Zendesk CTO on building the “conversational CRM”

Adrian McDermott, Chief Technology Officer at Zendesk. Image courtesy of Zendesk.

In this era of advanced technologies, it’s common for customer relationship management (CRM) platforms to integrate only email systems out of the box. To reach customers via other channels like WhatsApp, text messaging, or Facebook Messenger, enterprise users would sometimes have to rely on third-party integrations, which can sometimes be erratic.

Thus, the concept of “conversational CRM” seems to hold promise. It means messages from various messaging platforms are received in one CRM, and are then routed to their respective accounts, allowing companies to communicate using channels that their customers prefer.

Zendesk is one such organisation taking aim at conversational CRM. To learn more about making customer communications more conversational, Frontier Enterprise interviewed Adrian McDermott, Chief Technology Officer at Zendesk. We also asked him about a number of topics, including major career lessons, predictions in his sector, and more.

In this year’s Relate conference, Zendesk introduced several conversational CRM features like data orchestration, conversational automation, and omnichannel routing. Could you talk to us about the technologies behind these features?

Conversational CRM is where we’re placing our bets on the future of customer experience (CX). The way we bring conversational CX to life for our customer is based on our recognition of what consumers today want: speed, convenience, and immediacy. As a result, our approach is one that connects and integrates both front and back offices, providing a range of intelligent, real-time data and services to enable customer engagement.

All our newly announced features are backed by CX technology designed to simplify conversational CRM. For example, conversational automation is made possible with our bots, which can be built, trained, and operated with third-party data, while being used to expand automation to messaging. Accessible real-time data on customer demand is also the backbone of omnichannel routing, which helps support teams adapt to changing conditions. Conversational data orchestration is also crucial in breaking down information silos, helping businesses to converse with customers at scale by connecting processes, event data, and custom logic.

These technologies help businesses that work with Zendesk automate their conversational approach, allowing them to scale up by staying on trend with customer expectations.

With your Sell platform, Zendesk is a relative newcomer in sales automation and CRM. What differentiates it from popular competitors like Salesforce, Microsoft, or Oracle?

The newest update we’ve announced for Zendek Sell is conversational channels, starting with an early access program for WhatsApp. It’s incredibly important for sales teams to be able to directly interact with customers, capture interactions, and convert insights to manageable and trackable outcomes. Sales reps need a single source of truth regardless of the channel to access customer information across sales and service, enabling them to deliver the personalised conversational experience needed to close the detail with customers.

Aside from being a unified platform, Sell also offers a lower total cost of ownership from setup to ongoing maintenance, has no hidden fees, and comes with a simple and intuitive set-up that helps your team get up and running in hours. In fact, 70% of teams deploy Sell in fewer than 8 weeks, and 50% of customers have seen double-digit revenue growth since integrating Sell.

You were the first engineer hired by Plumtree Software. What specific lessons learned there are you able to apply at Zendesk? What was the most interesting part of working at Plumtree Software/BEA?

One of the key lessons I learned at Plumtree was that new product investments don’t always need to chase the shiny new thing. There’s often this pressure to focus on building the most exciting new product or feature, but sometimes an area that might seem boring is actually what’s incredibly interesting and important to your customers.

One example where I saw this firsthand at Plumtree was when our customers were incredibly passionate and excited about us building a Lotus notes connector. Lotus felt completely dead to us at the time, but to our customers it was still a vital source of historical knowledge and absolutely business critical for them.

I’ve been applying this same lesson to not just chase the shiny new thing since I joined Zendesk 11 years ago as well. We were founded to make customer support software better, which at the time was not a very glamorous pursuit. Sometimes making mundane areas better, easier to use, and more accessible are where there is massive opportunity though and that’s exactly what we’ve been continuing to do as we build each customer service feature at Zendesk. While we were initially rejected for our first TechCrunch Disrupt because everyone thought customer service was boring, years later we actually won “Sexiest Enterprise startup”.

Another key lesson I learned at Plumtree was the importance of giving each product investment the right fighting chance and resources for its stage of development. Plumtree was born in the early days of the dotcom boom and then went public during the dotcom bust, so we had significant periods of hyper growth and then experienced a drastic downturn. It was a very brutal and visceral way to figure out which investments were critical and which ones we had to stop or scale back. This taught me about the importance of having the right discipline and strategically placed bets regardless of the macro environment, and I brought that insight to Zendesk.

Recently, we’ve been using Geoffrey Moore’s Zone to Win framework to strategically prioritise and allocate resources each quarter, regardless of market conditions. It’s really helped us to zone properly and put the right level of investment behind each area we’re building, rather than just spreading money and headcount evenly (peanut buttering, if you will) across all pursuits.

What predictions do you foresee in the customer experience sector for the next five years? How will emerging technologies like AI and ML affect their evolution?

The CX space is rapidly transforming alongside customer expectations, but there are five areas of growth that I believe we will see over the next few years and into 2030.

  1. Conversational CRM is a big one, of course, and while it is now growing in dominance and proactiveness, we expect to see exponential growth. By 2030, we foresee that every business will provide conversational support that allows them to meet customers on the same platforms they use to communicate with friends and loved ones today.
  2. To enable conversations at scale, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will play a crucial role in automating touchpoints, and we predict that these technologies will replace up to 75% of frontline customer interactions by 2030. Our 2022 CX Trends Report reveals that 93% of consumers in APAC are willing to spend more to buy from companies that allow them to self-serve. This will allow support agents to streamline workloads and focus on more complex requests.
  3. We’re also about to see the advent of hyper-specialised service within the customer journey, where customers may be willing to pay for bespoke high-touchpoint support from brands. Already, 94% of APAC consumers say they are willing to spend more when companies personalise their experiences, and this demand will only grow.
  4. Customer intelligence will become more challenging, but more valuable than ever before. Businesses have known for years that gathering data is important, but are now drowning in it. The focus will now be about getting the right insight from the right data at the right time to deliver a truly personalised experience.
  5. Lastly, we predict that we will see the importance of platform rising for every organisation, as building a dream customer journey becomes easier to do for every business. We expect to see a surge in citizen developers, with low- and no-code technologies, and composability creating more options to unlock incredible growth.

Beyond what Zendesk introduced at Relate, what are some of the most exciting tech developments that the organisation is working on? What emerging technologies do you plan to adopt in your different platforms?

We are fully focused on creating solutions that will help our customers emerge as top CX performers in an increasingly competitive market. Our five big bets for the future of CX – conversational CRM, AI, hyper-specialised service, customer intelligence, and platform – are a north star as we continue to experiment and innovate.

There are many emerging trends and technologies that have caught our attention, such as the metaverse, where instant and efficient resolutions are crucial to maintaining customer satisfaction in a deeply immersive digital environment. Ultimately, we are guided by customer expectations, so we are constantly building and refining our technology.