customer-experience-cropped-keiserAs companies across industries have become increasingly customer-focused, CIOs themselves have become more active participants in helping shape, even reimagine the customer experience. Forrester Research predicts that CIOs will shift away from tech-of-the-day innovation strategies and move towards methodical innovation approaches that are more customer and revenue-centric.

To learn more about how CIOs can add value to customer strategies, HMG Strategy recently spoke with Tom Keiser, a former CIO who is now Chief Operating Officer at Zendesk.

HMG Strategy: How is Zendesk continuing to differentiate itself in the market?

Tom Keiser: At our core, Zendesk still has the same focus, which is on the customer and on the customer experience. Zendesk is 12 years old and was formed to simplify and improve the customer service experience, both for agents and for customers. Our differentiator has always been about ease of use and speed of implementation and integration. We were built as a cloud and SaaS product from the beginning, with a focus on allowing customers to easily sign up, set up, and operate their business. 

As we’ve grown to an enterprise software company, we’ve kept that “beautifully simple” mindset. We’ve been on a product journey from customer support to modern CRM, and each year we add capabilities that bring the full customer experience and communication together - over the last two years adding machine learning, SFA, customer communication, evented customer data stores, and fully migrating onto AWS.  

Tell us more about Zendesk’s machine learning capabilities.

TK: We initially focused on two interactions: the first is the customer’s interaction with the company they’re doing business with, serving up potential answers to their questions; initially on the email channel, and now across all communication channels. The second was identifying and serving up gaps in content on the help center back to the customer service organization, so that they could add content to answer customers’ questions more quickly.  

Our focus on machine learning is to better enable the customer to quickly get resolution to their questions and needs, and to better arm the customer service rep with information that will help them quickly resolve a customer’s problem.

Can you point to some of the ways that Zendesk collects and acts upon customer feedback?

TK: We get tons of customer feedback, as we now have over 100,000 customers.  We gather a lot of usage data, which we use to constantly improve the customer experience. We are a customer experience company with a dedicated customer experience team: a 500-person organization -- 350 in our customer advocacy organization and 100+ in customer success. We get to see a lot of interesting use cases, not just traditional customer support and customer communications. We monitor our product, we’re a multi-tenant SaaS company, and we can see where processes start and stop and where there are opportunities to improve the use of our product.

We also have grown up with nearly every disruptive company that has put the customer and customer experience at the center of their business model. Many - if not most - of those companies use Zendesk at the core of their customer experience, and are now making the transition from disrupter to publicly-traded company. The learnings from scaling and growing with these unicorns has been invaluable to our product and our company.

As Zendesk grows, we also grow into new roles. We’ve just hired our first Chief Customer Officer, Elisabeth Zornes, who joined us from Microsoft. We continue to scale into these roles who, in addition to their expertise, are also external facing thought leaders who talk with our customers and our prospects.   

As Zendesk continues to move upmarket into more complex and larger enterprises, what are some of the differences between the needs of these customers compared to SMBs?

TK: It’s been a journey. At our core, we’re still very much a horizontal customer experience product. We want our product to be frictionless for customers to buy and use. The move upmarket has forced us to mature and evolve into a series of holistic customer services.

By this I mean anything from robust pre-sales demo services to professional services to help advise our customers through pilots and implementations, to account management and customer success to help them quantify the value of the evolving and continually maturing of their customer experience, to deep security compliance, guidance, and question answering. We’ve had to mature the processes that an enterprise company needs in place and we’ve had to do it quickly. We’ve brought in experienced leaders to help us move as swiftly as possible. It’s been incredibly interesting and exciting: really, the greatest show on Earth. We’re evolving our selling from transactional to solutions-oriented. We’re early in that journey. It’s really changed the discussion with our customers about the full suite of solutions we offer.

Can you offer some recommendations for CIOs to partner closely with line-of-business leaders and the CEO and the board in focusing on customer-centric strategies? Are there certain behaviors or tactics that tend to resonate well?

TK: It’s a big deal. We had a panel at our user conference this past fall and we talked about the evolution of customer experience with four great CIOs. The reality is that CIOs need to start with the customer, their company’s customer, to architect their company’s technologies and processes. For too long, CIOs have focused on the internal customer and build sub-optimal processes and technologies. We’re onboarding our new CIO, Colleen Berube, to learn our customers’ experiences so they inform what our IT strategies and approaches should be. Having that empathy and understanding of what works for customers is a big part of the CIO’s role.

To that end, can you also offer recommendations for CIOs to communicate effectively with the CEO and board of directors?

TK: As a CIO, you don’t get to start with trust. You have to build a trusting relationship with the CEO and the board, beginning with honest and clear insights and then delivering on them. If this is pressured, forced or rushed, it can damage the relationship with the CEO and the board. You have to invest the time with them. 

The CIO role is a problem solving role: we have to deal with problems. The key is to deal, not just identify them. The CIO has to be able to provide quick and clear context, and to have thoughtful and clear approaches to delivering bad and good news to the CEO and business leaders. CIOs have to keep delivering value and insights to remain relevant. Your ability to communicate clearly and concisely as a CIO is critical to your success.

What are some steps that the CIO can take to help the enterprise achieve its future-state goals?

TK: We see a lot of focus on agility. CEOs are focused on their businesses being disrupted - even those businesses that are disruptors – along with a continual improvement of customer experience to fend off that disruption. So for CIOs, it’s critical to look at their architecture and application layer and take advantage of the public cloud to remove the boat anchor that are legacy systems so that your business has agility and flexibility. It’s about architecting to take advantage of SaaS – that’s where the innovation is happening. If you can work your way into this service architecture, it puts your IT organization in a much more valuable position. 

We’re in a time where you can rapidly build out advanced analytics. But you have to do it thoughtfully, carefully and aggressively to achieve value. These things are a paradox and have to coexist: this is why the job is so compelling and nuanced.

An interesting breakthrough that all CIOs have to be thinking about is that with 5G coming at us, the whole world is going to be reconnected with almost unlimited bandwidth. It’s going to take the Internet of Things and interacting with devices to a whole new place. It’s impossible to know what that’s going to look like, but it should be part of your architectural planning for internal and external use cases.

It’s the most exciting time ever to be a CIO, to be able to positively impact your business by building speed and agility into your business model, to be able to quickly add value, to help your business think differently, and to positively impact your company’s productivity.