You Call That Artificial Intelligence?

October 25, 2018

While attending a recent Salesforce.com Basecamp for Customer Service Pros conference here, I was particularly taken by a keynoter’s observations on our collective progress toward incorporating AI into business software like CRM.

Later in the conference, while viewing some of the product demonstrations, wherever the word “AI” appeared onscreen, I or someone would poke their hand up to inquire and we were almost uniformly answered with some variant of “it’s coming”.

For all the hype around AI, the nearest we have come is in programming our systems to model best practice, then prompt users in performing patterned workflows that hew to that programmed best practice.  Call it computer-assisted pattern recognition.

This is not AI, but it’s a start. Using DARPA’s definitions of the Three Waves of AI, it appears many of us are still broadly in the early “First Wave of AI”, in which human-composed (hand-cobbled) workflow rules guide software users and customers through choice architectures with prescribed, rule-based workflow steps. We can perceive patterns, then use reasoned judgment to either follow the pattern or justify exceptions. If exceptions to policy or rules are frequent, then the policy is adjusted to reflect the pattern of practice.  Policy and practice are close partners in the perpetual dance of future alignment.

AI Wave Number One: Handcrafted Knowledge

Calling it AI is, in my unvarnished humble opinion, a bit flamboyant. In truth, our “Artificial Intelligence” is stuck in the previous century, at DARPA’s “Wave Number One”, where a PC could recognize our basic input patterns (if x occurs, y is likely to follow), and reflect those patterns in tools like spellcheckers, templates and workflow systems, tuned over time by user experience. Recent advances in cheap processing, distributed data and voracious coding have improved matters to where a user can create workflows in a codeless, drag and drop fashion. Twining together all those 5,000-plus pieces of commercial marketing software is everyone’s grail quest – and there’s even an app store for it. Hello, Zapier.

Today, our systems can support our ability to perceive and derive value by improving our reasoning and judgment, spotting trends and drawing inferences based on historical or near-real-time data flows.  This is where the largest untapped opportunity looms for organizations to achieve savings through efficiency by tuning their tech stack in sales, marketing and service.  People and time do not scale, whereas a system can instantly scale to distribute workflows and data interpretation to any number of customer facing people, and even extend that capability into the hands of customers themselves.

Is your business technology supporting you in this way? If not, consider yourself a laggart in danger of losing big. Put simply, in life there are 3 types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.

Today, thanks to cheap computing, massive data “blooms”, and distributed networks, we can now amass, consume, configure and present interactive display reports on top of large datasets to help us understand it in self-driven configurable dashboards. Get some! We can help.

AI Wave Number Two: Statistical Learning

What’s coming? Looking again at the DARPA definitions of the 3 Stages of AI, we can next expect to see engineers creating statistical models for specific problems and training systems to solve those problems, once again using big data as the source material for the training exercise. Even this stage, however, has its limits. For example: Showing a computer thousands of cat photos can eventually train it to recognize a cat with high accuracy – not flawlessly, but reasonably well. Consider, however, that a 3-year-old child can recognize a cat flawlessly after only meeting the family cat and the neighbor’s cat, and looking at a sketch drawing of a cat, and will point to the cat cartoon and say it’s a cat. Thanks, brain!

Computers, meanwhile, face challenges in recognizing a handwritten number 8. The myriad of writing styles, speeds and implements confounds the problem.  This diversity of inputs and human approaches is the biggest challenge to UI developers.  Confusion over the validity of our databases is often caused by uncertainty about what the user intended to do or say when they input their data.

A slight 1% inaccuracy of input today can result in an outsized unreliable output. This is also the stuff of internet memes and fake news. Anybody can publish a single tweet to a vast global audience. The pace at which all that published-rubbish (“pubbish”?) speeds past us confounds our efforts to filter and validate truth. Our resulting, collective judgment errors can result in an outsize misinterpretation of fringe views as central guidance. Absent a moral compass, a distorted maniacal map could lead many, unaware, off an ethical cliff. Upshot: to trust your data, you need to regularly audit.  Shameless plug: Fan Foundry excels at this.

Wave Number Two will take some time to get right. I’d give it a decade or two to reach prime time.

