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ServiceNow's vision for AI, customer service management

ServiceNow's John Ball discusses the Now Platform's approach to AI, customer service and field service management, and why he left Salesforce as EVP of product for Einstein.

The pandemic lockdowns around the world forced companies to quickly change the way they delivered products and services, creating unprecedented customer service challenges for newly digital businesses.

Amid that changing business landscape, John Ball left his role as Salesforce's EVP of product for Einstein AI tools in favor of an opportunity to manage ServiceNow's customer workflow business unit. As GM and SVP, Ball's efforts now center on improving customer support, including field service management and customer service management.

In this Q&A, Ball discusses technologies that improve CX, the Now Platform's AI strategy, and the convergence of customer service and field service.

Why did you leave Salesforce for ServiceNow?

John Ball: I see a huge opportunity in the market to improve customer service, largely because of the power of the platform. I've never seen technology or a company better positioned, and I've been doing this since 1999. I was actually at Salesforce, back in 2007, and started Service Cloud. I think my experience in both my own startups at Salesforce at other companies is relevant, because I've seen where the challenges have been for literally 30 years.

When you say that ServiceNow is a really well positioned company, how so?

ServiceNow's John BallJohn Ball

Ball: It goes back to the fundamental origins of the company. The platform was built to help orchestrate work in the enterprise. If you think about what's going on right now with digital transformation -- direct-to-consumer, all the big trends -- it's all about two things: improving customer experience and driving operational efficiency. In literally every industry, everyone's trying to improve their engagement with the customer, and drive operational efficiency. It's not sufficient to have just a cool, modern omnichannel experience for the customer to lob in a request if it goes into a black hole and eventually gets solved. You need to make that other side of the equation, the customer operations side, much more efficient.

Can you give us a big picture view of how the approach to AI ServiceNow is either the same or different from that of Salesforce?

Ball: I'm not responsible for AI here, obviously, but I am a very interested party. AI is very relevant for customer service. Think about what it takes to do something like a payment dispute. In really old systems, it's swivel chairs, spreadsheets, phone calls. It's all glued together by those service workers and agents, and it's not even really defined in software.

When it is defined in software, it tends to be very low-level, proprietary code to orchestrate those tasks. That sounds like a detail, but it's a really important point because when you're writing low-level, custom code to orchestrate the tasks, it's not product-driven. You can't really apply AI to it unless you write yet more custom AI code.

When you have a product-driven approach like we do at ServiceNow, you can do things like process optimization. You can then find, visually, where are the bottlenecks. You can then use AI to automate and augment those processes to make them more efficient.

Can you speak to how low-code is changing how technology vendors are approaching the marketplace?

Ball: Low-code/no-code is not just about citizen developers building little apps. It's also fundamentally about making the primary applications that we go to market with, like customer workflows, employee workflows and IT workflows, easily extended and customized.

We play in the ITSM, the customer service space, employee space -- the people with the domain knowledge are the line-of-business people. If you can give them an out-of-the-box application and customer workflows that have a bunch of predefined things like enterprise case management, major case management, knowledge base, et cetera -- all of these things -- and the configuration for their specific process can be done by mere mortals and not people writing code, it changes the game.

I think people now understand that AI is not going to replace humans.
John BallSVP and GM of the customer workflow business unit, ServiceNow

What has surprised you the most about the feedback early adopters and beta testers gave you about the AI tools in the latest Now Platform version, Quebec?

Ball: I'm so new here that maybe it's recency bias, but one of our big customers with 5,000-6,000 contact center agents is now getting roughly 30% deflection to the virtual agents, chatbots, and it's literally increasing every day. We've been talking about chatbots for years, but it's often not really deployed very well.

That's a good one. AI search is another. It has definitely improved the experience, both for end customers on service portals, as well as agents. If you can find the right information, faster, you're going to resolve the problem faster.

What AI features are users talking about with ServiceNow that look like they might make it into the platform?

Ball: The AI industry has gone through multiple waves. First, 'it was going to take over the world,' then 'it was an utter disaster.' I used to joke that what you call AI depends on when you got your degree, because it was originally data mining. Then, data mining wasn't cool enough. So, then we had to call it predictive analytics. Predictive analytics wasn't cool enough, so we called it data science. Then all of a sudden, we are now calling it AI.

[It works now mainly because] more data and more compute power allow us to apply techniques -- that were known for a long time -- to real business problems. I think people now understand that AI is not going to replace humans. It's about improving specific processes. It's about focusing the user, whoever the user is, on what matters, and getting rid of the mundane tasks. Maybe it's not sexy, but it sure does improve customer experience. And it sure does improve the agent's experience.

At what point will customer service management and field service technologies converge into one?

Ball: I think the market itself has created the two buckets, but I see them getting more and more blended and blurry. At the end of the day, it's about the customer experience. There are times where you need to send someone out into the field to install, maintain and monitor stuff.

In field service management, you have different requirements: dispatch, scheduling optimization, asset and inventory management, but it's still all about the customer experience, whether it's in the field or not. In customer service, when you're a high-volume B2C, transactional contact center, it's not the same as if you're doing complicated case management for loan origination, or for health insurance claims.

So, the way I would describe it is that there's a customer service and support market. It has segments within industries or even areas of expertise, like field service versus not. I'd also say that field service is broader than what you think of ... -- the truck rolls for the hard hats. Field service is basically mobile workers. You've got a lot more activity with mobile workers now, contractors with third parties, and you often have scheduling appointment tasks.

Amazon set the standard for customer experience prior to the pandemic. How much more entrenched is that now we are mostly through it?

Ball: Think about what the pandemic has done to us all. It has accelerated this trend that was already well on its way a couple of years ago. Digital transformation is a buzzword, I grant you, but it is actually real. Look at what companies can do when they had no choice.

When the pandemic started, millions of customer service agents around the world went home overnight. The companies that had invested in modern digital customer service, they fared OK. They had to adapt, but they did OK. The ones that hadn't were screwed -- they suffered major disruptions. Now, they have millions of agents working from home, using modern digital customer service. That is something that's going to stay for a while. The expectations have all changed, because direct-to-consumer got amplified massively, because of the pandemic. Everyone expects this now.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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