Agent Roles Change with Technology and Power: A Q&A With Executive Vice President and Service Cloud General Manager Bill Patterson

In the age of the customer, much has been made of customer service being a key—if not the key—differentiator in company success. CRM magazine Associate Editor Sam Del Rowe recently spoke with Bill Patterson, executive vice president and general manager of Service Cloud at, to discuss his views on the evolution of the customer service agent's role, how advances in technology will impact customer service operations, and how the two can come together to help companies provide exceptional customer service.

Del Rowe: How has the role of the customer service agent evolved over time?

Patterson: What's really intriguing is that for the last five years we've seen this explosion of channels and access to brands that customers now have. As consumers we just have heightened demands of what we expect to receive from service agents when we actually get them on the phone. We live in a world of instant gratification and instant answers, and so oftentimes we find the answers to our problems ourselves, whether through search engines or help sites or communities that we may be a part of. When we can't find the answer that we're looking for and are required to speak to an actual human, we have an even higher expectation of the individual that we're speaking to. We're usually talking to them for something we weren't able to find ourselves, which means that agents today need to be retrained, retooled, and really empowered to engage with customers like never before.

Del Rowe: How do you see the role of AI and automation in customer service evolving?

Patterson: Where things are going is truly about understanding the meaning behind the question that's being asked and then really using the power of machine learning and natural language processing to really understand true intent where you ultimately are answering questions that the customer may not have yet asked you. The spectrum of AI and automation today has largely focused on making it more efficient to get answers; where it's going is…answering the questions you didn't even ask.

Del Rowe: How has the position of customer service in the organization as a whole evolved over time?

Patterson: It used to be that customer service was a department in an organization through which most service functions were delivered. Smart organizations today realize that everyone in the organization…has a role in the customer service equation now. That means that whether you're actually dealing face-to-face…with a customer or you're responsible for working on the product and solving the engineering problem that the customer might be having, the customer service fabric threads throughout the organization now. At organizations that are differentiating their brands, like a Marriott for example, every employee thinks of himself as a guest service experience professional. That's truly where we ultimately see employee engagement having such a heightened role in the future of service. The more that everyone takes an active role in the service domain and service discipline, the better customer sentiment, and satisfaction raises.

Del Rowe: Can you elaborate on what Marriott is doing to excel in customer service?

Patterson: From the time you walk in the front door and check in, to the time you get to your room, to the first time you pick up your phone to make a call about, say, your wake up call, that entire experience at Marriott is unified from a guest services professional powered by Salesforce. That Salesforce continuity from every interaction creates heightened, personalized experiences for me as a Marriott rewards member: they know who I am, they know what I need, and they know how to serve me even before I ask those questions. It's really this notion of becoming more proactive than reactive, because they have great insights about who I am as a customer, what my preferences are, and based on my past performance, they can tailor their experiences to my needs and create that more personalized service. If you think about where customer service has been, it's been kind of a one size fits all in the past. The future really entails these incredible moments of personalized care that companies are now equipped to deliver because the technology has caught up. It gives them those insights in real time.

Del Rowe: What are some of the areas that Salesforce is thinking about with Service Cloud and working on currently?

Patterson: There are four innovation platforms that we think most about for modernizing customer service for all of society. The first is this notion of engagement, where customers now are really in control of the dialogue and brands are no longer just offering engagement channels. They need to understand that in an engagement-first mindset, customers choose where to do and conduct their business. No longer is it OK for a brand to say, "We're only available for these hours of our choosing." If that's really the case, then customers are going to go elsewhere.

And then bringing true equivalence across every channel is the biggest area where we are innovating like no one else in the space. It used to be OK to create…best-of-breed chat- or voice- or SMS- or social-only pieces, and then it was your job to make them all work together as an organization. At Salesforce we believe that the more unified those channels become, the more consistent your service experience can be. Engagement really is that first pillar of innovation for us. And on the counterbalancing side of engagement is this notion of economics, of how you run the service center [without breaking] your financial backing, of how you operate as a company even though customers are really in control. We're really creating tools for organizations to thrive in a world of heightened privacy, like with the General Data Protection Regulation. These tools are for the automation of the service resolution process with something we call Lightning Flow for Service. We also really drive best-in-class experiences for accessibility, so that every kind of customer can run on our platform no matter their different degrees of ability.

So, on one side is engagement, on the other side is economics, and they just balance each other out.

The themes that hold true on two other dimensions is empowerment as well as automation. Automation is really about modeling paths that you know, whereas empowerment is really about giving the tools to go away from those paths. These counterbalancing points, whether that's engagement and economics or empowerment and automation, really become the synthesis of four transformation opportunities for us at Salesforce to drive our next wake of innovation.