The Third Wave of AI: Contextual Adaptation

In this future (certainly not the present), systems can reliably explain real life phenomena. They can perceive, learn, reason and even abstract. They can predict success or failure. They can understand why or why not. They can know why you made a mistake, when to trust your judgment, and can guide you on that optimal path of interpretation and judgment.

The big challenge here is for us to surrender our trust to a cyborg partner. For now, though, it’s a bit out of reach. To quote the articulate supercomputer HAL from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey: “Sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that.”  Codicil: “Not yet, anyway”.

What’s your Sales, Marketing and Service challenge?  Does it involve people, processes and technology?  Perhaps we can help.

Recommended reading

DARPA Perspective on Artificial Intelligence

Article: The Sales and Marketing Alignment Conversation

 

 


Are You the Toast of Your Customer, or just Toast?

October 28, 2013
on Sales & Marketing tech as core competencies

Spoiling customers rotten is the new black, the new mantra, the new grail quest.  Worst case: it seems out of reach, and you are toast.

champagne or toastWe see it everywhere.  We have come to expect each next interaction with our product and service providers to feel like progress, not another blind date.  Is that too much to ask?  It certainly has become a new watershed basis for satisfaction.  Ask any Amazon customer.  Examine your banking relationships.

As William Gibson famously said: “The future has arrived – it’s just not very evenly distributed”.  It seems that every day we are yanked between extremes. At one moment we are marveling at modern convenience, and the next moment we are musing about its glitches and unmet expectations, as if somehow entitled.  Maybe we are.  Maybe your customers think so.

Measuring up

Some organizations are equipped, focused and successful at doting on their audiences and customers.  Are you?  If so, great.  If not, why not; what’s keeping you from getting started?  The answer: a lot less than you think.  Of course you could cite the usual hindrances like people, time and resources, and yet today competing at selling, serving and pleasing customers is not an option or a choice, or even a competitive advantage. It’s a baseline expectation.  Table stakes.

Right now, as you read this, your business is either delivering value before, during and after each transaction, or you risk being replaced by a phone app (yep, there’s an app for that).  You can prevent ending up in that scrap heap by making up your mind to compete – affordably, and at scale. The tools are becoming easier to use and more sophisticated.  You just have to be motivated to change.

Our inflated expectations

Before even getting into a discussion on Sales CRM or Marketing Automation software, let’s look at one simple example of how tech tools have changed our behavior: the lowly appointment calendar.

Today, you can easily set your calendar software to remind you ahead of each appointment and keep you punctual, reliable and prepared. In business, we use it to update meeting schedules, locations and agendas, synchronize participants, and keep progress on track. Without it, we risk gridlock, confusion, wasted time and missed opportunity.

Getting and staying in calendar-sync, in some organizations, is a baseline expectation – not a choice. Indeed, for some, being on time is a core part of the business model. From Fedex to Comcast to Delta, we can now know precisely when the next step will occur, often within a time window measured in mere minutes.

Likewise, you can program your Sales CRM software and your Marketing ARM software to notify you when a potential buyer or customer is visiting your website, asking a question, mentioning your brand name in an online forum, or complaining.  If you’re not listening and participating, that’s the same as ignoring.  Is that the reputation you want?  Wouldn’t you rather be as aware as everyone else when your customers praise or complain?  Are you making it difficult for people to buy? Are you even listening? Isn’t ignoring a customer complaint posted on a social media channel the same as ignoring their emails and phone calls?

Expand your capacity

This seemingly new competitive edge – marketing and sales automation – has actually been going on for years in leading organizations. If you are not using CRM or ARM solutions, admit it:  you are limited by human scale and fallibility. You have limited visibility, difficulty forecasting, an over-reliance on intuition and guesswork, and are probably making costly but avoidable mistakes.  What’s worse, you don’t even know the extent of your self-inflicted damage because you aren’t equipped to pay attention.

Conversations today are rife with examples of fumbled relationships and millions of dollars in lost deals that could have been prevented, if only the right hand had known what the left hand was doing. Has this ever happened to you? If you answered no, how can you be sure? Do I smell burning toast?

