AITech Interview with Cristina Fonseca, Head of AI, Zendesk

Explore the interview as Cristina Fonseca talks about the potential applications of artificial intelligence in business.

Can you tell us a little about your background and what interested you in pursuing a career in the technology industry? 

Prior to joining the Zendesk family, I was the founder of Talkdesk and Cleverly, which was acquired by Zendesk in 2021. In between I also became a Venture Capital investor. 

Around 2016, Artificial Intelligence (AI) started to gain popularity in the tech industry, especially among startups. Behind the hype training and deploying AI models was a highly manual process, customised per customer which made it hard to scale. To add to that, due to the effort required to implement AI, it would only be accessible to bigger companies. 

Having an engineering background, that got me curious and I decided to study AI to understand the possibilities and limitations of the technology. Eventually, matching that to the CX industry I knew, we co-founded Cleverly which was later acquired by Zendesk.

Please tell us a little about your role as the Head of AI, Zendesk.

At Zendesk, I lead the product development of our AI-related features, which means I am responsible for not only delivering value to our customers, but also ensuring leadership and organisational development. I keep a close pulse on Zendesk’s AI capabilities, identify potential gaps in our technology and manpower to maintain an organisational design that can expand, deliver and rapidly react to market dynamics. This includes growing the machine learning (ML) team, as well as enabling other teams at Zendesk to build ML-powered products while building foundational capabilities and the right infrastructure to support them.

I believe that in the near future, no one will buy software that does not have intelligence embedded in it and it is my job to make sure we are building for that future. Additionally, one of our goals is to innovate for our customers and be their primary partner as they implement AI in their operations. This includes being on top of the latest technologies, experimenting with them and choosing the right tools to deliver impact.

How do you see AI changing the customer experience industry in the next 5-10 years?

Done right, AI can help CX teams be more consistent, better understand customers and glean more actionable insights. Insights derived through AI can also help businesses identify knowledge gaps and pinpoint problems before they snowball into large volume issues. 

Looking ahead, we anticipate that almost all customer service will be AI-first by 2025, and in the future, as AI technology continues to advance, we expect there to be many new use cases that will impact the CX industry, not just customer-facing AI such as front line customer interactions, but also on the business operations side for admins, developers and more. 

How does Zendesk utilize AI to improve customer service and support?

At Zendesk, we anticipate that almost all customer service will be AI-first by 2025, and continue to invest in AI in pursuit of making the technology available to everyone. Our goal is to make lives on either side of the conversation better – whether you are a consumer, user, citizen or agent, advocate, salesperson.

There are many different ways we help our customers improve their CX through our AI-related solutions, and much of it lies in the elimination of high volume, manual work to improve agent productivity. It can be front-facing like AI-enabled chatbots that provide 24/7 support, or backend with the intelligent triaging of customer requests and automatic routing of complex tickets that require agents with specialised knowledge. 

Many AI solutions on the market are costly and require lengthy implementation as well as a team of developers to ensure the solution is deployed properly. At Zendesk, we want to democratise access to AI and make it easy to build, train and maintain. That’s why we recently introduced Zendesk AI, an intelligence layer that makes personalised, efficient and more empathetic CX easily accessible for all companies. Leveraging years’ worth of CX-specific Zendesk data and insights, Zendesk AI can help companies instantly improve service experiences, save time, better understand their customers, and create seamless interactions without the heavy lifting. 

Additionally, our recent acquisition of Tymeshift, an AI-powered modern workforce management solution, is a step in Zendesk’s journey to a new era of Intelligent CX. This enables leaders to improve overall CX by having real-time insight into agent activity, productivity, and efficiency. 

Beyond this, we are actively exploring how we can use these LLMs in every aspect of our products to develop the best possible solutions for our customers, who can then deliver the best experiences their end customers want and deserve. 

What challenges have you faced in implementing AI at Zendesk and how have you overcome them?

I believe that across the industry, businesses have made AI hard to make, understand and use. Up until OpenAI released ChatGPT it was accepted that AI was a highly technical field that required long implementation processes and specialised skills to maintain. But AI should be easy to understand, train and use – that’s something we’re very passionate about at Zendesk, and we absolutely need to have that into account when we develop new features.

