SalesTech Star Interview with Tom Keiser (Chief Operating Officer) and Elisabeth Zornes (Chief Customer Officer) at Zendesk

After attending the Zendesk Showcase at the Raffles Hotel, Singapore, I had the privilege of sitting down with Tom Keiser, Chief Operating Officer and Elisabeth Zornes, Chief Customer Officer, at their swanky, new Singapore office, which embodies their commitment of bringing Zen to the customer experience industry.

Tell us about your role at Zendesk.

Tom: I joined Zendesk three-and-a-half years ago as CIO, on the same day as Elena Gomez, CFO. I was the first CIO in the company, and remained in that position for more than a year. In 2017, I stepped into the COO position.

Prior to joining Zendesk, I had been part of two multi-billion dollar corporations: L Brands and Gap, Inc. At Gap, I was the EVP and CIO and was tasked with building and deploying retail technology, processes, and a data platform to support the company’s aggressive global growth strategies. I also helped rebuild Gap’s inventory management, which was a significant project. Between 2004 and 2009, I worked with L Brands, where I was EVP and CIO and was responsible for the transformation program to build a new business and technology operating model to support L Brands’ growth strategy. Prior to this I was with Ernst & Young for 12 years as a Senior Management Consultant, and before that I was a Cobol programmer working on telecom billing systems – the glory days!

In a way, Zendesk is by far the smallest company that I have worked for. When I joined, Zendesk was around one-third its current size and right now, we are doubling our revenue and employee size every two-and-half years. It has been a wild ride in a relatively short period.

The role of CIO at Zendesk has evolved over the years. I was responsible for the IT, Security and Compliance, Data and Analytics teams, as well as now being responsible for the Sales organization and the CX organization that Elisabeth (Zornes, Chief Customer Officer) runs for us. In addition, I was responsible for our go-to market, which includes Marketing, however that function reports directly into our CEO.

As COO, I do whatever the CEO expects me to do in managing the day-to-day operations of the company. The bulk of the role involves keeping operational standards and health measures in place. I do what we call ‘de-linking’ problems as early as possible when they come up and make sure we’ve got a good set of priorities and objectives for all of our employees.

From supporting and providing software to Call Center agents to becoming a CX organization, how much has Zendesk evolved over the last 13 years?

Tom: Think about what we started with! The Zendesk product was initially written for small Contact Centers and comprised of email ticketing and routing; the initial product was embraced by start-ups and smaller companies. So, it was relatively small user counts who were using the product and didn’t really have a lot of true Contact Center capability beyond the simple kind of e-commerce ticketing and routing associated with them.

We have clearly evolved a lot since then, on the backs of our customers as the free try-and-buy took off. We have had a rapid customer growth, with many start-ups we served growing quickly – some becoming the unicorns we see going public today.

It forced this simple and beautifully designed e-commerce based ticketing and routing product to have to scale in order to address growing demand. Initially, the movers of the world such as Groupon, Lyft, and Airbnb started with 2-3 licenses. Then, they quickly started adding in thousands. With them, we had to learn how to scale, and as they evolved in the way they communicated with their customers, we had to start adding in other capabilities. This included integrating with various telephony systems, building our own telephony system, and building a chatbot that integrates with different messaging providers.

In short, we have evolved from a relatively simple Contact Center into a much more complex suite of solutions. We get to work closely with our customers – most of whom are disruptors in their industries – and this really pushes us to be on this journey with them. We’re seeing the rest of the world follow in our footsteps.

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You have watched Zendesk from afar for many years. What was your perception about the company back then and how has it changed since you joined Zendesk ?

Elisabeth: I not only had the opportunity to watch the company from afar but I also interacted with them closely in my previous role handling Support and On-boarding for Microsoft Office, including Office 365.

I had a very large estate in terms of interacting with customers and in that part of the organization, we were leveraging Zendesk. We were even a Zendesk customer! Part of the reason we selected Zendesk was their agility and ability to quickly deploy. As we were iterating and innovating our own process of how we would serve our customers, we were able to use the flexibility of the product in a very dynamic way. That is what sets Zendesk apart, allowing us to get good outcomes.

When the time came to take on a new role and opportunities, I was just as impressed with the Management team and their focus on customers, growth and how the company worked as well.

What does it mean for your customers to add WhatsApp Messaging as part of their Contact Center platform?

Tom: At Showcase Singapore 2019, we talked about this as a driving force behind us buying Smooch and bringing them into Zendesk, rather than just partnering with them. Over the past 6-7 years, we have recognised that messaging, in general, is where customer communication is headed. WhatsApp is just one example that shows where dominant messaging platforms are comfortable evolving into much broader business-centric solutions. People are comfortable with more than just messaging. They are using these platforms not just to send text messages to each other, but also for buying things, for paying, and sharing pictures; and they continue to evolve as we speak. Customers are getting more demanding — they expect Messaging platforms to provide similar assistance as it is seen on other platforms, say Twitter.