Quick quiz: assess your readiness for CRM

Imagine what’s possible

With a tuned, integrated “software layer” embedded in your business, you can:

  • create self-guided online experiences, complete with landing pages, call/response email exchanges, up-sell and cross-sell processes, social media engagement incentives, and other valuable interactions;
  • detect the faint signals of purchase intent or dissatisfaction, and intervene to guide decisions;
  • enable your customers, prospects and suspects to research solutions, evaluate yours, and even whimsically waltz among various decision stages and feedback loops toward eventually deciding whether to inquire, pay, receive and use your offerings, all with minimal human intervention; of course you can program it to notify you at key junctures, so you can intervene and assist.

You might think this online commerce model only makes sense in big businesses, large catalogs, complex workflows or servicing a previous purchase, but not in yours.  On the contrary; just about any organization can benefit from marketing and sales automation to help you scale up, optimize your business, and use the reports to discover ways to simplify, improve service, and get better results.

Put simply: there are 7 billion humans, and not enough time or resources to do each task by hand.  It’s time to automate.  Put differently:  we are now all technology companies.  From Amazon and Nordstrom to state and federal government services, we expect technology to facilitate everything from transactions to relationships.  Right?

So, how big is it?

Virtually all the major business analyst firms, from Gleanster and Aberdeen Group to Gartner Group and Altimeter Group, report that top performing organizations are performing better partly as a result of adopting marketing and sales process automation solutions.  Personally, having spent over 15 years programming these customer decision journeys for companies large and small, using a broad palette of tools (see right sidebar),  I have seen the transformation firsthand: clients scaling up to cost effectively satisfy more people, to more cost-effectively and efficiently manage buyer, customer and user interactions, discover customer and buyer behaviors that indicate satisfaction or need, and more.

CRM and ARM software can make you more productive and competitive, freeing you to focus on the creative, intuitive and intellectual  aspects of improving your business, and support you in making better-informed decisions.  Marketing, sales and service organizations are doubling down on tech; indeed, analysts and industry forecasters expect Marketing and Sales organizations’ tech budget growth to outpace Information Technology departments in coming years.  This isn’t necessarily a replacement of the IT organization; rather, IT can be your closest ally when evaluating tech options.  Knowing one another’s agendas can help you transition more effectively to a premises / cloud blend of agile business resources.

The choices

So, if you’re feeling bogged down in drudgery, overwhelmed by the escalating demands and expectations of your customers, outpaced by better performing competitors, working harder yet not gaining ground, or possibly even mystified about flattening or declining business, please know that it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can enhance your chances of growth and success by having the right systems in place.  Consider investing in Marketing ARM and sales CRM tools.  Or not.  The choice is yours.  There’s that burned toast smell again.

Take this quick quiz to size up your growth opportunity.

As always, I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.


Prevent a Marketing Automation Shipwreck

August 27, 2013

Fifteen years and 40 client projects later, we have seen some Marketing Automation (MA) and sales CRM implementations deliver significant revenue improvement for some clients, while others have struggled to achieve break-even.  Some clients have become top performers, while others are challenged to adapt.  What made the difference?

The answers can be sorted out three ways:  expectation, preparation, and perspiration.  Here we focus on the first issue:  Expectation.

shipwreck

The Challenge of Change

Marketers usually enter a Marketing Automation (MA) implementation expecting to improve multi-channel communications, streamline email marketing, analyze response, centralize data, prioritize leads and meaningfully engage buyers throughout the buy cycle.

All this is possible, and more – assuming you expect deeper changes to business processes, which is where the greatest improvement opportunity exists.  Hint: If you don’t have processes in place, but expect your new Marketing Automation solution to solve that, it’s not a good fit.  Technology probably won’t help, simply because you cannot automate a vacuum.  In that case, you might instead consider a “readiness” project involving an audit of current information flows and workflows, along with recommendations for adapting to keep pace with customer needs and competitors. We can help there.  Try taking this self-assessment, for starters.

