one of my CSA employees,” and to help more SMBs understand that the traditional way of running a business has evolved.

20. One of the obstacles in the HVAC industry is the labor shortage, do you think AI helps to solve this issue in any way?  

Yes, if you grow, you attract more business. If you look more attractive, you attract more employees. If you grow, you can pay higher wages. If you pay higher wages, you attract better candidates, and so on. Millennials care about those benefits, and that’s who you should be looking to attract in the labor shortage in the years to come. 

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