IBM is embarking on a massive transformation of how it delivers technical support to customers, all hinging on one of the biggest deployments of Salesforce's SaaS Service Cloud product.
Speaking during Salesforce's Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week, Bob McDonald, vice president of support transformation, training and globalisation at IBM, said that IBM started committing a sizeable investment towards its contact centre two years ago, much of it towards a customer relationship management (CRM) software strategy built on the Salesforce platform.
The previous iteration of the IBM contact centre consisted of its 20,000 agents dealing with tickets in a fairly manual way, all underpinned by around 300 technologies and all of the nasty data silos this sort of legacy infrastructure creates.
So, as McDonald puts it, IBM knew what it wanted customer support to look like, it was just going to be difficult to get there.
"We wanted an open platform so that we could be innovative and we settled on Service Cloud because it is best of breed," he said.
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There is also the fact that IBM entered into a major partnership with Salesforce back in March and that IBM acquired Bluewolf, a Salesforce-specific consultancy, in May 2016. All of these factors meant that Service Cloud won the procurement process pretty comfortably.
Naturally Bluewolf senior consultants have been on hand to support the deployment and change management that works alongside a technology change of this magnitude.
Bluewolf is also helping IBM to eventually marry Service Cloud and Sales Cloud to give the company a "more comprehensive CRM approach", according to McDonald.
Now, instead of having to scroll through several systems, an agent can see what a customer owns with IBM, what their history with support looks like and what their current ticket status is. As McDonald puts it: "Everything follows on. Who they are, what they have installed, what knowledge sources they have already interacted with, all through a single console."
The benefit of this for IBM is it can start to retire some of those 300 backend systems - McDonald is targeting at least 100 - increase its customer satisfaction and loyalty, and make its agents more efficient.
The contract was signed with Salesforce in Q1 2017 and has since been rolled out to 3,500 support staff, centred around the DB2 database server product line. The plan is to roll the Service Cloud software out to 7,000 staff by the end of the year and all 20,000 IBM Support staff within the next 18 months, in batches of 700 people at a time.
McDonald was honest that migrating vast amounts of customer data and integrating legacy systems with Service Cloud meant they had "some issues along the way".
However, a laser focus on simplifying things in terms of what it brought over, namely just customer data and a backlog of 30 day's worth of support tickets, eased the process somewhat.
IBM is committed to running Service Cloud out of the box to avoid the sort of customisation sprawl that can create issues further down the line.
As IBM employs younger workers into its contact centre team McDonald was conscious of the user experience of any new system they put in place. "Employees don't want to look at something that looks like a green screen," he said.
IBM is also looking to integrate some of its own AI, through IBM Watson, into its contact centre, instead of leaning on Salesforce's own Einstein capability. McDonald says that the open API platform of Service Cloud allowed for this integration and he is now looking at ways "Watson and Einstein can compliment one another and fit together".
He added that his boss, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, told him: "I want support to be the showcase of Watson within IBM".
This includes deploying chatbots to automate some simple support tickets, before handing over more complex queries to human agents. IBM also wants to use Watson analytics to see which queries are the most popular and start to give this insight to the relevant people to help optimise the routing of support tickets.
IBM is also piloting a translation tool from Watson to automatically translate tickets to ease the burden on certain agents with specific language skills.
Finally, McDonald said that he was impressed by the newly announced personalised training programme from Salesforce called MyTrailhead, announced at Dreamforce this year, adding that he: "Wants this".