Great employee experiences lead to great customer experiences with Ashwin Ballal


This week I’m joined by Ashwin Ballal who is the Chief Information Officer for Medallia. Ashwin has served as CIO for companies of different sizes and is Medallia’s first CIO.

One of Ashwin’s passions is customer experience. In our conversation, Ashwin outlines how great employee experiences lead to great customer experiences. He outlines how everyone talks about customer experience, but few know how to operationalize it. As part of the discussion, we cover the role of data, privacy and a moral compass.


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Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello and welcome to the CIO in The Know podcast where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection between business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO and strategic advisor at AVOA. This week I’m joined by Ashwin Ballal, who is the Chief Information Officer from Medallia. Ashwin has served as CIO for companies of different sizes and is Medallia’s first CIO, one of Ashwin’s passions is customer experience. In our conversation, Ashwin outlines how great employee experiences lead to great customer experiences. He outlines how everyone talks about customer experience, but few actually know how to operationalize it. As part of our discussion, we covered the role of data, privacy and a moral compass. Ashwin, thanks for taking your time to join the program. How have you been?

Ashwin Ballal:               Thank you, Tim, for having me. I’ve been fantastic. There’s never a dull moment. As you know, I’m a huge Charles Dickens fan. It’s a tale of two cities. It’s either the best of times or the most time, and in both those situations that are great expectations.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, that’s great. I think about that in the context of the fact you’ve been CIO at both an established organization at KLA-Tencor and now at Medallia. Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be the company’s first CIO, that being Medallia’s first CIO.

Ashwin Ballal:               Yeah, it’s an incredible experience and quite an honor. Just to take you back, I was at KLA for 16 years. And in 16 years I had six different roles starting my career in marketing, doing engineering, product development, general manager, going and running our India operations as the head of India, and then as a returning expat coming and doing the CIO gig. And I’ve told people many a time when I got back to be asked to be CIO, what wrong did I do to be nominated the CIO? But I could always tell you that it’s one of the best jobs I’ve had and called me a glutton for punishment. I then chose to become Medallia’s first CIO.

Ashwin Ballal:               Now, this was a transition as KLA being an industrial company to a SAS new age Unicorn Company in Medallia. It was quite a change and it really required an open mind. I was running large organizations at KLA. I got used to running really small. I was one of 13 people in my IT organization when I first got into Medallia. So just tells you the dramatic change and I wanted to just be sure that I had the chops. And so it’s an incredible experience and quite an honor to make that change.

Tim Crawford:               I think that’s admirable to bring that humility into the conversation. Having responsibility for running a much larger organization at KLA-Tencor and then stepping into what sensibly is a much smaller organization, and then being concerned that you had the right chops to be able to do that. I think that’s very admirable.

Ashwin Ballal:               Thank you.

Tim Crawford:               So we often talk about the CIO role changing, the role itself. What is your view on your tenure at KLA and then Medallia, but what is your role of the CIO and IT, and how has that evolved over time? How do you see it evolving too? Especially as you think about the C-Suite and the board and those that you serve?

Ashwin Ballal:               That’s a great question, Tim. I mean this has been an ongoing discussion within the PO community for a long time. When I first took the role at KLA, as the CIO in 2009, I heard this phrase, “CIO stands for career is over,” and you must have heard this thing too?

Tim Crawford:               Yes.

Ashwin Ballal:               That is so true for conventional support mindset folks. That career has long gone and now, as you know, we live in this very rapidly changing, even though I hate to use this word, digital transforming world, things are changing so rapidly that the role of the CIO has immensely changed. That we are not only today providing kind of support and services. We are enabling transformation. We are looking at new products. We are driving revenue. And especially the technology that enables us the cloud-world, the big data, the machine learning and the deep learning capabilities including AI is now kind of providing the CIO a role for somebody who is forward leaning, who wants to get out of their comfort zone, to be not just subservient as we previously were as a support organization to say that the CIO and the IT organization can be revenue-generating.

