Integration approach proves a differentiator for Zoho

Suvish Viswanathan, Zoho Corporation (Image: Zoho)

A strong vision and in-house capability allows agile delivery to market, says Zoho’s Viswanathan

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22 October 2019 | 0

Vision is something that is talked about a lot these days, but can often be hard to demonstrate, let alone implement.

With the integration of a related group of its customer applications some years ago, Zoho Corporation not only demonstrated vision, but arguably led a little revolution in how themed applications can be delivered, connected, hosted and developed.

From its early beginnings offering alternatives to common productivity and customer service applications, Zoho began to attract a loyal following for well executed, cost-effective and easy to use applications, from word processing and spread sheets to an early hit in customer relationship management (CRM).

Cloud advent

Speaking to TechPro, Suvish Viswanathan, marketing head for Europe, said it was the advent of cloud and software as a service (SaaS) when consumption models changed, that allowed Zoho to start bringing together its offerings in more meaningful ways.

With the developments, its point solutions could be offered as a service, but also in an integrated manner, said Viswanathan, that changed how such things were perceived.

Before Microsoft or Google had these kinds of things, said Viswanathan, Zoho had brought together the elements of the productivity suite available as a service. Now, he said, there is G Suite and Office 365, but Zoho was something of a pioneer then. 

Now Zoho has some 45 applications available from the cloud, he said, which is a rate of about three new products a year. 

However, it was in the area of customer experience and support that integration has had a most significant impact.

As-a-service change

With SaaS offerings near ubiquitous by 2012, Viswanathan said Zoho was looking to do more. With a strong set of offerings around as-a-service applications for CRM, marketing and customer support, he said the decision was made to offer them as a tightly integrated package.

Zoho had foreseen that there were benefits to this level of integration for customers.

“We saw it coming and built our own because it was easy for us,” he said.

This is reference to the fact that Zoho, though using data centre space in certain cases, maintains its own host platform for its entire online suit, as well as developing all of its applications in house.

Unlike competitors that often flesh out their application stacks through acquisition, Viswanathan said Zoho’s exclusively in-house approach means that they can quickly and efficiently integrate their applications without running into the difficulties of disparate systems or platforms.

The result was Zoho CRM Plus, a first in the area of what is now known as a customer experience platform, and which he said was a “first of its kind, when we launched it.”

However, it was not all plane sailing, he admits.

Early traction

For the first few years, didn’t get much traction, he admits, because people did not necessarily understand it, or think it was not for them. 

“But in the last two or three years, the market is validating our strategy,” said Viswanathan.

Now many of the major players in the space offer similar suites, tightly integrated, and aimed at specific teams and departments in client organisations.

Last year, he said it was deliberately repositioned as a customer experience platform.

“And we could very confidently do that because the data flow is seamless, as opposed to acquiring a platform that has to be integrated,” he said.

The approach was not only forward looking but has been adopted across the range and has been well received by existing and new customers, he said.

Encroaching trends

No technological development takes place in a vacuum, and this integration and suite approach was happening as other macro trends unfolded. Viswanathan said all the while, disruption from the likes of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), Internet of Things (IoT) and deep learning, were being examined and studied for value.

Again, the benefits of a proprietary platform and in-house developed technologies, said Viswanathan, meant that we could develop these newer technologies by ourselves, without too much external effort. 

In 2017, Zoho launched Zia, its AI platform and business assistant. This led directly, he said, to 2018 and the ‘world’s first conversational CRM on the Zia platform’. 

“Because it’s our own platform, Zia is not just part of one application, but across them all,” said Viswanathan.

For example, he said, Zoho Writer, the online word processor, can use Zia to examine grammar and the readability quotient of a document. If using the Zoho Analytics platform, Zia can do search queries in natural language (NLP). 

He said line of business managers can now make NLP queries to turn them into citizen analysts.  “They can say something like ‘Show the monthly data for sales’ and the system can produce a report.”

“Our ability to respond to these disruptions is what we really love about it [Zoho platform],” said Viswanathan.

“What customers are seeing is a long term partner in Zoho, who is constantly evolving and developing things that help them to stay with disruption.”

Talent acquisition

Zoho is noteworthy not only for this integration approach across its applications, platforms and technologies, but also for how it acquires the talent to remain agile in development and delivery, preferring not to rely solely on the traditional feed of universities.

The Zoho co-founder and CEO, Sridhar Vembu, said Viswanathan, has always had strong views on corporate and social responsibility, and education is a large part of this. The CEO is described as a visionary who believes in grassroots development of talent, which has wider benefits for society. 

Around 12 years ago, the company set up a scheme which became Zoho University. It went to schools in areas where students may not have had the ability to attend university. After aptitude testing, those interested and capable to begin subjects such as computer science, were given intensive two-year training programmes, as well as on the job opportunities. The success rate was high, with students learning English as well as key technology skills.

“What we get is the raw talent with the right attitude and ambition. And we just channel that,” said Viswanathan.

A key part of the Zoho University initiative is that it gathers from areas outside of what are termed ‘bubble cities’, ensuring diversity and inclusion.

This raw pool of talent helps keep the company agile and innovative, he said, ready to deal with disruption through its research arm, Zoho Labs, as well as the ongoing development of its application suite.

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