Article

Why the employee experience is the customer experience

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

By Suzanne Barnecut

Published November 13, 2020
Last updated November 16, 2020

The second time I speak with Colleen Berube, CIO and SVP of Operations at Zendesk, she greets me over Zoom from her backyard in San Mateo, California. The scene looks idyllic, though the reality is that wildfires are raging all over the state, the air is tinged with smoke, and we all remain hunkered down at home as Covid wears on. Rewind several months and the situation was much different—we met in a glassed-in conference room at our headquarters in downtown San Francisco, on the heels of her first anniversary at Zendesk.

“I was excited to join a company where customer experience is the centerpiece of the product and conversation,” Berube said at the time. Experiences are, after all, what people are buying—whether that’s a standout experience or simply a smooth one, where it’s easy to transact business and the customer gets exactly what they expect.

“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 said.

Before joining, Berube served 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. This means Berube has lived and breathed high-growth momentum. “The pace and energy and optimism at this stage makes it one of my favorite times to be at a company,” she said in March 2020.

“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.” - Colleen Berube

Addressing the digital transformation imperative

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.

And if things were moving fast before Covid, they’re moving faster now, according to analysts. In fact, Gartner’s website reads: “The pace of digital business will never be this slow again.” Scott Engler, VP of Advisory for CFO/CHRO for Gartner, says that the coronavirus has sped up the timeline for digital transformation by years.

Similarly, McKinsey reports that there is no time like the present. “Strange as it may seem, right now, in a moment of crisis, is precisely the time to boldly advance your digital agenda.”

“Strange as it may seem, right now, in a moment of crisis, is precisely the time to boldly advance your digital agenda.” - McKinsey”

For Berube, the past few months were as validating as they were challenging. Zendesk, like so many other companies, shifted to working 100 percent virtually, but because the company’s products and the technologies it uses are cloud-based, the transition was fairly seamless.

“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,” she said.

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

Rebuilding to center on EX and CX

Before the onset of coronavirus, Berube was already deep into transforming the way Zendesk does business. “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.”

Accomplishing this requires overhauling Zendesk’s internal use of its own products, with a mission to rebuild on top of the company’s Zendesk Sunshine platform. By doing this, and by leveraging the company’s own professional services, customer success and solution consulting organizations, it gives us unique insight into the end-customer experience and to identify opportunities for improvement.

“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.”

The goal, Berube says, is to make it easy to do business with Zendesk, and also for “employees to live the Zendesk experience whenever they need help internally.” By using our own products, all of our employees understand our products better, can appreciate our customers' experience better 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 percent 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 explained. “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.”

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

“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 reorganized 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 wanted the teams to be thinking in focused ways about the respective experience from the outside in.”

Much as consumers expect an omnichannel experience with businesses, the future for Zendesk employees is an “engage anywhere” experience. The vision is that employees can ask any question or report any issue, regardless of the topic (e.g., HR, Finance, IT) through any channel (phone, chat, email, Slack), and get an easy answer or a ticket opened automatically. “We’re putting Zendesk technology in place to power that vision,” she said.

[Related read: How to anticipate your customer needs and solve them]

Architecting for agility and scale

Since joining, Berube was promoted to SVP of Operations in addition to her role as CIO. Today she oversees global IT, operations, business applications and enterprise architecture, enterprise data and analytics, and global program management—including oversight of more than 200 employees.

As she well knows, growth requires flexibility. This is why key initiatives in 2020 include 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, new intranet, and increased automation. In short, it’s about empowering employees on the back end to be able to more efficiently serve their customers.

“The work we’ve done over the past year has allowed us to identify root causes behind some of our customer pain points,” Berube said. Already, 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.

In short, it’s about empowering employees on the back end to be able to more efficiently serve their customers.

IT organizations within high-growth companies have to prepare for global expansion (Zendesk has 17 global offices), ensuring their businesses can scale with the rapid growth, continual and increased employee onboarding, and now, supporting virtual-first workplaces. Building a nimble cloud-based architecture means constantly reviewing your footprint and looking for opportunities to work more efficiently and champion initiatives that drive revenue growth.

[Related read: Why Cloud 100 startups are investing in CX]

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

The number of technologies presented to leaders today is not consumable, she explained. Looking at just the marketing space alone, there’s over 8,000 different software choices. Some 25 years ago, IT leaders had computer science degrees, but today the software is more sophisticated and plenty of people have the talent to manage their applications. “My view is that we can move from the stance of command and control to guide and govern,” she said. It’s about “understanding the needs of employees and our business to ensure the technology meets our needs and that the business can grow.”