Tim Crawford:               That’s fascinating. In a past episode I had Steve Comstock, the CIO at CBS interactive, on and he was talking about how our role has evolved from, and IT as a whole, has evolved from being a power cord distributor to someone that really thinks about how your company operates and also how you’re engaging with customers. And Medallia is a company that is focused on understanding the customer. And I know this is a personal passion of yours, and you and I have had a number of conversations about this and participated on panels together and discussions at different CIO events. How does the CIO fit into the customer and engaging with the customer and what is your position on that?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yeah, It’s a great point, Tim. So Medallia, for many who don’t know, is a leader in a category called customer-experience. Just like Salesforce is to CRM, we want Medallia to be for our customer-experience. So we are a customer-experience and customer first and our kind of mission at Medallia is really to change the mindset. We’ve always talked about, and every CEO loves to talk about customer experience, but not many people know how to operationalize it. Customers provide feedback in so many different ways today, whether it’s social sites on the Internet, in-store and many channels where customers provide feedback. We are able to aggregate that feedback and provide enterprises of the pulse of the customer in near real-time.

Ashwin Ballal:               Now, having said that, and having worked for a company that drives customer-experience, I’m of the firm belief that customer-experience, great customer-experience comes through great employee experience and great employee experience comes through great systems experience. And so you would ask, “What systems experience is?” what do CIOs and IT organization provide employees is systems. I can tell you about a small company like ours. We have over a hundred systems that our employees engage with. And as a CIO, do I have the pulse of the systems-experience that I provide my employees? Because I’m of the belief that great systems experience leads to great employee experience and that would lead to great customer experiences.

Tim Crawford:               Can you give some examples of maybe how you’re digging into that space?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yes. Basically, if you just look at it, I would just give you a day in the life of a salesperson if you can take that as an example?

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Ashwin Ballal:               So the salesperson not only to has to deal with email, mobile device, video, but also has to deal with Salesforce, with CPQ and other transactional kinds of systems. Now, if a salesperson doesn’t have a great experience with the systems he or she is interacting with, that will lead to a poor employee experience that the salesperson has. And that would translate into poor kind of customer experiences. So what we have done within the IT organization is we’ve taken our CX product and modernized it to the fact that we can now capture the feedback and the sentiment of every employee as they interact with their systems and get a score from them on how they feel about their systems experience.

Tim Crawford:               So that you’re focused on the employee as getting their experience in understanding what’s working for them and what’s not working for them? Similar to how a company might do that for their customer?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yes, absolutely. I mean, because I think in the end that’s what really kind of drives it, right? And an employee feeling great about the experiences that they have, and especially frontline kind of employees, whether the sales folks or the support forks, they reflect the rest of the company. And so if they don’t have those great experiences. An employee experience just doesn’t mean great benefits or a great comp. It’s like, “Oh, I have Wi-Fi that doesn’t work,” or, “When I click my video, it doesn’t come on,” or, “What cloogy kind of things, as a data entry person, I have to do with Salesforce? How can I integrate that with Alexa or audio or voice to text and those kinds of things.” So that how can I take friction out of the system is what IT organizations and CEOs need to focus on because those are the experiences that your employees take from the services that we do provide.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, that’s a great point. And probably something that we often don’t think about, which is that the employees, especially your sales organization, they are the face of your company.

Ashwin Ballal:               Yes.

Tim Crawford:               And so just like you or I might have a bad day, that’s going to convey into the interactions that they have with their customers, with your company’s customers. And so how do you start to make that, as you said, frictionless approach for them so that they have a good day and a good experience and they can convey that through to the customer? I love that.

Ashwin Ballal:               Yes.

Tim Crawford:               When you think about digital and data, there’s a lot that’s discussed about data and, of course, you kind of touched on the digital aspects of this to some degree. Where do you feel that that fits in and helps guide you through this process of customer experience? And when I say customer experience, I’m broadly saying both Medallia’s customer as well as the employee, as a customer.

Ashwin Ballal:               Today, I mean there’re copious amounts of data that’s kind of scattered all over the place. And honestly, customers provide feedback in every avenue, right? I mean whether you go to a game, you post things on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and all of that basically is data or exhaust data if you want to call it. And the clever companies are those that can take this exhaust data and actually mine that data for relevance. And especially, all the footprint today is digital. You can track the customer’s journey on different kinds of platforms today. And that’s what Medallia does. It scrubs all of these things, aggregates it, to figure out whether this customer is going to be a promoter of yours or is going to be a detractor of yours. And if it’s a promoter, what kind of touch points can you upsell or cross-sell that customer?

Ashwin Ballal:               And if it’s a detractor how do we avoid churn? Those are the kinds of things that we all exist for in businesses, right? In businesses, we are there to win. And data is the new natural resource. People say it’s oil, it’s natural resource. It has to be refined. Data on its own. Doesn’t matter. I mean that’s why data doesn’t stand on its own. And then that’s why you need to have machine learning algorithms that can bring in insights from and then be able to both kind of predict and also prescript. And those are the areas that I think where we are going with data, it’s why that’s necessary to be only able to predict if you can’t take action by a prescription that negates it because every one of us has the kind of theory of being instantly gratified. And so how do we take that kind of moment when a customer has had the great experience to be able to upsell or cross-sell your services or products?