Perils of Not Changing

If you have rather well instituted processes but you don’t plan to examine process change opportunities during your MA implementation, preferring instead to have your new system mirror existing practice exactly “as is”, perhaps expecting that this path-of-least-resistance approach will ease implementation or make it more palatable to users, you may expect to take longer to see a return on your investment – and you may even have difficulty measuring it.  For example: using MA to do “batch and blast” email doesn’t leverage the technology, and you will likely miss out on the benefits of data analytics and audience segmentation available with most MA solutions and which could improve your audience response rates, shorten sales cycle time, and accelerate ROI.  Our top performing clients generally see this new “software layer” as a source of innovation and continuous, positive change.

deckhands

Downstream Effects

Marketers need to have reasonable expectations regarding the nature of workflow and how it could likely change.  Marketing Automation doesn’t always reduce the burden, and could actually increase it.  For example, the new software can be difficult to learn.  It often demands new content, or at least changes to existing content. It makes good/bad results more visible.  It often requires new skills, new ways of thinking and, consequently, changes to workflow. It requires flexibility and adaptability to make refinements as new discoveries occur.  It is, in other words, disruptive in many positive ways – but only if you the resilience to maintain a positive focus and the mindset to adapt.  This points to a need to communicate early and often to your organization and audiences about your marketing automation implementation, to avoid surprises and disruptions downstream. In short, it’s relatively easy to change systems, but not so easy to change people.

Three big wins

Some of the greatest improvement opportunities in MA and, not too coincidentally, the three areas where the learning curve is most intense, are the areas of lead management, response triggers and workflow.   All three involve close collaboration among many internal stakeholders, starting with marketing and sales, but often expanding to the service and product teams, and to your executive team who consume the reports based on the complex information flows within your MA technology.  Expect, therefore, that your internal processes will be laid bare and examined closely by multiple stakeholders.  You all stand to gain from this new openness.  This is another great reason to widely communicate about your MA implementation plans, with an eye to extending its benefits to all your stakeholders.

You should expect to assume the role of chief communicator on behalf of all parties, which means more work for you, but the results can be well worth it.

Customers Weigh In

Customers and buyers, meanwhile, have new, more sophisticated expectations.  Just a scant decade ago, Sales and Marketing were the main information gateway for buyers.  Today, by contrast, a buyer can be substantially finished researching a purchase before you even become aware of their interest.  What are you doing to help nurture those potential buyers and help them buy?  How effective are you at competitively positioning your products and pricing?  Marketing automation solutions cannot fix a problem concerning product, price, competitive position, or flat-out bad marketing.  Be honest with yourself about other shortcomings, and consider fixing them first.

Seek Counsel

Finally, it would be prudent to discuss your plans with someone experienced in marketing and sales technologies including SFA, CRM, marketing automation, email marketing, and mapping  their related business process flows.  You could gain perspective on the challenges and opportunities a marketing automation solution can offer.

How does your experience compare?  Is your marketing automation delivering its expected results?   We  welcome your comments, ideas, tips stories.

If you have questions, feel free to contact us.


Data. Knowledge. Power. Yours? Mine? Ours!

June 27, 2013

online surpriseThanks to a rich online experience, buyers indeed have greater purchase influence these days, but where does the true power reside?  It’s shared, really.

Marketers have made much of this “empowered customer” phenomenon.  Online, you can research and get close to a buying decision – right down to vendor, product, price and feature selection – before the seller even becomes aware of your existence.

Salesreps, just a scant decade ago, guided purchases with probing inquiries about interest, budget and other decision factors.  About 2/3 of buying and selling decisions today are salesrep-facilitated, but a full 1/3 of buying and selling is of the buyer-driven, “salesrep-lite” variety.  We can expect to see considerable rebalancing from time to time, thanks to (a) recent advances in mobile digital profiling ; (b) a coming wave of marketing technology mergers, acquisitions and partnerships, and (c) a currently proposed standard for profile data interchange currently before the Worldwide Web Consortium – the W3C.

Profiling – It Really Is All About You

dog sufing webToday on the internet, so the updated joke goes, if you’re a dog everyone knows it – as well as your breed, age, gender and preferred kibble brand. Today, your online behavior – actions such as clicking “Like” buttons on Facebook pages you visit, for instance – helps marketers (interpretive algorithms, really) make inferences about your identity including gender, age, political and social tendencies, then use that info to tailor your online experience so you see ads and content that cater to your digitally harvested “buyer persona”.  That preferences profile of you is continually enriched and refreshed based on your online and mobile behavior patterns.

