Olivia Parker
Aug 17, 2018

Once written off as 'boring', Zendesk now has 19,000 Asian customers

Mikkel Svane, CEO of the "unicorn" customer-service platform, explains how the coolest startups are doing things differently and why no Gen Z customer will ever want to speak to a human.

Mikkel Svane
Mikkel Svane

Mikkel Svane has been a customer with the American telco company AT&T for over 10 years, but it still insist on sending him “idiot offers” and warnings that he’s exceeding his credit limit every time he travels abroad. Which, as the CEO and founder of Zendesk, the customer service platform that’s now a Silicon Valley darling with over 19,000 clients in Asia, is fairly often.

“They must know me better!” says Svane, speaking to Campaign Asia-Pacific at Zendesk’s ‘Future of CX’ conference in Singapore, the first time the series has been held in the Lion City. Svane is making the point, albeit in a very polite, profanity-free way (he is Danish) that all companies have the chance to use the data they hold on their customers to give them a better experience—so why wouldn’t they? “It seems silly that a company like AT&T that knows exactly... they better than anybody know my travel patterns. They don’t use that data to provide me with a better automated experience.”

If only AT&T was a client of Zendesk. Helping clients use their data in a smarter way in order to be “proactive” rather than “reactive” with their customers is, says Svane, one of the major preoccupations of Zendesk client managers at the moment. Deploying data well (what the term ‘artificial intelligence’ is really getting at) is the difference between a human or a chatbot having to ask a customer who they are when they get in touch to ask how long a new pair of shoes will take to reach them, and knowing who they are, anticipating the question and serving them with the information automatically, to their satisfaction.

Achieving this seamless, unbroken CX across all channels (including email, phone, social media and chatbots) is necessitating a shift in the way different streams within companies—marketers, customer service teams, technicians—work together, says Svane. Siloed interactions are on the way out. “I feel like we are still in the very early stages of that, and we definitely see the coolest companies are doing that. If you look at all the startups and so on, they are thinking very differently about it.”

One startup present at the conference to illustrate his point was Zendesk client Discord, an app founded in 2015 that allows gamers to communicate with each other for free via text and voice, giving its 150 million users the “sense that they’re playing together in their living room”, according to CMO Eros Resmini. Zendesk and Discord announced a partnership this week that will enable Discord users to access a Zendesk support bot right in the flow of their game simply by typing ‘/support’, rather than sending an email or making a phone call to get help as they used to do before.

(L-R): John Epok Pascual of Circles.Life, Eros Resmini of Discord, George Lang of Grab and Acacia Leroy of Trendwatching, at the Zendesk event

Resmini also spoke about his customer-service managers “having fun” during interactions with customers. This is possible mainly because everyone is talking in a space that’s essentially about games, he admitted, but Svane says that injections of charisma into customer interactions may be a trend that is starting to gather more traction—as long as they stay on-brand.

“Once you have built that trust and intimacy in the channel, then it is easier to have a personality,” he says. “I think that's important. We work with a [personal shopping] company in the US called Stitch Fix and a lot of their support people are basically stylists for their customers...they have to have personality.”

Having a personality isn’t always the easiest request to make of staff who have to spend their entire days responding to problems via a computer screen. In fact, helping “people to be human”, or “training the empathy muscles”, as Svane puts it, is something Zendesk is thinking hard about: the company is currently working with a university to identify the correlation between empathy, volunteer work and a person’s skillset in an organisation. “Something that we believe in tremendously is community involvement, community engagement, making sure you don’t live in a silo but you are out there and engage with the community issues around where you live and take responsibility for them.”

More important than personality for today’s consumer, however, is simply speed of response. Brands that think it’s OK to reply to their customers within a day are dreaming, according to Svane: all companies should be aspiring to the average replier time of 23 seconds achieved by 2-year-old Singaporean digital telco Circles.Life, another Zendesk client present at the conference.

Customers also don’t, for the most part, want to speak to humans if they can help it. A recent Zendesk study found that 76% of customers preferred self-service to alternatives. “First and foremost you have to think: you don't want to talk to customer service. If I can avoid it, I would rather waste a lot of time on Google than reach out to a brand and get help,” says Svane. “To the extent I can help myself, I would prefer to do that. If we’re looking at the new generations, they don’t want to talk to people. So you have to start your CX with empowering your customers to help themselves.”

This is a learning that’s come with time. Zendesk was founded in 2007, in Copenhagen, by Svane and two others on the concept of being “a help desk that you’ll love”, an idea for a company that was initially written off as “the most boring thing ever” by another of the co-founders, Alexander Aghassipour. Seeing the potential for innovation in the sheer fact of this mundanity, however, was what convinced Svane and his fellow founders that the project was worth a shot. Svane took a US$50,000 line of credit to start the company and had to petition investment from family and friends when Zendesk failed to get investors interested. Soon after the company’s first seed round, it attracted a review from tech blogger Om Malik of GigaOM that described the firm as “not sexy, like some social networks, but it is useful and fully featured”. The usefulness started to win out: the 300 customers (including a fledgling Twitter) Zendesk had signed up by 2008 had swelled to 5,000 by 2010. In May 2014, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, raising $115 million, and it is now headquartered in San Francisco with over 125,000 customers.

Zendesk clients in Asia currently represent around 10% of the global total, but the company is seeing year-on-year customer and employee growth of over 30% in the region. While the firm isn’t yet doing much work in China because much of their tech stack won’t work there, they’re hoping this will change soon. Svane thinks attitudes are different here, too. “I think we see a lot of faster movement here. We see businesses trying a lot more things, being a lot more courageous, and really trying to think about how CX can change the game.” Southeast Asia in particular, he says, has “a bit of that old school Silicon Valley mentality, that everything is possible”.

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