AI is a shiny, new tool but those looking to implement it must remember that it should be used to solve real problems for customers, especially now with the advent of generative AI. We also need to remind ourselves that the problems we are solving today have not changed drastically in the last few years. 

As AI becomes a foundational tool in building the future of software, companies will have to develop the AI/ML muscle and enable everyone to build ML-powered features which requires a lot of collaboration and tools. An AI strategy built upon a Large Language Model (LLM) is not a strategy. LLMs are very powerful tools, but not always the right one to use for every single use case. That’s why we need to assess that carefully as we build and launch ML-powered features.

How do you ensure that the use of AI is ethical and aligned with customer needs and expectations?

As beneficial as AI is, there are some valid concerns. At Zendesk, we’re committed to providing businesses with the most secure, trusted products and solutions possible. We have outlined a set of design principles that sets a clear foundation for our use of generative AI for CX across all components, from design to deployment. Some examples of how we do this include ensuring that training data is anonymised, restricting the use of live chat data, respecting data locality, providing opt-outs for customers, and reducing the risk of bias by having a diverse set of developers working on projects. 

Can you share an example of a successful AI implementation at Zendesk that has improved customer experience?

We’ve worked closely with many of our customers to implement AI-powered CX tools that are flexible, adaptable and customisable to their ever-changing business needs. One such customer is a global video game developer that leverages our AI tools to quickly diagnose and adapt to dramatic growth. Doing so enabled them to swiftly automate and improve their front-line self-service strategy, resulting in $1.3million in cost savings. 

What advice do you have for companies looking to incorporate AI into their customer experience strategy?

At Zendesk, we believe that AI will drive each and every customer touchpoint in the next five years. Even with the significant progress ChatGPT has made in making AI accessible, we are still in the early stages and must remain grounded in the fact that LLMs today still have some limitations that may actually detract from the customer experience. When companies use AI strategically to improve CX, it can be a powerful tool for managing costs as well as maintaining a customer connection. Having said that, there is no replacement for human touch. AI’s core function is to better support teams by managing simpler tasks, allowing humans to take on more complex tasks. 

While it’s important to move with speed, companies seeking to deploy AI as part of their CX strategy should be thoughtful in the way it’s implemented. 

How do you keep up with the latest developments and trends in AI?

Keeping up with everything that’s going on in AI is a hard task!

I read the news, pay attention to what other companies are launching (broadly, not only in the CX industry), meet with startups that are innovating in the space, talk to customers and also industry peers. Being curious, agile and open-minded plays a very important role since things are changing quickly.

Also, this is a team sport so I have an amazing team that is also on top of things, and especially on the research side where we have allocated time and capacity to keep up to date with the latest technology advancements. 

What do you think the future holds for AI in the customer experience industry?

ChatGPT’s popularity has brought large language models (LLMs) mainstream and made them readily accessible to everyone. With its ability to analyse massive amounts of data efficiently and get smarter over time, ChatGPT has accelerated the development and adoption of AI. Predictive AI-powered forecasting is also the future of CX, whereby customers’ data is analyzed to forecast ticket volumes and subject matter, so businesses can reliably forecast future staffing needs with real-time insights to reduce operational costs. The more accessible, reliable and supportive AI can be, the quicker businesses will understand its tangible value and be ready to implement it. Fortunately, we are already seeing a high interest and uptake amongst customers. According to our CX Trends report, over two thirds (68%) of APAC leaders say expanding the use of AI/bots across the customer experience is an important priority over the next 12 months and a similar proportion (64%) of leaders say they will increase their AI/bots budget in relation to CX. These numbers speak for themselves.

Cristina Fonseca

Head of AI, Zendesk

Cristina Fonseca is head of AI at Zendesk. In this role, she is in charge of Zendesk’s AI and machine learning solutions while leading several teams. Cristina joined the company when Cleverly was acquired by Zendesk in 2021. Previously, Cristina co-founded Talkdesk, the first cloud-native platform that allows users to create their own call center within minutes, and raised $500M from top global investors. She is also co-founder and Venture Partner of Indico Capital Partners, the leading venture capital tech and sustainability focused firm, based in Portugal.

Appointed as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2021, she holds a degree in Computer Engineering and Telecommunications from Instituto Superior Técnico (Lisbon). Cristina is a chairperson of Galp’s Sustainability Committee and also a member of the General Council of the University of Lisbon.

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