The unique value a CIO brings to customer engagement with Colleen Berube


This week I’m joined by Colleen Berube, the Chief Information Officer for Zendesk.

In our discussion, Colleen outlines how today’s CIO is different from that of the past with regards to customer engagement. She talks what the CIO brings to customer engagement and how the CIO has a vantage point that other leaders don’t have. Colleen shares how one leader wanted a 360 degree view of the customer but only had 120 degrees of data. She talks about the traits have served her well and good places for a CIO to start with customer engagement.


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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.

Tim Crawford:               This week I’m joined by Colleen Berube, the Chief Information Officer for Zendesk, and our discussion calling outlines how today’s CIO is different from that of the past with regards to customer engagement. She talks about what the CIO brings to customer engagement and how the CIO has a vantage point that other leaders don’t have. Colleen shares how one leader wanted a 360 degree view of the customer, but only had 120 degrees of data. She talks about the traits that have served her well and good places for a CIO to start with customer engagement. Colleen, welcome to the program.

Colleen Berube:            Thanks, Tim. I’m super happy to be here today.

Tim Crawford:               Well, I’m always excited to have a chance to chat about different topics with you, and let’s start off by talking about your role as CIO at Zendesk. Can you tell us a little bit about your role there at Zendesk?

Colleen Berube:            Sure, I’m happy to. So as you mentioned, I’m the CIO here at Zendesk. Zendesk is a company that delivers customer experience software. We started in the support software space and have expanded into omni-channel and Salesforce automation and analytics and other technologies that are used by many different companies.

Colleen Berube:            My role here really has three parts. The first part of my role is the obvious part, which is I run the IT organization, but what I’m doing here as well, in particular in that role, is helping a company that’s now 12 years old and growing at nearly 40% per year to make sure that we can scale well as we continue to grow that fast.

Tim Crawford:               Wow. That’s impressive.

Colleen Berube:            Yeah. The second part of my role is I’m leading the effort across the company to make us the first and best customer of our own stuff. And my third part of my role is to represent the company externally. More and more we’re selling into the CIO’s office, and certainly working with CIO’s is part of our sales process, and so I help meet with our customers and prospects as part of that.

Tim Crawford:               It seems like we’re seeing that more and more amongst our CIO peer group, which is they’re out working with customers, both from tech companies as well as from non tech companies too.

Colleen Berube:            Absolutely. It’s a sign of the time.

Tim Crawford:               It’s a different CIO role than maybe what we’ve been accustomed to in the past.

Colleen Berube:            Well, there is such a shift with digital to companies, thinking about the customer and putting the customer at the center of what they do. You can hardly be responsible for all the data and systems in the company and not attach yourself to the customer at this point.

Tim Crawford:               Well, I want to dive into that a little further because I know this is a space that you’re really passionate about, and that is the customer experience. And quite often, we’re talking about how the customer plays such a demonstrable role in the success of our organizations, whether we’re coming from a tech company or coming from a non tech company. So when you think about how the CIO fits into this customer experience, how do you start? Where is your guidance? What is your perspective on the CIO’s role with customer experience?

Colleen Berube:            Well, first of all, it’s absolutely the case that the considering the customer and thinking about the customer experience, regardless of whether you’re in a company that is a consumer company, a B2C company, or whether you’re in a B2B company, because we each, as individuals, have had such a massive change in the experience that we have every day, things what used to be your gadget on the wall for your heating, clicker for your garage door, now it’s just something that sits on the counter that you talk to. What used to be you would think about on the drive home, hating the idea that you had to stop at the grocery store and stand in a line to get groceries, now you can just order on your phone and have them there when you arrive at home.

