Smarter Customer Relationships with AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was a big theme at Salesforce’s annual conference, Dreamforce 2016. That is pretty much expected from a company that has been the most disruptive enterprise software company for over a decade now. It is imperative for businesses to understand and bring in AI into their strategic initiatives as well.

Let’s start with defining AI. I don’t mean the technical definition but just what it means for the consumer of AI. AI means smarter interactions. This in turn leads to many benefits like operational efficiencies, increased profits, lower customer churn, reduced errors, and so much more potential value for business. In the context of Customer Relationship Management (CRM), it means an opportunity for having stronger customer relationships.

A couple of years back the AI world was abuzz with the terms like Data Science and Data Scientists. Ask someone who has been building algorithmic trading or credit risk management, and they will scoff at these buzzwords as they feel they have been doing this for years; so what is different now? There are 2 significant changes that have occurred in recent years.

  • First, the perfect storm of technologies around data storage and processing. The ability to store and process huge amounts of data at massive scale has been instrumental in being able to use AI for everything. It is now possible to collect and store data that was not economically viable earlier. Access to large amounts of trustworthy data is important for machines to learn from it. You also need cost-efficient ways of processing this data. Cloud computing and distributed computing advances have made that possible too.
  • The second change is how consumer oriented companies have weaved AI into the consumer’s life by selling them the value of AI and not the technology. Look at services offered by companies like Netflix, Amazon, Uber and Google. Fundamentally, they have smarter interactions with their consumers. A better catalog, a better recommendation, related products, location aware searches, intelligent routing are all examples of AI in play. Does the consumer care about the algorithm or technology you use in the background? No! The consumer cares about the fact that you know she is a frequent user of your service, know her preferences and help her  have a great experience with your service. That in my view has become the biggest differentiator for these consumer-oriented services.

In the enterprise space though, it has thus far been a technology centric narrative. Most companies marketing to enterprises are making AI available as a service. Don’t get me wrong. What companies like Microsoft, Google, IBM and Amazon are doing with their powerful and growing AI cloud services is amazing. That is at one end of the spectrum. Let’s call it DIY (do it yourself) AI kits. They are selling you the tools to build a castle. However, as we all recognize the castle building part is very hard. Couple this with AI’s unfulfilled promise of ‘prediction’ and the result is a lot of cynicism out there. Such cynicism is a disservice to the enterprises because they are missing out on building serious competitive advantages by leveraging AI.

Most of the AI world is obsessed with prediction. Human beings have been fascinated by predictions for ages so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we rush to that use case for AI. Since there is so much talk about prediction and AI in the general literature out there, I’ll avoid it here. The one point I will make on that topic is that these predictions are usually probabilistic and not definitive. So AI enabled systems would give you a probability of something happening rather than guaranteeing it. I’ll focus on the non-predictive elements of AI that makes it far more interesting in my view. The results and recommendations in the non-predictive buckets are more palatable to us. This builds trust in the system and improves adoption. This is why I call AI as a way for us to have smarter interactions - with our customers, employees and partners.

  • Consider an RFP response your sales pursuit team is working on. Today, every interaction is explicit amongst the team members and they are mostly manual. Each of the activities such as doing research on the customer, checking with internal teams on similar work they have done before, reviewing whether all mandatory sections of the response is filled up, checking if the pricing is approved as per the company’s guidelines, looking to see if there are assets that can be used to improve your chances of winning, is being carried out in pursuit of the big deals. Every one of those activities can be made smarter by an AI enabled system intelligently suggesting, verifying and recommending along the way.
  • AI systems can help you know your customers better. Knowing is not always about cross selling and upselling. It is about building stronger customer relationships. Your customers should feel like you know their usage patterns, their preferences, and their issues without them having to call a toll free number and waste their precious time. They already know that you have the data. The awareness that you collect all the data and don’t use it to improve their experience and service bothers them. It is a double whammy when they get a call from your marketing folks trying to upsell or cross-sell to them based on their usage data. Your customers are smart. They expect you to be smart about them as well.

In this context Salesforce is leading the way yet again in how AI needs to be enabled in the enterprise. Its focus is to weave AI into all its offerings; making Sales, Marketing, App, Communities, Wave and every offering leverage AI without burdening the customer about the technology implementation. The success of AI, just like in the consumer space, will depend on how invisible it is while adding huge value to the customer. This is Salesforce’s strategy and they have got it right! Of course, this is going to be a journey of constant improvement as they go through the next few releases of the platform and Einstein.

It would be interesting to see how Einstein evolves in two specific areas. Not everyone is doing sales, marketing and service on a pure Salesforce stack. Effective AI for stronger customer relationships needs a 360-degree view of the customer. So how Salesforce integrates and partners with non-Salesforce systems will be important. This is an opportunity for the Salesforce ISV and Consulting partners. The second area is how Salesforce can still provide a DIY option with Einstein APIs to go beyond what comes out of the box with their offerings.

It is inevitable that systems are going to become smarter, so might as well plan for it and take advantage of it in your strategy. Your customers expect it.

Anil Nair, Managing Principal, Varasi