Tim Crawford:               So I think that you bring up a couple of interesting points and I want to kind of poke at a couple of them. I agree with you. The conversation around data’s the new oil. It’s interesting and it’s not interesting. It’s interesting that yes it is important and it is critical. But like you said, it needs to be refined and I’ve said something very similar. I’ve said, “Oil itself you can’t do anything with. It’s not until it’s refined gasoline and kerosene and plastics that you can actually do something with it and then it becomes valuable.”

Ashwin Ballal:               Yes.

Tim Crawford:               And data is no different. But how do you balance between having insights from all of these disparate sources and things like privacy? I mean privacy is really a top concern amongst customers today and I’m sure, you as a customer to other companies and myself as well, we think about these things. How do you kind of balance between ensuring that you’re having great insights from different data sources and understanding more about your customer, but at the same time respecting people from a privacy standpoint?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yeah, I think, Tim, I mean you bring up a great point. I mean I’ve always said that I mean CIOs, in general, are dealing with a confluence of a few things. We want to be able to provide great kind of user experiences. We also want to provide great security and we also want to provide privacy, right? And sometimes these are not coupled together. And so it’s the intersection of all of that that matters.

Ashwin Ballal:               And so to your point on privacy, I think the European Union, in general, has been leading the thing with GDPR, for example, as a first step. That privacy is very important. You’ve seen all of the stories from the Facebook about privacy and yes, people are very sensitive about privacy. And so it’s important for me as a CIO and working with the different stakeholders. I mean this is just not the responsibility of an IT organization. It is also the responsibility of how IT partners with the legal organization that drives privacy and make sure that in all of this kind of excitement of having data and insights that we don’t lose privacy. So there are controls that we put in and we are very sensitive as a company as far as privacy is concerned because we have a lot of the customer’s data and so do many other companies. So privacy is a lens we kind of use very closely in dealing with our datasets.

Tim Crawford:               How do you know that you’ve gone, and this is maybe just more of an out there question not specific to Medallia, but how do you know when you’ve gone too far? You could say that well, you’ve gone too far when the customer’s revolt, but there has to be some means that gives you guidance in that? I mean for you personally, what’s your take on how companies and I’ll make this broader, how companies should go when it comes to privacy and when is too far?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yeah, I mean, I know, I mean it’s a game we call about winning and losing as sometimes selling, but you’ve got to be driven by your own moral compass and the compass of the company. Every company has to have that North Star that says, “Look, there is a red line that we won’t cross,” whether it’s in competition or it’s in privacy or in gaining an advantage. And that’s driven more through the values of the company that one has or the integrity. And I’ve always said, “What is that leaning North and what is the moral compass of the company?” That’s a reflection of the company and the leadership. Honestly, I mean we all know what that red line is and we all know when that red line shouldn’t be crossed.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, no, I completely agree with you. Unfortunately, I see other companies that they do cross that red line and maybe they’re forgetting about their moral compass as part of it. So I’m glad to hear your perspective on that. Let’s switch gears a little bit. I want to talk about technology and bring that into the conversation. You’ve kind of touched on some examples of where machine learning or AI fit in, but when you think about emerging technologies such as cloud, machine learning and AI, where do they fit in on the whole, for you? Where do you find that they provide the greatest value? As you think about your strategies, you think about how Medallia is going forward, how you’re engaging with customers, where do these technologies’ kind of fit in for you and what’s your take on them?

Ashwin Ballal:               I mean I actually, this is true not only for Medallia but for every company. I think every company has become a technology company. There is no company that cannot say that there aren’t a technology company, especially in this digital world. Right? I mean, so what has enabled people to become a technology company? Cloud, for sure, mobile, social and big data analytics and the Internet of things. I mean these are all this evolving technologies that have kind of changed the landscape of how companies today operate. Right? And I think it is not one technology, Tim, that can stand, I think this is an intersection of all of these things coming together. Data on its own, just like you pointed out, is of no value. If you can’t glean and refine the insights through sophisticated algorithms or simple algorithms that can bring in great insights on the customer that can be monetized.

