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Why Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane Obsesses Over Customer Service

June 29, 2016, 6:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Fortune

AGE: 45

FROM: Copenhagen

HELP YOURSELF: The Zendesk CEO earned his title in 2007 because co-founders Morten Primdahl and Alexander Aghassipour were busy writing code for the trio’s customer-service software startup. “We found happiness in doing something where we could each make a difference, have an impact, explore our own limits,” says Svane.

EVERYTHING ZEN: The San Francisco company’s stock was recently trading at triple its May 2014 IPO price of $9 per share. It has 75,000 paid customer accounts, including restaurant reservation service OpenTable and business collaboration app Slack.

PLEASE HOLD: Not everyone will pick up the phone to ask a question—something Svane observes in his young family. “It is a generational thing, no doubt about it. My kids are not going to use anything but the Internet.”

HUMAN TOUCH: Zendesk (ZEN) is investing heavily in “bots” that use artificial intelligence to respond to questions without troubling a human. Its startup incubator also backed Be My Eyes, a mobile app that connects visually impaired people with sighted volunteers. Says Svane: “There will always be a need for personal interaction.”

Svane spoke with Fortune about what makes for a satisfying customer service interaction, how bots and virtual reality technologies will transform conversations, and why he thinks more businesses should let their agents abandon scripts that guide what they should and should not say. Here are excerpts of that conversation.

What was the best customer experience you ever had, and why?

I think it’s one of these things where the best customer experience is always the experience that you don’t notice. It’s just frictionless, it’s just easy, no hassle whatsoever.

What made you and your co-founders think you could do things better?

When you build out customer service operations and your customer services and systems and so on, you often take a starting point in yourselves and your own needs rather than your customers’ needs. I think that’s one of the things we learned before starting Zendesk, in working in this industry, you spend a lot of time on internal processes, internal mechanisms, internal training, internal polling, internal metrics. All these things that are critically important for the business, but don’t matter at all for the customer. That was one of the things that drove us to build Zendesk. We said, ‘Let’s take all the complexity out of getting up and running.’ That will enable you to focus on the customer.

How do you empower Zendesk’s own customer service team to respond to the company’s own customers?

Empowerment is a very right way to phrase it. It’s a little bit like when you send people to war. You need to have a strategy, but you’re not supposed to tell them how they’re supposed to act on a day-to-day basis. That has to come from themselves. With your customer service people, you need to give them a framework, but then you have to empower them to do what’s best for the customer.

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One of your previous startups focused on 3D software. I’m curious: do you see a role for this technology in customer service?

Virtual reality and all these things are happening at a pace that’s truly mind-blowing for someone that has been dabbling in that, if you will. I feel pretty certain that VR, over the next five or 10 years, will completely change how we interact with other things. Today, it still requires a relatively big setup and sets, and all these things, but I’m pretty sure that if you look five, 10 years out, this will be acknowledged by everybody. It will be commoditized, it will be easy, it will be an extension of your phone, there will be no hurdle to using it. That will change how we engage with businesses, how we buy products, and how we interact with each other. It’s just a new interface for the existing world.

Many companies are trying to turn customer service encounters into marketing opportunities. What’s your view on that?

The best way to acquire new customers is to make your current customers excited and happy about your products. More and more companies are realizing that instead of spending a tremendous amount of money on trying to acquire new customers, investing that same money in making their current customers more excited, giving them a better experience, will automatically turn those customers into evangelists, into promoters. I think customer service, new customer acquisition, word of mouth and the promoter economy are very tightly integrated. To consumers, it’s just one long conversation.

What role do you see bots playing in service encounters?

We see bots as a new kind of interface for using the Internet. Instead of today, when you go to a web site and search for something, navigate, do whatever you need to do to find the information, more and more bots will help us navigate information and find goods and services that are relevant to us. So, bots are to some extent, a more conversational interface to using the Internet. We think that makes a lot of sense. More and more people are moving to messaging platforms to interact with each other, to interact with brands. …

It’s a natural thing to provide more self-service options. It’s very cool, especially as you see more and more happening with voice, you can talk to your bot and so on. They will become more ubiquitous in the kitchen, in the car, on your TV. One place where we play a role is in helping our customers package their content for bots, so that they can help their customers find relevant information. But also to define the handoff where a person has to take over.

A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Person of Interest: Brainstorm Tech Edition, Mikkel Svane/Zendesk.”