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Clara Shih, CEO, Salesforce Service Cloud on the shape of post-pandemic service work

Salesforce Service Cloud CEO Clara Shih has returned to the supplier after a period as a founder CEO and sees the future of contact centre and field service with relatively fresh eyes

Clara Shih, recently installed as CEO of Salesforce’s Service Cloud business, is relatively new to the contact centre market and field service, but a returning alumna of Salesforce. She founded Hearsay Systems, a client engagement platform used by advisers, bankers and insurance agents in financial services, in 2009, after three years as head of product management and marketing for the Salesforce AppExchange.

She is also the author of Facebook era: tapping social networks to build better products, reach new audiences, sell more stuff. She studied computer science and economics at Stanford University and wrote a Masters thesis at the University of Oxford about early social networking, while based at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Computer Weekly interviewed her early in her new role at Salesforce, at a time when she had yet to meet any of her colleagues face to face. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Before getting into the business stuff, what was your Masters thesis about?

It was about early social networking. You might recall Friendster? It looked at the early developments within those online communities and how they would affect in-person relationships in real life. After that, I started my career at Google, working in its corporate strategy team. And then I joined Salesforce, and I worked in product management and was one of the early team members of the AppExchange. After that, I left and started Hearsay Systems, which I led for 11 years.

Last year, like a lot of people during the pandemic, I started reflecting on how I was spending my time in my life. And I realised that I probably needed to step away from startup life, while my family was still young, and decided to take a sabbatical. After the sabbatical, I came across this opportunity.

And excited to be back at Salesforce? It must have changed quite a bit during the time you were away?

Interestingly, it has and it hasn’t. It’s a much bigger company. There were 1,000 employees when I was here the first time, now there are 60,000. When I was here before, Salesforce was primarily a sales automation company. Now there are a number of different product lines and businesses, both through organic growth and acquisition.

But what has surprised me, I think pleasantly, is how much it still feels the same in terms of the culture and the values. There is a special combination of smart and also kind people who believe in a broader mission, beyond just making money. It’s really about this broader sense of purpose.

You could say it’s more enterprise-focused now and you’ve got Mulesoft, Tableau and Slack, so a broadening out from software-as-a-service for sales and marketing staff.

That’s right. And for me, I haven’t worked in customer service and support before. But the reason I took the role with Service Cloud is the contact centre – it is used by separate teams, and it’s expansive. We have digital engagement chatbots, self-service portals and field service, which is rich and diverse.

There is traditional field service you might think of as the technician coming to fix your internet when it goes down or fixing the power line. But field service is also used in a variety of contexts, such as any home delivery experience and kerbside pickup. It’s the entire customer experience as powered by Service Cloud.

But I think the other part of it is what we’ve seen around the world in this pandemic. Everything shifted to digital overnight. And the proverbial thing was that it couldn't be done, that call centre agents couldn’t work from home. Well, lo and behold, millions of them are, around the world. And if you talk to customer service leaders about a post-vaccination world, the majority of them tell us that they don’t want to go back to rows and rows of contacts agents with their headsets – that wasn’t an environment that was the most productive.

And so they want to shift, and even stay remote, or have some sort of hybrid arrangement. All of which opens up the labour pool, the talent pool. They can access lots of people who need to work from home, maybe if they have to take care of elderly parents or children or if they’re disabled, so it’s not that easy for them to go into the office. So now you have access to so much more talent, and talent everywhere.

What do you think is going to be different and what’s going to be the same as a consequence of the pandemic in terms of customer service? What are the things you think will endure and maybe things that will go back to how they were before?

What’s the same is that we humans are social creatures. And we learn by doing, we learn from our peers, we learn through coaching and mentoring. If people are remote or hybrid, how do you reproduce that in-person training in a natural way? That has brought new purpose to what we’re doing with Service Cloud Voice. Because now, calls are being transcribed and analysed in real time, and when agents get stuck, supervisors get notified. There is also more personalised and embedded training, based on what is demanded and where the skill gaps are.

Is there anything that you think was innovated, by necessity, during the pandemic that we should just leave in the pandemic?

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t think so. I think there were things that were tried – but maybe it’s called innovation, even if it fails. What the pandemic shone a light on for a lot of the organisations we work with was how siloed their digital technology was, how siloed their tech stack was.

Did companies have web chat? Mostly, yes. Did companies have a website? Of course. Did companies have bots? Some of them did. Did companies have traditional phones? Of course. But were these all connected? In most cases, no.

“The interesting thing is that because of the surge in volume, contact centres have a lot of hiring to do”

Clara Shih, Salesforce Service Cloud

The pandemic created a breaking point for silos, because you can kind of get away with that when, in the normal course of business, you can offload a lot of your support questions to your bricks-and-mortar locations, where people are just going to the store. Now, all of that volume suddenly goes to your contact centre instead. And if people can’t find what they need on the website, and then they try talking to your bot, and that doesn’t work, then they call your agent and then they have to repeat all the information that they just shared with a chatbot. They’re frustrated.

Imagine needing to talk to your bank because you’re worried about not being able to pay your mortgage that month because you just lost your job, and then having to wait for multiple hours on end. And so I think that was a catalyst for modernisation work that I think many organisations have known for years they needed to do, but this forced them do it.

What about the ethics or concerns of continuing to organise the contact centre the way it had to be during the pandemic, enforcing working from home on people? Can we take this a bit too far?

I don’t think it’s primarily an ethical issue. I think what is happening, based on the contact centre leaders and agents I have met, is that just like you and I, they and we enjoy remote – maybe not every day, but it’s very convenient. For me personally, I think I’ll end up going in a few days a week, but not every day. And I think a lot of contacts agents feel the same way.

The interesting thing is that because of the surge in volume, contact centres have a lot of hiring to do. So there’s a lot of demand. And employers are fighting for them. It’s a talent war. And when that happens, that means they have to really offer choice.

And then, if you think about field service, that’s fascinating also. Field service is having its day right now. Think about these office buildings and sports stadiums and shopping malls that have largely been closed or vacant for the last year. Right. But those escalators and elevators have been on. There’s a lot of maintenance and repair required in any building – the lighting, the air conditioning, and so on. Those are industrial-grade operations.

And so field service is being deployed like we’ve never seen before to help reopen, to ensure that the surge of people who are going to start going to concerts again and start going to work again, that the load can be handled, especially if there is distancing.

Similarly, there is virtual remote assistance when you are getting something fixed, using a smartphone. All of a sudden, the lines are blurring between contact centres and field service and field service that is actually not even in the field.

On a personal note, do you think people need to have strategies for emerging? Or should it just be a case of stay present in the moment, and let the future take care of itself?

I think it’s something that organisations and their leaders have to be very cognisant about. Both for customers and for their employees. Showing empathy for people’s differences in terms of extroversion or introversion, and what they’ve been used to. A lot of people have gone through trauma, or they may have lost a loved one, or they may have gone through the experience of Covid themselves.

And so having mental health top of mind for anyone who is a people manager is really important. And then also recognising that not everyone will want to get vaccinated, unfortunately, and so accommodating for that.

I think this is a leadership-defining moment for organisations to say “Am I going to tiptoe back, or how am I going to show up for my customers?”. Some of these businesses have not been able to serve their customers for months or over a year. They shouldn’t just emerge. They should do so in a thoughtful way.

It’s an opportunity to create a moment with their customers. And to let customers know that they’re open for business, to ensure and reassure customers about safety, to talk about how they kept their employees through this time, if they did. And to talk about what digital conveniences are going to stay.

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