Ashwin Ballal:               I mean, all of these things are irrelevant if you cannot monetize it, right? I mean, you can be sitting on a lot of data, you can have a lot of cloud and computer storage, but what do you do with it if you don’t have the right people who have the vision to be able to draw the insights that is able to be monetized? In the end, if you can’t generate revenue and grow your business, but you’re sitting on a lot of assets, that’s of no use because assets stay like inventory that you cannot move. So my view with technology is that you can have all the technology in the world that will not assist you if you cannot monetize those assets in a way that provides great value to the customer. And you’re solving problems for customers that will help you in monetizing these assets.

Tim Crawford:               So in some ways does that become the North Star? And if I were to even be provocative in this, to say that similar to how data is of no use cloud, machine learning, AI, all of this emerging technology is equally of no use unless you find what your North Star is and understand how you’re going to refine data to be able to achieve those objectives and leverage technology to achieve those objectives. Would that be fair to say?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yeah, I think it’s fair to say, I mean, yeah, all of these technologies on their own and don’t mean anything. I mean, the core of any business is, it comes back to the core of the company. What is your core competence? What are your core advantages that you can actually use to monetize your business? And then you can bring in all of these technologies to aid and assist that core competence that’s giving you that competitive advantage is where these technologies come to play. I mean, just these are not just fads to say, “Hey, I’m an AI company and so what?” I mean, what does growth look like? Right? I mean at that we’ve seen in 1999 and 2000 right. How many companies survived from the Dot-com days? You know that Tim.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah.

Ashwin Ballal:               And this is no different, right? Today I see every company calling themselves an AI company.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. We saw the same thing with cloud. Even if they had a little feature that wasn’t part of the core product that was in the cloud, then they’re a cloud company all of a sudden or now an AI company.

Ashwin Ballal:               The only difference I see, Tim, honestly, is that we didn’t have the .cloud kind of companies. Right. Where we call and Right?

Tim Crawford:               I guess if you kind of bring this full circle, because I know you have a lot of exposure to your C-Suite as well as the executive team at KLA prior, but are they having conversations about these emerging technologies or are they talking about customers and growth and other things?

Ashwin Ballal:               No, I mean if you just look at it, I mean all of these technologies are now into our homes too, right? I mean, so it’s not that. If you just look at the consumer world and the enterprise world, they have been kind of merging over time. That I just look at it in terms of our consumers itself and everyone has an Internet of things going on in their home. For example, they’re managing complex networks, aren’t they having all of these kinds of technology? They are storing stuff on the cloud. They have a lot of data. They are looking at ways to basically do better with that data. So I think, you know, this whole kind of things that, “Oh, the CIO is the only technologist in a company,” is no longer true because everyone is a technologist today and everyone is moving at the same pace.

Ashwin Ballal:               The whole world is moving at the same pace. So what is that leadership that the CIO brings and the discipline and kind of at scale how do we do things? You can do it at your home, but how do you do it at scale? Keeping security in mind, keeping privacy in mind, now those are different things where the CIO and the IT organization needs to play a role and a leadership role in one.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, no, I love it. I love it. So as we kind of wrap on this episode, what excites you most about the role of the CIO today and where it’s headed and also where does technology kind of fit into it from your perspective?

Ashwin Ballal:               Yeah, I mean I think there is no better time than today to be a CIO, Tim. It’s again, I go back to my child’s begins. It’s the best of times, honestly, for a CIO. There are so many things evolving that have never occurred in the past. We had cloud as one think piece. Today we have cloud in conjunction with big data, in conjunction with IoT, in conjunction with machine learning and AI, in conjunction with Blockchain. I’m telling you, there are so many things that are confluencing all at the same time.

Ashwin Ballal:               And the whole point really is that the job of the CIO has become more of a leadership job than just the transaction or operational job that the CIO was previously. One about leadership. One about looking at ways to monetize assets. And that’s why I’m so kind of excited about the fact that I get to work on developing products. I help with the go-to-market strategy working with the sales team. Working with the marketing team. Positioning it. Calling on other CEO’s. Trying to help solve problems for them, and so I can’t tell you that there is a better time than this and the times can only get better as the years pass. I think CEOs and aspiring CEOs, I think there isn’t a better time to be a CIO than today.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great and that’s a great way to kind of wrap on this episode. Ashwin, thanks so much. We’re going to have to leave it right there and hope to have you back for another episode where we could kind of pick it up and talk about a couple more things. Thanks for joining the program today.

Ashwin Ballal:               Thank you, Tim, had a blast.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on the CIO in the Know podcast series, visit us online at or you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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