Colleen Berube:            So pretty dramatic changes, really, in our everyday lives. And that expectation of an amazing experience is pervading business, and we all experience that every day. One of the things I like to do is to identify those things that I see that changed my perception because I think it’s all happening to us so fast that we almost often don’t even realize that it happens. And so in order to deliver those amazing experiences, companies have to fundamentally work differently. And it means that their systems and their data and their processes have to fundamentally work differently. And I happen to believe that the role that is uniquely positioned in the company to help take leadership on this is the CIO. The CIO has a vantage point across the company that other leaders don’t quite have because they see how every piece of the organization works, they know how the dots connect, and they have an opportunity to inspire change. And I think that you can do that in a variety of different ways.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s maybe dive into that a little bit deeper because I think this is an aspect that people don’t necessarily stop and think about, and you highlighted it when you talked about the CIO role looking across the entire organization. If we look at an enterprise, if we look at any company for that matter, all of the different aspects touch the customer in some way. And so there’s this narrative that’s been going on of, well, is the CIO really needed and maybe we can just handle IT or handle technology in each of the different disciplines? But what you’re talking about is really the value that the IT organization and the CIO brings to looking horizontally across the organization, especially when it comes to customer experience. Can you maybe talk a little more about that?

Colleen Berube:            Sure. If you think about, almost regardless of what kind of a business you’re in, if you think about all of the different ways that your customer is touched by your company, some of those touch points may be digital, some of them may actually be physical, some of those touch points may be controlled by you, so maybe you run your own website, some of them may be handled by a third party that you have outsourced to, maybe it’s a delivery service or someone else who’s handling advertising for you, for example. It’s the sum of those touch points that make up an experience. And I think it’s difficult if you’re not working with the customer at the center of what you’re [inaudible 00:07:15], even imagine truly what the customer experience is.

Colleen Berube:            So marketing organization tends to think of customer experience as everything from marketing that hits the customer. And the customer advocacy or customer support organization tends to think of customer experience as everything that happens to the customer through their engagement with them. And the sales organization tends to think of customer experience as everything that happens through them and so forth and so on. How do we bring those data points together? How do we bring that perspective together?

Colleen Berube:            I love telling the story, in one of my previous roles, one of our senior leaders who ran marketing was running around telling everybody that we were going to create a 360 degree view of the customer. And in my next one-on-one with them, I said, “Yeah, but you don’t understand you only have 120 degrees of the data.”

Tim Crawford:               That’s great.

Colleen Berube:            And so helping people understand, inside the enterprise, that their view is to inside out is one way that you can make change.

Colleen Berube:            We affect so much of even the taxonomy that’s used in the company, a simple thing like instead change people from saying so what are the requirements for that to starting with, so what is the customer experience we want to create? And then working backwards from there is a simple thing you can do as a CIO.

Tim Crawford:               It seems like there is a lack of understanding, what I call the customer value chain, and I’m not the one that came up with that term, but it’s been used a number of times in a number of different ways, but to your earlier point of talking about only having 120 degrees of data when you really want that 360 degree view, similarly in the value chain, I see organizations that only know pieces of the value chain and they’ve got these huge gaps in the middle.

Colleen Berube:            Exactly. Absolutely.

Tim Crawford:               That seems to be an area that I would think, I’d love to get your thoughts on this, but I would think that the CIO would be able to see those gaps and understand, at a minimum, from a third party perspective.

Colleen Berube:            Right. I think so. I think very often in this role we can see the gaps and there’s an opportunity to create awareness, at minimum to create awareness, with our peers and senior leaders around where those gaps are. At maximum, take leadership on suggesting ways to close those gaps, how to improve the situation for the customer in the end.

Tim Crawford:               Sure. And as we think about the role of the CIO, as you’ve gone through your journey and through your experience in different roles, and even conversations you’ve had with some of our peer group, are there specific traits that you think are better served or are more valuable that a CIO should really hone and focus on that really helps that CIO to be more successful with understanding the customer experience, but also being able to engage and provide value to that conversation?

Colleen Berube:            I’m going to give you what traits have served me well. I wouldn’t necessarily want to proselytize what traits everyone should have, but certainly I think that being well educated about all aspects of the business and well educated about the customer base and going out and meeting with them on a regular basis and getting a keen understanding for what it really looks like to be a customer has served me well.

