January 12, 2017
by Chris Curran
Vala Afshar of Salesforce on the new rules for delighting—and keeping—your customers in the digital age.
You may think you’re in control of your business, but the truth is your customers are the ones who are truly in charge. And technology, from bots to AI-powered apps, is enabling them in new ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Salesforce’s chief digital evangelist, Vala Afshar, recently joined us to talk about how technology is changing the customer experience—and what that means for the companies hoping to win their loyalty.
Chris Curran: What were some of the major findings you uncovered in your recent State of the Connected Customer study?
Vala Afshar: Almost 9 out of 10 business buyers said they expect companies to understand their needs and expectations. For consumers, it was 7 out of 10. That means companies should look at machine learning and natural language processing, smart data discovery, and other technologies that allow them to automate at scale so they can leverage all the data they have and meet buyer expectations.
The majority of people said that by 2020, they believe smart connected vehicles, smart connected appliances, and smart connected technologies—including wearable technologies—will have a major or moderate impact in their daily lives. During the same time frame, more than half of consumers said they think virtual and augmented reality [VR and AR] will have a major or moderate impact in their daily lives—and 7 out of 10 business buyers expect companies to provide service via VR. Field service is a perfect example of that.
Chris Curran: Business will soon be at a tipping point where old approaches to personalization aren’t really useful anymore. Emailing a customer a generic spam-like email just doesn’t work now. Give me a smarter, more contextual answer. And if your company doesn’t have one, don’t send it. For example, the top of my Amazon home page shows the items I’m expecting, my discounts, everything I’d want to know at a glance—and that was why I went to the site in the first place. So I think companies are getting there.
What do you think is the right way to approach the privacy problem that underlies this personalization?
Vala Afshar: Customers are now hyperconnected. They have more choices and voices on a scale that is unprecedented. So trust has to be your core value. It has to be your North Star. Your guiding principle must be how you plan to use that data to add value to the consumer or stakeholder. With that comes transparency. It can’t just be a poster on a wall. You have to live it.
When I think about the best consumer apps that my family and I use, they are all powered by intelligence. You gave a perfect example with Amazon, but consider the fact that Netflix knows which episode in a series is the one that hooked me. Or how Yelp or Facebook can now recognize images with nearly 100 percent accuracy. I misspell most of the words I type into Google, but it still knows what I’m searching for.
Chris Curran: One of the greatest examples of that—and one I think people can learn from—is the Khan Academy teacher modules. These modules provide data to the instructors, telling them where students have paused the video and where they have rewound the video, implying where they might have had problems in studying the material. That data gives the instructors insights into how students are consuming the information and if they are understanding it.
Data isn’t just about buyers’ personal information, though. Consider the data generated by the world of IoT [internet of things]. In the oil and gas business, pumps and other devices have hundreds of sensors and have had them for many years. The challenge is that companies don’t trust the data. Companies don’t know what to do with the data. They haven’t organized it in a way so they can integrate the field data with the enterprise data. We take this kind of information for granted, but we forget that we are creating a more complicated environment because of it.
Vala Afshar: Both business buyers and consumers are setting the bar higher for personalization, intelligence, and immediacy. This high bar is becoming extreme in the world of mobile phones and the app economy. Most of the executives at Salesforce run their business on their phones. At some point, we will move from a mobile-first to a mobile-only ecosystem.
Chris Curran: I stopped using my work laptop about six months ago.
Vala Afshar: People think mobile is mature, but it’s completely in the infancy stage. Pew says 50 million US adults are never offline or almost never offline. The 9-to-5 window is gone. Customers expect you to be available at their time of need, all the time. If I ran a call center, it would need to be under the guidance of 24/7/365 and across every communications channel.
I can see why companies are tempted to explore bot technology for customer service. But you should be careful. We have seen bots go south, really fast. They mimic the behavior of the crowd, and that might not always be a good thing. Companies need to make sure that this level of engagement doesn’t drift away from their brand promise and core values. Customers want to be treated like humans and not a number, to have a degree of personalization. Ultimately, that means offering human interaction as an option. Over-automating and not having an ability to monitor and ensure the quality of the algorithms can be very damaging to your business.
Chris Curran: If you are the CIO or CDO and you see the Salesforce study, what do you take from it? What do you do?
Vala Afshar: Success really starts with culture, people, process, and technology. I put technology last because I think that to have a successful digital transformation strategy, you must view it as a journey and not a destination. It requires the right amount of commitment and buy-in. Set a direction and then sequence your resources. Ask, what are you doing? And, when are you doing it? Then make commitments. Understand the business outcomes. The technology is the answer, but what is the question?
Customers are in control now. But businesses want to control the conversation, and they want to somehow hold the relationship close to themselves. They don’t invest in communities. They don’t think mobile technology is good. They don’t think delivering data to the stakeholders makes sense. I think that is a major, major mistake. Intelligence will be the new currency in the digital era. Every company is a data company.
Avoid disruption by understanding the importance of investing in analytics. And as much as I would love to advise the CIO to think big but act small, make sure whatever you do will scale.