I fly a lot and so follow a lot of airlines on social media, and I see all the complaints lobbed at the airlines. Travelers with issues on flights mostly get a generic message, as this is the way the airlines choose to respond – rather than truly embracing and bringing personalized messaging into their customer experience and dealing with those in a much more engaging way. You can see all the mishaps that happen from generic responses, and all of that has to evolve. WhatsApp is slowly stepping into a whole series of business-oriented use cases and really starting to accelerate that, and so it made sense to bring Smooch on board and then partnering with WhatsApp to focus on delivering personalized and orchestrated messaging to corporations.

It made complete sense for us to bring Smooch on board, as we felt it was at the center of where and how messaging was going – following the demands of our customers.

We want to be in that place between where our consumers are, and the companies they do business with.

A lot of companies brand themselves as Customer Experience leaders and champions. What does Zendesk really mean when they say it’s a Customer Experience platform?

Elisabeth: It fits nicely to what Tom just mentioned about the Zendesk-WhatsApp integration, and the acquisition of Smooch to enable Customer Experience with Messaging services.

When I think of CX, it really starts with putting the customer at the center of what their requirements are, and how they want to use the technology or use the services specific to their industry. A CX platform allows us to do a couple of things. The first is to truly understand who the customer is and what their requirements are. We can use data and information to predict what their needs might be as next steps.

Secondly, it gives us the technology and processes to enable and unlock data and communicate with the customer on the channels they might choose, or they are familiar with, meaning we can reach them in the most convenient way. So, CX is really about enabling the customer to get to the best possible outcome.

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For Zendesk, wouldn’t it be a natural progression to follow what Medallia and Qualtrics are doing? For the kind of data that you capture and work with, how do you think Zendesk can help in heightening brand experience and brand reputation by preemptively managing these? 

Elisabeth: There are a number of great opportunities once you have that data foundation in your operations. I just mentioned about the data foundation around CX, and that’s what I call the ‘liquid gold’ – it brings us a lot of opportunities to start and accelerate in a number of different dimensions such as marketing, brand, sales, and customer support.

We have a lot of business partners that we integrate with. As we are built as an open platform, there is an opportunity for those partners to tie-in directly with our customer’s Zendesk’s use cases.

Our open platform and its ability to leverage the data, information, and workflow is something our customers are most excited about working with Zendesk.

Tom: As a COO, I just support such endeavors!

Speaking of the Open platform that Elisabeth just mentioned, could you throw some light on Zendesk Sunshine, the Open and Flexible platform? How does Zendesk’s CRM product differ from the traditional CRMs and how is it perceived and used?

Tom: We are on a journey with Sunshine. Right now, Sunshine is really extending our customer support model into a more comprehensive CRM. It is based on a CX model that unifies all the customer messaging into a single view.

Today, if we look at working with a modern CRM, it’s really about extending all of your customer communications and knocking down silos between marketing, sales, customer support and so on. So, that’s our latest approach.

The initial components that we were talking about – and extending into custom objects into the vintage records and profiles – allows you to build this more comprehensive view of your customer, customer usage, their product usage, their preference, and modeling aspects of their business that we want to bring together to create a more holistic experience for our customers and our customer service reps.

You can often see where that customer support conversation can very easily shift into a sales opportunity. Whether it’s an upsell, an extension of some products, and even helping to recommend products, you can think about the next evolution to that, which is using that information for a more personalized and tailored approach.

We strongly believe that knocking down the walls and the silos is where all businesses need to be going. What I see from the most disruptive companies putting CX at the center of their business is that you don’t really know when you’re talking to a sales versus a marketing versus a support executive – it’s all just one set of interactions.

So, if you compare to a traditional CRM, implementing CX was around a fixed customer record. In these fixed customer records, you just appended stuff to it and then kept repeating stuff, which was very heavy and rigid to work with. Those were the limitations. The modern view of that is what we have, which is open and free. It’s taking advantage of modern technology to be able to build the connections using the modern data platforms.

For example, what’s happening with Big Data is about opening up this ability to really architect dynamically what you’re connecting together. We all had the fantasy of pulling different types of data at our will and combining them to decide things – but now, this has become a reality.

We live in a world where Cloud providers are enabling where these data stores are, which are real and dynamic, and we can tie in all the customer data to enable sales reps with the accurate information on what product the customers are thinking about, and are shopping for. We aren’t perfect yet, but we are slowly getting to where it’s possible to understand what customers are thinking when they get to the shop or the website.

