Sledgehammer (Image credit: Pixabay/stevepb)If you have ever dealt with IBM in the past you will know how complex that organisation is. Finding out who to talk to about obtaining support is sometimes a challenge. It is a situation that is recognised within IBM and there is an initiative aimed at resolving this. It is not merely about fixing the current support organisation but transforming it to meet the requirements of tomorrow.

Enterprise Times spoke to Bob McDonald, Vice President, Support Transformation, Training & Globalization at IBM who is leading the initiative. He reports into James Kavanaugh, SVP Transformation & Operations who reports directly to Ginni Rometty, CEO. We talked about how IBM is transforming itself and how Bluewolf, is helping to transform the services departments with a massive Salesforce Service Cloud implementation.

Bob McDonald, Vice President, Support Transformation, Training & Globalization at IBM (image credit Linkedin)
Bob McDonald, Vice President, Support Transformation, Training & Globalization at IBM

ET asked McDonald what the challenge was: “We looked and we said how can we really do something different because we needed to transform, our process for delivering support to our clients is very very legacy. It’s the classic tiered structure. It’s based upon hundreds of technologies that we use across the enterprise, some of those home grown

At the heart of the existing support engine is a product called Retain. It has never been commercialised but is home grown and used across the organisation. However, it is old technology, and has been around IBM for many years. Possibly even longer than McDonald himself, he half joked. It is one of the challenges that people often forget that IBM has. It is not a young company. It’s systems have grown, been replaced and grown again through several generations in its 106 year history.

Where it all began

McDonald began the journey in Austin at IBM’s design centre. He said that he: “ hired a team of design experts from Phil Gilberts organisation and asked that they only be people who are Gen X or Millenials because I wanted to design it for the future buyers and future users.

“There were no boundaries of what they could do and what they came back with was an omni-channel capability because in their generation they don’t want to talk to a human being. They want digital self-service. They want to be able to get the information they want, to go out to  service and support them in a proactive way manner as opposed to them having to come to the vendor.“

Three pillars for the new IBM service offering

McDonald presented the proposals to the board with three distinct pillars. The first, and most important was: “to drive a better client experience, make it a digital self-service and more streamlined.” He is also working with the product teams to embed the solutions support capabilities into their products. This not only makes support easier to obtain for customers but delivers additional advantages. McDonald believes this will allow IBM in time to offer a predictive and pre-emptive approach that will drive a differentiated experience.

The second pillar is linked to the first. McDonald continued: “go after the revenue line by offering a client differentiated experience. If you have better service experience and that provider provides an answer to your problem you go back and buy more. … You can make this a competitive advantage if you approach it differently.”

That revenue is incremental unplanned revenue and not from the service and support teams. McDonald acknowledges that this is not easy to measure. However, by demonstrating what they have done with BlueWolf, Salesforce Service Cloud and Watson they can measure if this leads to client engagements for IBM as a result of the demonstration.

“Third, and in most cases in organisations this is the first is to go after operational efficiencies and better savings.” McDonald believes that most organisations focus on this last pillar to the detriment of the first two.  He also wanted to showcase Watson both inside and outside the organisation. So why Salesforce?

“I needed a platform that would replace a lot of those legacy technologies and have the open architecture that we can innovate on top of and that’s why we wanted Service Cloud. We believe that the combination of Watson plus Service Cloud drives that differentiated client experience and NPS will be the guide of whether or not we’re improving.”

Rapid transformation

IBM signed on with Service Cloud on February 1st.  After three and a half months of planning with Bluewolf they were ready to start the roll out. One of the tenets of this project is to limit customisations. In fact, McDonald personally signs off any customisations. This is astonishing for an IBM organisation that has historically customised nearly everything. McDonald is trying to get Salesforce to deliver an 80/20 standard rather than the reverse using standard functionality. In fact he is aiming for 90/10. To date the configuration for individual business units and products has been accomplished with standard functionality from Service Cloud.

McDonald continued: “We are stripping away all of the processes that have been built up over time and saying let’s go back to basics of how we deliver support to our clients. That capability has allowed us at the end of June to put our first team of folks onto the platform. Since then we’re up to 3500 employees on Service Cloud and will be close to 7000 by the end of December and we’ll have 20000 in total for the broad population of IBMers who are  we’re doing service and support both remote and in the field over the next 18 months”

This will be one of the largest deployments of Service Cloud across the world. It has not been accomplished without challenges. One of those learnings was that they could not migrate too many people at a time. With over 7,000 products in IBM there are huge data migration challenges. While not all data points are transferred across it was quickly realised that they could only move a small population at a time. Up to 500 in fact.