Colleen Berube:            So as an example, I was speaking with peers of mine about a particular area of challenge in our customer experience, and I felt like I knew what I was talking about but I felt like it was so in the abstract in talking to them that I was getting the head nodding but I wasn’t getting the visceral, “I hear you, we have to address this.” And so what I did in that case is I had someone go through the experience on our website and record it as if they were a customer, and went and had everybody watch it, and it changed their thinking. So bringing that understanding to others, I think, is the first thing.

Colleen Berube:            The second trait I would highlight is humility because I have found coming to the table with an approach of here’s what I see, here are my thoughts about it, as opposed to being arrogant or cocky, or whatever you want to call, allows people to hear what you’re bringing to the table.

Tim Crawford:               It also seems to make… It makes you real. It makes you real as a person too. And I think that that’s actually a challenge that I’ve seen amongst CEIs is, and I think in IT, is that failure is seen as a sign of weakness. And what you’re talking about in terms of humility… I mean, what you’re really talking about is balance. There are some great things, there’s some great value that we as a CIO can bring to this conversation and these experiences, but we’re not perfect either and what we experience isn’t perfect either. And so being able to have that balance, I think, is valuable.

Colleen Berube:            I mean, I think at least the way I think about it is all I really want is to be part of the team, part of the team that’s making the company successful. I don’t need to have all the answers, I don’t need to be the point on the arrow every time, I just want to know that I’m having an impact in the success of the company that I’m working for.

Tim Crawford:               Great. Do you think that changes as you go from high tech companies to non high tech companies, those traits and the approach that the CIO takes?

Colleen Berube:            I don’t know if in reality it changes, but I [inaudible 00:13:39] traits can serve you equally well regardless of the industry you’re in. It may be in some industries, because of the culture, that you need to approach things a bit differently or navigate them differently because of expectations about how people handle themselves, but based on my experience now, I haven’t seen it… It’s markedly different.

Tim Crawford:               Okay. If I step back for a second and think about someone that doesn’t have the expansive experience that you do with regards to customer experience, let’s say I’m just starting to warm up to this concept or just starting to get started or want to sharpen my sword a bit, where would you suggest or what are some things that you would suggest as places to start or places to think about? I think you’ve identified a couple earlier in the conversation, but where are some places that would be tangible places to start as you, as a CIO, are starting down this path?

Colleen Berube:            Well, I think inside your own organization you can start with going and learning about what your customers experience. I did that when I joined this company by going and spending an entire day shadowing our customer support agents. I spent another day or more, shadowing sales people in different segments of our sales organization. So just going to the different parts of the organization that touch your customer and observing, I think, is a great start.

Colleen Berube:            The second piece would be to do some learning, whether it be watching videos online or do some reading, there is lots of organizations that write about this topic right now. My experience is when you go to look it up online, you tend to get the whole marketing angle. And so I try to look for publications that don’t just focus on the marketing angle of customer experience but really look at it holistically. And there’s some good thought leaders out there.

Tim Crawford:               What about the peer-to-peer conversations that we have? There are different schools of thoughts in terms of, “No, I stay within my swim lane or within my focal area,” and there are other schools of thought that say, “Well, I actually learned from my peer group,” other CIOs. What’s your take on the value of the different options and what have you found success with?

Colleen Berube:            Yeah, I definitely find value in going and reaching out to my peers and learning about what they’re doing. I usually will try to look at… So if I were looking at customer experience, I would go check with peers of mine that work the market, I’d probably also go across the industry so you get a sense of what’s happening holistically and not just looking at it from one angle.

Tim Crawford:               So it’s a kind of shift into talking a little bit about the technology. As an IT leader, I don’t think we can necessarily avoid talking about technology at some point, and especially with customer experience. Data and AI are just such hot topics today, what’s your take on where they fit in or where they don’t fit in? Help me separate the wheat from the chaff a bit here in terms of the hype versus the actual tangible value.

