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Why tech leaders must focus on both the customer and employee experience

Zendesk CIO and SVP of Operations Colleen Berube sheds light on how the employee and customer experience are inextricably linked.

By Suzanne Barnecut, Staff Writer

Last updated January 24, 2023

Colleen Berube, CIO and SVP of Operations at Zendesk, had been on the job a little over a year when the Covid-19 pandemic forced businesses to shutter and sent entire workforces home. Fortunately, Berube’s early work on Zendesk’s infrastructure put the company and its employees in a good position to move fully remote in a matter of a few days and carry on. If anything, the changes wrought by the pandemic have served to reinforce Berube’s reason for joining Zendesk—to improve customer experiences by working with a company where customer experience is at the centerpiece of its product and ethos.

“I’m passionate about the customer experience, how it’s changing and the way that technology and the market are generating ever-increasing customer expectations,” she says.

Addressing the digital tipping point

No longer a back-office “keeping the lights on” role, today’s best CIOs are customer-facing and driving digital transformation—connecting the dots between what internal teams are working to accomplish for external customers and building the infrastructure that will work holistically across an organization.

Covid put businesses across industries in a tight position to advance their digital agendas. In fact, according to Zendesk’s 2021 Customer Experience Trends Report, 89 percent of leaders at mid-sized companies and 91 percent of enterprise businesses say Covid sped up technology adoption. As many as 98 percent of mid-to-large-sized companies implemented new tools or processes. The question now is how that accelerated momentum can be sustained for long-term agility.

“For every CIO I’ve talked to, being 100 percent cloud- and SaaS-based led to, on some level, both validation and a realization that the way we’re accustomed to working is essential for being ready for what lies ahead,” Berube says.

[Related read: The digital tipping point: An interactive assessment]

Rebuilding to center on EX and CX

Berube is preparing to unveil an overhaul of how Zendesk uses its own products in late summer of 2021, having rebuilt the company’s Zendesk instance on top of the Zendesk Sunshine platform, leveraging Zendesk’s own professional services, customer success, and solution consulting organizations.

“The philosophy here is that we really want to be the best demonstration of a modern company. Our goal is to be the first and best customer of Zendesk,” she says.

This process has provided unique insight into the end-customer experience and where there’s room for improvement. The goal is to make it easy to do business with Zendesk, Berube says, and for “employees to live the Zendesk experience whenever they need help internally.”

“The philosophy here is that we really want to be the best demonstration of a modern company. Our goal is to be the first and best customer of Zendesk.”

With all employees using Zendesk products, they can better understand and appreciate the customer experience “and become true evangelists for doing the right thing for our customers.”

The two experiences—employee and customer—are inextricably linked. A recent Forrester report revealed that companies with the most engaged employees enjoy 81% higher customer satisfaction, experience half the turnover of their peers and have a decisive competitive advantage.

“As a CIO, you have to learn not only the technology and how it runs the business, but also you really must learn the business of the company and how each part of the organization functions,” she says. “The modern role of IT is no longer about running all the technology, but to guide and govern choices, define architecture and solutions, and develop the services that connect everything.”

“The modern role of IT is no longer about running all the technology, but to guide and govern choices, define architecture and solutions, and develop the services that connect everything.”

It’s not unusual in an enterprise that sales will focus on improving the sales experience, and e-commerce will look at the digital experience, and customer advocacy will helm the support experience, but the time has come to build, measure, and iterate on an end-to-end customer experience. “The more we can understand what each part of the organization is trying to do, the better overall experience we can build.”

To emphasize the importance of experience and thinking end to end, Berube organized her team around these two key areas: Customer Experience Systems and Employee Experience Systems. “We used Zendesk for both of these experiences and I really want the teams to be thinking in focused ways about the respective experience from the outside in.”

The end goal is to create an “engage anywhere” experience, where employees can ask any question or report an issue, regardless of the topic (e.g. HR, Finance, IT) through any channel (phone, chat, email, messaging), and get an easy answer or a ticket opened automatically. “We’re putting Zendesk technology in place to power that vision,” she says.

[Related read: Why a good employee experience is the backbone of good customer experience]

Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021

Last year, we learned that customer needs can change in a blink. This free report will help you learn how to keep up.

Architecting for agility and scale

Berube oversees global IT, operations, business applications and enterprise architecture, enterprise data and analytics, and global program management at Zendesk—oversight of more than 200 employees.

Growth requires flexibility, which is why key initiatives in 2020 included upgrading and simplifying the buying experience, optimizing key touchpoints along the customer lifecycle—including implementation of workflow management technology—and re-imagining the employee experience through a rebuilt Zendesk instance and new intranet. The company’s use of automation has also increased, an effort to empower employees on the back end to more efficiently serve their customers, whether internal or external.

“The work we’ve done has allowed us to identify root causes behind some of our customer pain points,” Berube says. From the outset, the changes her org made led to self-service customer expansion of $25M in the first half of 2020, approximately 2,800 hours of reclaimed sales time, and a 25 percent reduction in customer credits.

IT organizations within high-growth companies have to prepare for global expansion. This is something Berube knows well from her former stints as executive vice president and chief technology officer at Fisher Investments and as executive in residence at PwC, following a long tenure as vice president of Business Services at Adobe. CIOs must ensure their businesses can scale alongside growth, continual and increased employee onboarding, supporting virtual-first workplaces. Building a nimble cloud-based architecture means constantly reviewing your footprint and looking for opportunities to work more efficiently while championing initiatives that drive revenue growth.

[Related read: From 3 years to 8 weeks—digital transformation is speeding up]

“Speed and agility are two of our most-valued attributes at Zendesk, and IT both demonstrates and enables them,” Berube says.

Another reality that IT teams must consider is that the number of technologies presented to business leaders today just isn’t consumable. There are over 8,000 different software choices in just the marketing space alone. Some 25 years ago, IT leaders had computer science degrees, but today software is more sophisticated and plenty of people have the talent to manage their own applications. Ultimately, Berube says, “It’s about understanding the needs of employees and our business to ensure the technology meets our needs so that the business can grow.”

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