He also acknowledged that while Salesforce and Watson are important technologies for this journey, the change management and training of the support personnel is just as important. This is where Bluewolf comes in with its expertise in Salesforce from training in technology, deployment and organisational change management. It makes for an interesting relationship. He summarised by saying: “They are a colleague, as well as a provider of service and an advisor to us.”

How AI will make a difference

The new IBM service offering will fully integrate chatbots, human interaction and AI. McDonald believes that chatbots are excellent in highly repetitive FAQ style contact centers. His vision is that the combination of a chatbot collating data, AI analysing that data and a human interpreting all of it will get the customer issue resolved faster. In involving Watson throughout the case it will additionally mean that future cases are resolved quicker. This should lessen the burden on support teams and increase customer satisfaction. It may also mean that IBM can identify generic issues with products that can feedback into the development cycle for permanent resolution. In fact this is already happening. Alternatively it can issue proactive communications to customers who might be impacted by the issue, avoiding future support calls altogether.

Watson is also being used to offer skills-based routing for service calls. It means that the customer should be connected to the right person quickly to resolve the actual problem rather than just log a call. McDonald has a Watson development team working on other enhancements, that may in time become commercial products. One of these is to enhance the search functionality of knowledge bases by using massive data sets such as the Microsoft Knowledge base. That knowledge base will never be ingested onto Service Cloud, but it has been ingested into Watson. Thus the intelligence that Watson brings to the platform is making a significant difference. He also sees AI as offering more than just chatbots. He spoke about language services and parts management as part of the wider AI offering as well.

Why are IBM doing all this?

McDonald commented: “If you’re really in the service world you should be finding a way to put yourself out of business. That’s what good support service folks should be doing because when customers buy the product they want the product to work right.”

This does not mean that IBM will shed all their support staff. McDonald sees IBM Service and Support as becoming a customer knowledge centre. They will become the trusted advisor of the client. This can affect the long term relationship with the client beneficially. So are they making a difference? McDonald believes they are, adding:

We really believe that where we are heading is going to be that competitive advantage. For those teams that have rolled out we are already seeing three to four points of gain in NPS results. When I compare our NPS scores to some of the industry scores, we are already on the upper end of the scale whether it be hardware, software or cloud solutions. If we can drive the results even further we will be best of breed in those sectors. That competitive advantage will start to be the wedge in the door and open it up to new business.”

What does this mean

So has McDonald completed the transformation yet? He said: “I will know that we have transformed when I continue to see the growth. I’ll never say that we’re going to be at the end of the transformation because that’s what got us to this point.

McDonald acknowledge that IBM had stopped evolving. Under Ginny Rometty that is no longer the case. She encourages transformational thinking that delivers benefits. McDonalds vision is rethinking the support model for the modern era. He referred to the change as taking a 20 pound sledgehammer to truly transform the IBM service model rather than an pin hammer to just modify it. It is a model that will work today, but it should also work in the future. As the future evolves though the model will also be improved. The trick for IBM is that having selected a future with Service Cloud and Watson, is there a future in which they are also out dated?

McDonald was confident that the culture has changed. Importantly the fundamental thinking is not about technology. He concluded: “We are now looking at it through the client experience lens.” That thinking is very much aligned with Salesforce and putting the customer at the heart of an organisation. Once the project is complete it will be interesting to see how far on the journey IBM has come. Equally how many organisations are looking to utilise IBM Watson, Bluewolf and Salesforce to deliver their own service transformation.


  1. The vision of the future is a reality of the here and now Excellent analysis and magnificent way of exposing it. Thanks a lot

  2. Pure rubbish. McDonald may ATTEMPT to justify his moves based upon the need for a “targeted transformation” but the reality of the matter is that they’ve simply gone for millennials, as a replacement, as an evil end to justify the means. They’ve thrown experience and excellence out the window in favor of a younger, CHEAPER labor force and there aren’t enough layers of paint in existence to cover that fact up.

    • Claude, thanks for the comment. I am not inside IBM and therefore cannot comment on the current proportion of millennials against non millennials. However if IBM are removing experienced personnel then the customer satisfaction scores are likely to be reflect that fact over time. The key thing around the transformation is that while the “new way” of working is supportive of millennial customers, traditional methods are not completely removed. It was a point I was keen to establish as I am frequently frustrated by bots and poor auto attendants. (I am definitely not a millennial).
      Any business will want to optimise its service provision and part of that equation is the reduction of staff and systems costs. If McDonald achieves that while also increasing customer satisfaction then he will have been successful. The process is far from over as noted above in the numbers though.

  3. Kind of ‘interesting’ when everytime IBM comes up with something ‘new’, they only think of using millennials for the transformation. I think it’s showing the ‘new’ direction the company is moving towards.


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