Stated differently, “free” isn’t really “free”. It never really was. When you surf the web, you reveal (“lend”) bits of your identity to savvy marketers who trace your online behavior patterns to compile that rich profile of you that can be then used to tailor your online experience in such a way that your satisfaction from the online experience is improved and, of course, increases the likelihood you will buy from them.

Emerging Standards

Recently, a consortium of retail and insurance companies including Adobe, Google and BestBuy have proposed to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) a set of standards for commerce data interchange that would make it easier for us all to do business online.   Merchants, health care providers, finance firms, and consumers all stand to gain from this.

Who Goes There?

mobile surpriseAs long as you consent and your privacy is protected, all is well.  Increasingly we have come to trust certain online identity repositories curated by the likes of Google Wallet,  Amazon, LinkedIn, Twitter etc.  In the broader commerce world, however, small and midsized organizations have not built, bought or hired the depth of technical ability to make sense of all that data, let alone apply it to their business or curate it responsibly.  The above-mentioned W3C Web data acquisition standard could really democratize things.

Leveling the commerce field

Larger organizations may seem more capable, but that isn’t always the case; they typically are running legacy apps (archaic programming and hardware) whose code is tough to maintain, let alone modify to take advantage of the proposed newer standards.  Fortunately, companies like AppDirectApigee and Nexaweb Technologies –  experts at modernizing all those legacy apps for large financial, trading, shipping and consumer facing companies – are hard at work on the challenge.  (Disclosure: I own a smidgin of stock in Nexaweb).

We buyers can tell who is “with it” and who isn’t, based on whether the ads that get served to us, or our repeat visits to favorite sites,  are tailored based on our browsing behavior or our location.  For example, I recently visited a jewelry website, after which my visits to other websites, including Google Search, became peppered with jewelry, wedding and dating ads.  With the recent accelerating consolidation among solution providers in the marketing automation, sales CRM, email marketing and web analytics space, those web commerce architecture elements are becoming knit more tightly.  Expect the next few years to bring an expansion of already existing analytics, buyer profiling and content tailoring solutions, more broadly affordable to midmarket and smaller enterprises with whom you regularly do business.

Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

If you consider the ability to track user behavior narrowly through the buyer / seller lens, Consider the implications.  Will buyers’ online preference profiles tailor each netizen’s digital experience so greatly that the reinforcing effect of a profile-driven, tailored on-the-fly web experience merely helps bring relevant online information conveniently into sharper focus, to your benefit?  Or, could the online experience become so digitally mutated by profile-driven content tailoring that its “echo chamber” effect distorts your online experience in ways that prevent you from viewing alternative information to consider broader options and render well-informed decisions?  Will the rich have a different web experience than the not-so-rich, based on their profiles, harvested data, and access to speed?  In other words, how much is too much?

If you broaden your focus beyond commerce and consider the ability to track population behavior to detect and help resolve anything from traffic congestion (like, say, Waze) to disease spread, then the benefits become more clear.

Shut it down if you want to

Do you know how to “shut down” your behavioral profile and surf the Web anonymously to obtain a more random, unfiltered experience? It’s possible, you know, without a lot of geekery. Tools abound, such as Google’s InPrivate Browsing feature and other tools that let you assume a random IP address (Google that boldface phrase to see some options) when surfing.  Your mobile experience can also be made private if you know how to turn off geo-location, but you’re still registered on a network when your phone is on.

This delicate balance of individual privacy, public disclosure, information gathering and sharing between big firms, security agencies and other firms is now being played out in the world headlines.  The NSA and other entities regularly approach Google, Facebook and Microsoft, as well as telecommunications companies, to obtain customer activity  information for the purposes of national security and law enforcement.

Our Best Behavior

If we marketers hew to the goal of providing a more useful, satisfying experience to you while keeping your privacy sacrosanct, that’s all to the good.  As tools become more broadly available and powerful to enable deep customer profiling and tailored online experience, you may come to expect a more gratifying relationship with your favorite brands.  After all, consumers already have heightened expectations.  They don’t want every interaction with the same business to feel like the first date.

How do you feel about the coming boom in digital profiling and data exchange?  Comments welcome here.

