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AiThority Interview with Malcolm Koh, Director, CX Practice at Zendesk

Malcolm Koh, Director, CX Practice at Zendesk

Hi, Malcolm, welcome to our Interview Series. Please tell us a little bit about your journey in helping customers to improve their CX strategy especially with AI implementation. How did you start at Zendesk?

I have spent over 20 years running operations and customer experience with some of the world’s most customer-centric brands across retail, hospitality, airlines, financial services and tech. In a way, I like to see myself as the customer-in-residence, providing that outside-in lens to CX. I had been a Zendesk customer prior to joining the company. I liked what they had to offer and what they stood for, so when the opportunity arose, it was a no-brainer to join the team.

In my current role as the Director of CX Practice at Zendesk, I collaborate with existing and potential customers to help them build CX strategies that optimise operations, scale businesses and drive bottom-line value. These days, that often involves implementing artificial intelligence (AI) and automation within the organisation. Most companies today sit on a trove of data that, when coupled with the right technology like AI, can produce actionable insights to better serve their customers. If done right, brands can be the ones proactively engaging customers before they even start to reach out.

In the era of Generative AI and NLPs, how does Zendesk position its Machine Learning initiatives?

Even before the recent hype about AI, Zendesk has always worked with our customers to deliver intelligent operations at any scale, using a variety of AI-powered technology such as machine learning (ML), chatbots, and conversational CX to make every touchpoint as efficient and hassle-free as possible. Today, AI is becoming more evolved and seamless. In fact, according to our latest Zendesk CX Trends 2023 report, 73% of APAC consumers today want bots to provide the same level of service as humans. It is imperative for businesses to ensure AI plays a key role in their CX strategy.

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How big is Zendesk’s machine learning team? What kind of innovations and developments is Zendesk testing in the ML lab?

Our AI/ML team is currently in the tens of people across the globe. As customer demands continuously evolve, we need to be sure that our innovations are able to cater to that change. In our labs, we are focused on creating solutions and new capabilities to support our customers in delivering AI-powered conversational experiences. We are also working on incorporating more AI technology into various parts of the customer and agent journey in order to improve overall efficiency while delivering immersive experiences for all.

Could you tell us about the role of AI and machine learning in Customer experience management?

AI and machine learning can help in many different ways, but ultimately, they aim to complement the human workforce to provide a higher level of convenience and efficiency for both customers and support agents. From a productivity perspective, such technologies can help with eliminating high-volume routine tasks so that agents can focus on addressing higher-value and more complex work. No one likes to waste time, so a common use case is self-service where chatbots, virtual assistants, and many other AI-enhanced tools are able to “learn” and simulate interactions with customer service agents without having to wait in line for a live agent.

Additionally, CX needs measurable analytics in order to continually optimise, and ML can help add a predictive element to support analytics. For example, predictive CX analytics utilises data from previous customer service interactions to determine what the quantitative results may be in the future. However, this cannot be a siloed effort. To improve overall CX strategy, the CX team will need to collaborate with other departments to ensure customers are being proactively engaged at the right time, with the right content, along the customer lifecycle.

In the end, organisations improve the interaction in terms of efficiency and customer satisfaction, a true win-win situation. Customers are happier as a beneficiary of an improved process that is proactive, frictionless and intuitive, saving them time and effort.

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According to your report, customers are looking to engage with bots that offer experiences at the same level as humans. What are the pros and cons of this trend in customer experience delivery?

Whenever there’s talk of chatbots, there’s also concern about machines replacing humans. It’s important to remember that most technological evolutions seek to complement the human workforce, allowing the role of humans to evolve and upskill. In the case of chatbots, their ability to simulate an interaction with a customer service representative and resolve simple inquiries is an effective self-service solution. Companies can scale their support capabilities and better utilise their human talent, while improving service delivery because customers are able to get instantaneous responses around the clock.

When you layer on ML, chatbots can also learn when to use specific responses, when to gather necessary information from users, and when to hand off a conversation to a human agent. The AI and ML landscape is constantly evolving, and there’ll be a constant need to further develop such technologies and its applications for existing and new use cases. The key here is to ensure we have the right balance of automation and the human touch.

ChatGPT conversations are everywhere. How do you see ChatGPT and other generative AI apps playing a larger role in your industry?

Generative AI will continue to play an important role in enhancing overall CX experience for companies. In fact, it will help companies to shift from a reactive to a more proactive approach when it comes to messaging. Zendesk has recently released proactive messages, designed to help brands reach out to customers with more meaningful, contextual, timely and personalised interactions on modern messaging channels like web messenger or their mobile app. By being proactive, companies can help reduce operational costs by getting ahead of issues before customer queries overwhelm their support team. They can increase sales and conversion rates with personalised and timely messages that influence customers to make a purchase—all while keeping them happy and engaged, reducing the chance of churn in a highly competitive landscape.

AI as a whole is a game-changer when it comes to business transformation, and organisations need to look beyond these technologies as mere stop-gap measures. When organisations understand that these solutions will fundamentally change the way their business operates, their business strategies will adapt accordingly, resulting in success.

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Your take on AI ethics and democratization of data science ecosystems?

The foundation of trust in AI lies in high-quality data that is timely, tangible and accurate, which minimises margins of error when developing data models that are integral to the automation process. Data sets that are consistently reliable builds trust and assurance in the performance that the technical process will always deliver results as it is intended to.

That is why we need to ensure privacy and data rights are enforced, so customers can feel assured when sharing important data. Synthetic data can help to mitigate bias and privacy issues, but fundamentally, organisations need to respect their customers’ privacy. It strengthens the relationship and builds trust. We also place a great emphasis on having a diversity of perspectives in our AI/ML team and processes that are constantly examined to ensure that our software is beneficial, unbiased, following strong ethical principles, and securing the data that makes our AI work.

We also believe that the benefits of AI and ML should be made accessible to companies of all sizes. That’s why our solutions work out of the box to make it as easy as possible to set up and maintain, without the need of massive budgets or specialised developer skills. Ultimately, as we continue to leverage AI and ML for efficiency and productivity, we need  to ensure transparency, accountability and ethical alignment in the use of these exciting and game-changing technologies.

Thank you, Malcolm ! That was fun and we hope to see you back on soon.

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As the Director of CX Practice, Malcolm Koh is the “customer in residence” at Zendesk, based in Singapore. With over 25 years’ experience spanning retail, hospitality, airlines, financial services and tech, he has worked with some of the world’s most customer-centric brands.

In his role, Malcolm and his global team collaborates with existing and potential Zendesk customers to help them build customer experience strategies that optimize operations, scale businesses and drive business value. Prior to joining Zendesk, Malcolm was Head of Customer Experience at Grab Singapore.

Malcolms holds a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University and a Master of Business Administration from the National University of Singapore. Outside of Zendesk, Malcolm loves running, restaurant experiences and spending time with his dogs.  

Zendesk Logo

Zendesk started the customer experience revolution in 2007 by enabling any business around the world to take their customer service online. Today, Zendesk is the champion of great service everywhere for everyone, and powers billions of conversations, connecting more than 100,000 brands with hundreds of millions of customers over telephony, chat, email, messaging, social channels, communities, review sites and help centers. Zendesk products are built with love to be loved. The company was conceived in Copenhagen, Denmark, built and grown in California, taken public in New York City, and today employs more than 4,000 people across the world.

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