'AI can improve lives of both customers and employees', says newly appointed senior vice-president at Freshworks

The veteran leader and digital transformation expert speaks extensively about advanced chatbot technology

By Web Desk

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Published: Thu 30 Mar 2023, 6:16 PM

Last updated: Thu 30 Mar 2023, 6:20 PM

Digital and human agents can work together to deliver experiences that delight consumers and business reps and keep them coming back for more, reckons Sandie Overtveld who has recently been appointed as senior vice-president for Freshworks Inc's Asia-Pacific, Japan (APJ) and Middle East and Africa (MEA) markets.

In his new role, Overtveld will oversee Freshworks' growth efforts in these regions and work with brands to help them keep customers and employees at the centre of business.

An executive with more than 30 years of experience, Overtveld is a recognised thought leader and expert in digital transformation. He has a proven track record of growth and portfolio strategy development and execution in complex global matrix organisations like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Zendesk, and most recently served as the APJ leader of WalkMe Inc. – which successfully pioneered digital adoption platforms (DAP) across the globe.

Speaking about his journey and recent appointment, Overtveld takes us through the various challenges, achievements and milestones.

In recent months, it has been impossible to ignore the buzz around AI chatbots. How much of this is hype, and how far is this rooted in the reality that these solutions can step in to effectively solve the region’s ‘experience’ challenges?

The recent buzz around AI has largely been due to the launch of ChatGPT, which has given the general public access to advanced chatbot technology at a never seen scale. Far from being hype, we are seeing everyday users create innovative, awe-inspiring use cases for the system – ranging from writing code, to developing games, and even composing music and poetry. Of course, for businesses, chatbots aren’t a new or foreign concept as many have actually been employing bots to streamline and enhance their operations for quite a while now.

Chatbots have become especially popular in helping alleviate the burden on customer service agents in industries ranging from FSI to utilities. They are a highly effective and intuitive means of addressing the service needs of the modern consumer who wants to engage when they want to engage and wants to engage how they want to engage. When using bots, providing the 24x7, 365-day service that these customers demand becomes far less challenging or costly to deliver.

Moreover, bots can unlock value from the interactions that take place on a daily basis. They have the ability to accurately sift valuable data that emanates from interactions, tagging and categorising it for the purposes of rich business intelligence, allowing businesses to better arm both bots and human employees with richer information to further improve experiences.

At Freshworks, we have made significant investments in our AI strategy over the last five years to enhance agent productivity and their customers’ experience. With its latest upgrades, Freddy, our natively-built AI powered assistant, is capable of using the latest in GPT large language models to bring even more value to these experiences. We are fundamentally transforming how Freshworks customers will interact with our products through more conversations and fewer clicks.

Is there a potential downside to all this AI and technology advancement? Are we running the risk of losing that essential empathy and ‘human touch’ in customer engagements?

Far from the dystopian view of AI displacing humans, the technology is actually a highly effective means of augmenting rather than replacing employees – which inevitably improves the lives of both customers (CX) and employees (EX). For example, bots can answer accurately within seconds and free up humans to perform more meaningful and innovative tasks. When bots discover complexity within a customer engagement, they can forward that interaction to a human agent, ensuring that all relevant information is attached, thereby empowering the agent to act more effectively.

The greatest success stories will therefore be told by those organisations that recognise that automation is not a direct substitute for human agents. I believe any AI needs some level of human oversight. Amid the substantial growth we have seen in online interactions, human agency – and its strengths of empathy, initiative, and innovation – must unite with advanced technologies such as chatbots. Together, digital and human agents can deliver experiences that delight consumers and business reps and keep them coming back for more.

The UAE consumers are among the most tech savvy in the world. How does this shake up the customer service function for businesses and how can we expect to see brands rise to new customer demands?

Where once, businesses dictated what customer service channels would be available, today the tables have turned, and it is the customer who through their demands and readiness to rapidly shift loyalties to a competitor now sits in the driver’s seat. Part of this paradigm shift involves a demand for engagement through everyday consumer tools like social media. As of 2022, the UAE had a reported 99% social media penetration, and we are seeing surges in use of all these channels, from mainstays like Facebook and WhatsApp to new sensations like video-sharing app TikTok, which is now used by 60% of UAE netizens. Through 2023, regional enterprises must find ways to allow agents to engage in the social sphere with its digital native population. Millennials and Gen Z will appreciate the outreach and respond, leading to better brand reputation and higher levels of capture, conversion, loyalty, and advocacy.

It is not only where customers now expect to be served, but also how they expect to be served that businesses must consider. The utilisation of voice memos as a means of communication is gaining widespread popularity among the Gen Z population, with approximately one-third of this demographic preferring it over traditional text messaging. As Gen Z constitutes a significant proportion of the consumer base in the UAE, businesses must embrace this trend towards voice memos (and potentially video) in order to cater to the needs of this influential demographic. We can expect that soon, there will be a need for brands to incorporate audio and video notes in customer support processes. This may include businesses prompting customers to submit short videos or audio recordings to explain any issues they may be experiencing, which can then be transcribed and forwarded to a support agent for resolution.

In your view, which are the sectors in the UAE are setting new benchmarks for customer service innovation? What are the leaders in the sector space doing that others should look to emulate?

It should come as no surprise that the sectors innovating most rapidly in customer experience are those in which business is highly customer oriented and where the choice for consumers is abundant. The UAE’s BFSIs, retailers, eCommerce organisations, airlines and more all recognise the potential for customer interactions to make or break their business and are accordingly turning to the latest technologies to enhance their customer service abilities.

For example, consider BitOasis, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the Middle East and North Africa. Owing to the growing interest around cryptocurrencies, the company anticipated a surge in daily customer interactions and enquiries. To ensure it was able to cater to this demand, BitOasis created a ticketing system using Freshdesk to help its support agents prioritise and collaborate to respond to customer questions quickly. Adding Freshchat enabled the customer service team to incorporate WhatsApp into the company’s troubleshooting abilities. The BitOasis bot – an intelligent bot built using the Freshchat AI chatbot – now handles more than 50% of customer queries over WhatsApp which enables live agents to focus on responding to queries that need human intervention.

You’ve alluded to CX being inextricably linked to EX. Could you comment on how the role that IT service management (ITSM) plays in enhancing employee and consequently, customer experiences?

The role of the IT service desk is expanding and yet, agents and managers are expected to do more with less. Overwhelmed IT teams are increasingly turning to ITSM (IT service management) solutions to address this challenge.

Modern ITSM platforms eliminate repetitive tasks and manual processes, and drive service efficiency through no-code workflows and powerful automation. They proactively remediate issues and equip employees with better knowledge and more powerful tool sets. Moreover, they have the ability to integrate seamlessly with the other essential element of the enterprise service equation – customer experience tools. In doing so, they can ensure all stakeholders, from agents through to the back office, have the ability to collaborate and positively drive business outcomes.

This is always – on IT as it was meant to be – pre-approved service requests, 24-7 support, and rapid decision-making. Today’s ITSM suites boost productivity and innovation on both sides of the service desk and allow collaboration on the channel of choice.

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