Zendesk embraces AI

How Zendesk embraced AI without losing its Zen

Editor’s Note: The following article is based on a recent episode of OpenView’s BUILD podcast. You can listen to the full episode featuring Zendesk’s Astha Malik here.

In popular culture, “Zen” refers to the ability to remain self-contained and cool despite outward circumstances.

This attribute is a key component of the Zendesk brand. Launched in 2007 in a Copenhagen loft, the company recently hit a $500 million run rate. Their ability to live up to its promise of bringing Zen to customer service interactions has prompted that growth.

For Zendesk, the risk with any new product is that it will jeopardize that reputation.

Astha Malik, VP of Platform and Product Marketing, led the company’s most recent product launch and took the brunt of that risk. Malik joined Zendesk in February 2017. Eight months later, she was behind the launch ofTalk Enterprise, Chat Enterprise and Answer Bot. All three expanded Zendesk’s enterprise and machine learning capabilities.

Malik’s particular challenge with those launches was to navigate expectations around AI-based solutions. While AI is buzzy, it’s also viewed with skepticism.

“When it comes to AI, we actually have this internal joke that everybody is talking about it and nobody is doing it. It’s kind of like how teens talk about sex,” she said.

Malik addressed the perception about AI’s utility by involving the product marketing team early in the creation process. That ensured that the products were fully baked and met consumers’ needs rather than being a tech-for-tech’s-sake product.

Beginning with the customer

Zendesk pairs the product teams with the product marketing teams. The two work in tandem to develop the product. Both work backwards from the customer’s needs.

“I’ve always believed that if you organize the development based on how customers purchase from you and how they think about solving their problems in their company, everything just becomes easier from there on,” Malik said.

Generally, most ideas come from the product team, but the product marketing team has a sense of how those products will go over with customers.

The customer in this case was Zendesk’s core target – the support buyer. Such buyers were open to the new technology, but weren’t sure how much they’d need or use it. That insight, uncovered in discussions with buyers, prompted Zendesk to go off script and offer a usage-based model for Answer Bot. (Zendesk typically charges on a monthly per-agent basis.)

“We came up with a unique way that looks completely different from every other product that we sell today,” Malik said of Answer Bot’s pricing. “But I think that is exactly the reason why that it has gotten so much success in the short amount of time that it’s been out there.”

Building a business case

In a successful launch, the product must generate as much enthusiasm in-house as it does with consumers. For Zendesk, getting marketing and sales on board started with building a business case for the introductions. That meant mapping out the total addressable market for the product, identifying lookalike audiences and looking at the competition. Those insights prompted what Malik called “well-grounded goals and KPIs.” Malik said despite some initial resistance, the team became motivated to pursue those goals, especially when they could see their individual impact.

When everyone aligned on the mission, the next step was to activate Zendesk’s marketing and PR machine. Another key component was sales; Malik wanted to ensure that the sales team was delivering the same message as marketing teams. “You want to make sure that the messages are consistent,” she said.

Art, science and luck

Malik sees marketing as part art and part science. Even with AI assistance, there’s a lot of human thinking – and human error – involved in the process. Though anyone will tell you that “listening to the customer” is integral to any launch’s success, Malik is careful not to claim that she has a roadmap for any successful launch.

“I’ll be honest. Sometimes you do your best work, you do the best research, you do all the things that look good on paper because customers are telling you one thing, but then when you launch something, it doesn’t quite work out. Thankfully in this case it actually did,” recalled Malik.

In other words, it was a very Zen launch.


Devon McDonald is a Partner at OpenView, where she sits on the firm’s investment committee and oversees OpenView’s Growth team, a group of Research, Sales and Marketing Strategists responsible for helping its portfolio companies acquire more customers and scale at an accelerated rate.
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