Zoho celebrates 25 years with a vision of the future

Zoho is a remarkable company led by remarkable people who see the world through compassionate eyes. Over two days in the last week of February 2021, in the virtual company of fellow industry analysts, we got to see behind the scenes of this fiercely independent vendor. Despite the massive technological changes over the last quarter-century, Zoho has kept true to its philosophy and enduring values and offers a compelling vision for the future. A future of ethical and inclusive capitalism.

Zoho’s values come to the fore during the pandemic

If ever there was a year to test its resolve, it was 2020. Zoho acted swiftly and in advance of most national lockdowns and before the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic were fully understood by governments.

Here are the highlights shared with us at the ZohoDay conference:

  • Zoho made work-from-home the norm, a month before any national lockdowns.
  • Announced to its 9,000 strong workforce, there would be no redundancies, despite not knowing the pandemic’s likely impact. As a private debt-free company ever since it started, Zoho had built up substantial reserves. The leadership decided that, if necessary, these reserves would provide their own furlough scheme.
  • Announced ESAP – the Emergency Subscription Assistance Program providing a three-month subscription waiver for small businesses.
  • Launched Remotely, a suite of 11 free productivity apps to support home-working.
  • Launched Zoho Classes, a free education tool for up to 100 students to attend an online lesson.
  • Launched Zoho BackToWork, a workplace reopening planning tool, free for one year.
  • Opened up its kitchens at its Chennai offices in India, providing 10,000 meals a day for the local community.
  • Provided free software for Covid-19 call centers in India.

The next 25 years – inclusive and ethical capitalism

Pandemic aside, Zoho’s co-founder and CEO, Sridhar Vembu offers a clear vision for the next 25 years. It is something that he has already started, and which has echoes of the three Quaker chocolate manufacturers of the 19th Century – Cadbury’s, Fry’s, and Rowntree’s. What makes these three companies stand out, was how they simultaneously provided employment, education, and homes for their workers. A form of capitalism that goes beyond the transactional value to shareholders, but is firmly rooted in the communities. They provide a lesson in inclusive ethical capitalism for modern businesses. Vembu has been doing pretty much the same thing for several years now. A case of enduring values and ethical capitalism that sustains Zoho.

When Vembu moved back to India from the US in September 2019, he chose to work from a small office in Tenkasi rather than the international HQ in Chennai. Tenkasi is a rural location 600km from Chennai, with few other than low-paid agricultural jobs but with a plentiful supply of raw young talent. Besides training students from the local area and providing higher-paid employment opportunities, Vembu opened a school to support local village children during the lockdown. Zoho now has a network of offices based in rural locations throughout India, and this provides a model for expansion in other countries.

Despite the pandemic, Zoho continues to open new offices around the world. The focus is to take the rural model pioneered in India and open new offices on a hub and spoke model, connecting rural communities to regional offices. Vembu actively encourages Zoho’s engineers to work from their local villages and collaborate with other developers using Zoho’s collaboration tools. Regional offices like the one in Querétaro, Mexico, which opened in 2019, are outside the big cities but flush with young raw talent. This low-cost regional office approach also benefits employees with a lower cost of living. This approach has also been emulated in rural communities in the US, Germany, and Japan. As a private company with no wish for external investors, Zoho continues to plow its own furrow and, like the good organic farmer, nurture its growing crop of highly motivated talent without taking shortcuts. It’s a recipe whose time has come. The pandemic has accelerated the exodus from big cities with expensive cramped accommodation to remoter areas with lower costs and as the hunger for quality of life takes root. What is emerging is the rise of distributed organizations, and Zoho has a head start.

Zoho’s platform vision reinforces the distributed nature of CX

The growing appetite for quality of life over the battery-hen industrial-age existence is no longer the pipedream it once was. Employees are also consumers and they increasingly expect a joined-up experience from their employers, just as they do when shopping online or (when allowed) in-store. Zoho has learned a lot from serving small businesses, and in a subscription economy, knows that the end-user experience is just as important as the customer’s throughout their innumerable and often chaotic journeys. Making the life of the employee easier also benefits the customer. At the heart of Zoho’s CX Platform vision are three critical attributes:

  • Vertical integration – from cloud infrastructure to applications
  • Horizontal integration – across all applications and functions so that the baton passes smoothly between departments and across the customer’s journey
  • Contextual integration – connected accurate and timely data, synthesized to provide context around the customer and supported by AI to trigger the most relevant response.

The concept of ‘seamless’ is meaningless without these three attributes. Zoho sees itself as a technology company and shares Apple’s philosophy in wanting to optimize each component or technology layer to deliver the desired customer experience. By owning and developing the complete tech-stack, Zoho can deliver value at a relatively low cost. It also means that Zoho can keep its promise to protect customer data and ensure that it is never monetized by Zoho or third-party advertising agencies.

The vertical, horizontal, and contextual integration support the unified environment that is essential for omnichannel CX. These three attributes make the end user’s and the customer’s experience appear seamless and, above all, relevant given their contextual needs. This is a platform play, not a disparate portfolio of applications. It’s what we call a customer engagement platform (see our blog The Customer Engagement Platform – part 2: Anatomy).

Customer experience cannot be supported by one application at a time. Customer journeys don’t work like that. They often traverse multiple departments and systems. As Zoho’s platform is tightly integrated, employees in one department can rapidly collaborate with others across the enterprise to provide the right response to a customer’s query. Instead of silos, departmental walls become permeable, irrespective of geography. This ability to surface the most relevant information and deliver a timely and relevant experience is essential given the distributed nature of customer experiences and the distributed enterprise.

Over and above the capabilities enabled by Zoho and its unified CX platform, ultimately, success is delivered by people. It depends on the cultural orientation of a business. Zoho’s inclusive and ethical capitalism, long-term thinking, and willingness to invest in rural communities point the way to a brighter, sustainable post-pandemic future that we could all enjoy.

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