Colleen Berube:            Well, on the topic of data, if you think about the transformation that has happened in IT over the past 10 to 15 years, you talked a little bit about the decentralization of IT in many cases now where different functions are running different parts of the stack. In my mind, the one responsibility that is still central for the CIO is to make sure that the company has a handle on the data. Here, we have 14 different organizations that run systems, but I still make sure that we know how we manage data between those 14 different organizations, that it’s governed and so forth. And as much as we talk about, all different companies talk about all the data that we collect and how you want to use that data to personalize experiences and run your business better and so forth, by far and away, if you went to a company and did a survey, they would tell you that one of their biggest challenges is data quality.

Colleen Berube:            So I think there is, on the one hand, there’s enormous possibilities, and on the other hand, it’s always back to basics. How do you make sure you have some level of management, appropriate management of the data, governance of the data, you can make it useful so you don’t have garbage [inaudible 00:18:43] and garbage out. It really comes back to the fundamentals on that.

Tim Crawford:               And also putting some perspective, as you said, in terms of you may want or think you have 360 degrees of data, but you really only have 120 degrees.

Colleen Berube:            Yeah. Yeah. So to your point, which data is useful? Do you really have what you need? How do you get the most out of it? It’s a whole new discipline and I think many IT organizations are expanding their remit so that it’s not just about the databases and maybe even the analytics tools, but how do we now also provide value in terms of how do you do analytics against this data? How do you do advanced analytics and predictives so that maybe even having data scientists in the IT team? I think that’s one area we definitely see growth under the CIO.

Colleen Berube:            When it comes to artificial intelligence and so forth, there is definitely a wealth of opportunity there. And I’m a firm believer that we are all headed for a day where there’s a chip in our head and we’re on a holodeck. But in the meantime, we’re in the very infancy of this cycle and I think it’s important to keep perspective on it. So on the one hand, I want to say to people, if you haven’t started to embrace it, you should because you absolutely need to stick your toe in the water. On the other hand, I would say keep it in perspective, really, at the moment. It can really only do three things, so it can help you find patterns in data, it can make recommendations and it can make predictions. You can actually do three different things. And I find when you step back and think about it in that way, it really helps you get perspective on it. So what patterns am I looking for or why am I looking for patterns? What kind of recommendations do I want to get or do I want to predict? And what data do I need to do that?

Tim Crawford:               But the other piece, it sounds like you’re trying to communicate, is that it’s not AI for AI’s sake or it gets applied like peanut butter and spread across everything. There’s an appropriateness of where to put it in and why you would leverage it.

Colleen Berube:            Absolutely. I mean, I think hopefully at this point we all know as CIOs that technology for technology’s sake doesn’t have a wealth of value in the end. And so they’re tools. They’re tools that we use to solve problems and it’s good to have a sense of what problem you’re solving and then find the most appropriate tool to do it.

Tim Crawford:               And even to that tech for tech’s sake… I mean, our friend Sheila Jordan, CIO at Symantec said on an earlier podcast, “What got us here will not get us there,” and tech for tech’s sake, we had some success with that as it leaders, but that’s not necessarily the case moving forward. So as we kind of wrap on this episode, I have this one last question, you talked about the chip in your head, but what excites you most about the CIO role? Is it the chip in the head or is it working with amazing people? Where does technology fit in? What gets Colleen really amped up in an excited way? And maybe I should put some boundaries on within the CIO role.

Colleen Berube:            I love obviously making change happen with technology, but for me, when I can move a lever in the company that cuts across functions and make a difference from my seat, using that technology and using my ability to influence cross-functionally, that really excites me. It really just excites me when I can make a positive difference on my company from my seat.

Tim Crawford:               That’s awesome. Colleen, thanks so much for taking part in the program today. It’s been great having you on.

Colleen Berube:            Thank you, Tim. It was nice chatting with you.

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

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