It’s pretty amazing that all you need to do is architect your technology to take advantage of this. Traditional CRMs pose limitations, preventing you from taking advantage of the technology. Today, you need to break away from those data silos, and that’s exactly what our Zendesk product teams explain is needed to come out of this common challenge.

Let me move away a little and discuss your tech stacks. Somebody said Zendesk prefers to ‘drink its own champagne’ in using its own products. What Marketing, Sales and Analytics tools are you currently using for your own internal and external processes?

Tom: Yes, our stack is all SaaS. I remember that glorious moment when I walked away from data centers and decade-old IT systems in the first few weeks at Zendesk as CIO. In retail, every day, I started my day with the broken links all over the world; products not moving, sales were broken — those were my challenges.

Our priority was to bring in cloud-based collaboration tools to enhance the productivity of our employees. So, we screened and reviewed a lot of our competitors. As a B2B software seller, even though our customers are mostly between B2B and B2C segments, we were not selling directly to consumers. Business forces you to work with the competitors (something that I don’t like!), especially when you are scaling.

As our product evolved, we started using Zendesk in all of our support products on our customer advocacy and internal use cases — IT services, HR services and other inter-departmental collaborations.

As Sunshine evolves, we are benefiting from using it for our internal use cases. This helps to join the pieces together and see how our customers may benefit from new applications if added to existing solutions.

Specifically, we have standardized all our collaborations on Slack, which we are big-time users of. Our products complement each other very well. We have some best-in-class use-cases of how we deal with any kind of significant product performance issues, or how we bring in ticketing systems to resolve these issues.

We use Zoom for all our global video collaborations and meetings. Since we are a very vibrant and growing global workforce with over 3500 employees, 16 offices, and a lot of our employees work remotely, collaboration connectors such as Zoom really help us deliver productively as an organization. At Zendesk, every room is a ‘Zoom’ room, and we are really proud of that. Simply put, Zoom pushes us and we push Zoom to get better experiences.

We are also all on G-Suite and use all of its collaborative tools and apps. We also use Box, another great customer, that we leverage for specific operations, such as data storage for HRMS, and payroll and NetSuite for financials.

We continually talk and interact with our competitors and partners as we all evaluate our tech stack based on subscription models – paying for 12, 24, or 36 months – which is very different from what traditional companies do (like making a decision now, and revisiting it after a decade or so!)

We are growing so quickly that we always think about partners from the scaling perspective. We ask ourselves, “can they continue to scale with us?” That’s the fundamental question we asked when Oracle bought NetSuite.

We are on our way to becoming a billion dollar company, and then we will scale to be a two-billion dollar company. So, can NetSuite scale with us, for example? We will evaluate that every six months and it’s part of the game-plan we have for everyone we work with.

We make sure we are collaborating and using the best tools and technologies in our stack to give our employees the best experience and to put out company on the right path.

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At Showcase Singapore 2019, we learned Zendesk appeals to travel, retail, and Entertainment companies. What other industries are you currently focusing on and what draws them to Zendesk?

Elisabeth: There were certainly great companies that spoke at Showcase Singapore 2019. One such area is Fintech, which has witnessed significant momentum – and CX is really the center of all the development in this disruptive industry.

It is fascinating to meet customers and hear their stories on how they are using experience and interaction with the underlying data to engage and communicate in a completely new ways with customers through WhatsApp, for example. I met a customer who was heavily leveraging WhatsApp in the Philippines and using it to connect and deliver personalized messages to their customers.

Tom: We are seeing companies, such as big product makers, who don’t sell directly to consumers but are effectively wholesalers, selling through retailers. Now, seeing the importance of establishing a direct relationship with their customers and really rethinking and rejigging their brands, their marketing motions, and their Selling motions— but, rethinking Customer Experience is all that matters now.

For example, Black and Decker make all kinds of innovative power tools and accessories for hardware, construction and maintenance units, and they are starting to build a really good CX. They are not completely displacing their wholesale business, but trying to build direct relationships with customers by knowing their true preferences.

Another example is Weber Grills, who have also started rethinking their Customer Experiences. It’s all about building a strong relationship around the whole ‘grilling season’. Enabling and teaching customers about the whole process of grilling, and the great things customers can do – this piques interest and sustains the brand, leading to deeper customer relationships and opening new opportunities for the marketing teams. We are talking as to when they can plan their next marketing campaign around new features, product upgrades, etc.

With CX, we are now witnessing almost all the traditional companies embracing the new marketing standards, with us at the core of every process in the customer’s buying journeys.