Other Resources

PRISM Bad, Tracking Good – Why 99% of Online Tracking is in the Consumer’s Interest (Canddi)
Death of the Active Check-in (David Peterson, CEO, Sense Networks blog)

How our Email Marketing Beats “Best in Class”

January 30, 2013

at sign dollar sign

“I loved your email!”

“Great email, thanks! ”

 – Quotes from our audience. What do yours say? 

Higher email conversion rates are “found money”, so why should you accept mediocre results from your email marketing?  At a time when email inboxes, while still hugely relevant, are increasingly locked down by users to ward off irrelevant content, the ability to get improved email results is a complex and coveted skillset – part brand journalism, part technology, part consigliere.  Our ability to repeatedly outperform marketplace benchmarks for our clients – and our own audience – underscores our expertise at leveraging that skillset.

Crushed It Again This Year; You Can, Too

In reviewing our portfolio of client sales and marketing campaigns related to events, new products, brand building, sales expansion, environmental and business development, we repeatedly find our results to be at or above “best in class” benchmarks as reported by Eloqua, a category-leading CRM software solution provider.

The free, downloadable presentation below offers a simple cheat sheet to help you monetize your email marketing, meet or beat “Best in Class” benchmarks, and turn your organization into a Fan Foundry.

Why your open rate may seem low

Like most email marketers, you are probably haunted by the question: what about the 3/4 of our list members who did not appear to “open” our emails?  Bear in mind, the vast majority of people preview email.  This doesn’t create a “hit” in the “Opens” bucket, but they still consume the first visible screen of your email.

Your results may vary from ours also based on what you measure.  The “Best in Class” numbers pictured in the presentation above represent a combination of all email list activity across many campaigns; naturally, “raving fan” lists far outperform other general interest lists and content.  Our Fan lists generally see an open rate north of 60%.

Note, too, that this article isolates email marketing from all other digital marketing we do (mobile, websites, etc.), which we measure separately.  For a sampling of some of the CRM, email marketing, Sales and marketing automation solutions we support for our clients, see this site’s right sidebar.

Dollars and Cents, Illustrated

Using the “Email click rate” data in the table on slide #2 above, you might reasonably assume that if you are among those “best in class” companies and attaining a 5% Click rate, and your annual click-through sales are $5M, then just by being our client last year you might instead have enjoyed our benchmark-beating 7.37% click-through (average) results, thereby attaining $7.37M in revenue.  Who couldn’t use that additional $2.7M?  In fairness, there are many success factors involved and your own results may vary. Here’s how.

This is How We Do It  – Year after Year (not a fluke!)

That answer to this headline is multi-faceted, but the key factors we found (see slide #4 above) were:

  • Benefits-oriented messaging (more on this below)
  • Data / list quality
  • Thoroughly leveraging marketing technology
  • Compelling content
  • Mobile-first formatting – fully half of all email opens are on mobile devices
  • Simple, “3-clicks to convert” navigation
  • Continuous refinement in all of the above areas

Benefits-oriented Messaging

Put simply, you give get.  Lead with a relevant offer, and follow up by exceeding expectations.  In practice, we found it even more effective to give, give, and – oh yes – give again, without expecting anything in return.  As one example, our success in producing the sales, marketing and digital media event series “North by North Shore” illustrates how treating even unknown remote prospects to a “friends and family” plan resulted in a tripling of the audience size and a corresponding lift in attendance.   To read more about that case, click here.

Obligatory Disclaimer

We report only aggregated results.  While our total activity reflects messaging in the hundreds of thousands, and the Eloqua study covers millions of messaging units, nonetheless we are encouraged by both the consistency of our year-over-year results and our painstaking methodology in capturing, measuring, reporting and verifying those results for our clients so that we can confidently report them here – and, incidentally, win some repeat business.

Learn More about the “How”

Subsequent blog posts (and some previous ones – see Related Articles below) will cover the other  “How We Did It” success factors in greater detail.   Use the “Keep in Touch” button (above, right) to get those updates.  Meanwhile, if you have a question, or would like to have us present our case to your organization, or to explore ways we might help you succeed, feel free to contact us.

Cheers,

Ed

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