In a unique scenario, we also see government institutions starting to think about their customers as well, In the US, the State of Tennessee created a whole set of metrics associated with Response Time and Quality of Response across all of their services and measuring it, which is truly unmatched as far as working or interacting with government agencies is concerned.

This CX revolution is not a habit, but a more continuous and transformation improvement recognized by most companies as key to growing business and sustaining loyalty.

APAC seems to be a very price-sensitive market. How does Zendesk feel about growing in such a market with respect to localization and local competition? How much of this has changed over the course of the six to twelve months or so?

Tom: Yes, APAC is price-sensitive, but we like to focus on value and experience. Cost will always remain a factor, but it is really an impactful factor everywhere, not just APAC.

For us, APAC is still an emerging market. So, we have identified this region as a great customer base where we continue to add new sales and go-to-market capacity in segments that are beginning to break out of the specific sub-markets, such as India, Japan, ANZ, and looking out for South East Asia.

When we get a giant RFP, you may feel that it’s straight from the procurement organization that’s just price-oriented and it’s not focused on CX or values — we usually don’t start a relationship like that. We prefer to walk away from those opportunities. We flourish in our customer’s trust and with iterative growth through CX, as opposed to trying to crank on the cost per ticket or cost per customer. We don’t pick those as our primary customer — so, we have to be selective in such cases.

Talking about growing with your customers, tell us about one account/ customer win that you are most thrilled about in your Zendesk journey –

Elisabeth: Zendesk has been fortunate about engaging with new business models and unicorns that have seen dramatic growth in enticing areas of business.

Transportation sharing rides is an area where I have seen dramatic growth. Even in the US and then going public and having more growth – and these, again, are relationships where we mutually advance each other. We are learning from them what is needed and then accelerating from there.

In the APAC region, Zendesk’s top customer wins include GroupOn, StashAway, Circles.Life, Grab, Ola, and FoodPanda to name a few.

There are many others that we serve here in the region. We are a really big part of our interactions and roles in start-up stories like Uber, Slack, and so on. For us, it is really prestigious to grow and scale with these startups and unicorns.

How is your RELATE Miami event different from other events that you organize? Who should attend the event and how can they benefit from attending it —

Elisabeth: RELATE is our global user event and so it really does scale to all regions.

Therefore, we have people like you and US-based press to engage and support. We really try to scale it to the support level and ensure we do skill-building, but also the IT buyers and CIOs. The event has a number of tracks that are tailored to the altitude that we know our audiences really care about.

Over time, the event evolves and every couple of years it tends to double in size, and it’s even exceeded our expectations in terms of interest and audience growth. Miami is a great location to be, and we are really excited about the RELATE event.

Tom: Showcase is a one-day event, which allows attendees to touch on numerous things such as demos, deep training tracks, product use-cases and customer stories, in addition to hearing external speakers talk about current trends.

We wanted Showcase to be geographically-oriented, very focused one-day events that balances a deep user conference and structures everything through the lens of Zendesk.

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Thank You, Tom and Elisabeth, for answering all our questions. We hope to see you again, soon.

Tom Keiser is the Chief Operations Officer at Zendesk. Prior to becoming COO, Tom joined Zendesk as the Chief Information Officer in May of 2016. Tom brings over 25 years of global technology and business experience with a focus on retail and e-commerce. Most recently, Tom served as Chief Information Officer and Executive Vice President of Global Product Operations at The Gap, Inc., an apparel company. Previously, Tom was Chief Information Officer at LBrands, a fashion retail company that includes Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. Tom holds a B.S. in systems science from the University of West Florida.

Elisabeth Zornes has served as Zendesk’s Chief Customer Officer since February 2019. She represents the collective voice of Zendesk’s customers and leads the teams responsible for helping customers onboard and maximize the benefits of the company’s growing product portfolio. She brings 20 years of experience as a leader in customer support, operations and services, most recently leading global customer support for Microsoft Office consumers, enterprise customers, and partners.

Ms. Zornes holds a masters degree in science and a minor in computer science from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany and extended executive education at the Harvard Business School and INSEAD for international business and global management and MIT’s Executive MBA program at the Sloan School of Management.

The best customer experiences are built with Zendesk. Zendesk’s powerful and flexible customer service and engagement platform scale to meet the needs of any business, from startups and small businesses to growth companies and enterprises.

Zendesk serves businesses across a multitude of industries, with more than 100,000 paid customer accounts offering service and support in more than 30 languages. Headquartered in San Francisco, Zendesk operates worldwide with 15 offices in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America.

crmcustomer datacustomer experienceElisabeth ZornesinterviewsRetail Technologysocial mediaTom KeiserZendesk
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