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How AI and data can transform the customer journey

AI and data are transforming the customer experience in the technology sector. How can organisations and employees maximise their potential?

Technology powered by artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling organisations to improve their customer experience and boost loyalty and revenues.

The role of customer data has never been more crucial. A recent expert roundtable discussed the importance of personalisation and how data drives smart decision making. It outlined why employees need the right skills and should feel empowered to take action on the insights being generated every day.

Excellent data management, powered by AI-enabled platforms, can result in improved customer experience, engagement and loyalty.

Building a stronger customer experience

Kate Mulligan-Brown, vice-president small business at accounting software company Sage, explained how the company partnered with Digital Britain to survey 5,000 SME customers. The ‘Digital Britain: How small businesses are turning the tide on tech’ report confirmed that businesses see investing in technology as fundamental to survival, resilience and growth.

“When it comes to customer experience, we must think of this as a human-to-human interaction and not business-to-business,” says Mulligan-Brown. “Technology must treat people as they expect to be treated and give them a personalised human experience. You need data to help you listen to your customers.”

AI technology and data improves personalisation, however large the organisation. “But personalisation needs to be finely tuned. It all comes back to treating people as human beings as opposed to just a number of clicks on your website,” Dun & Bradstreet’s customer success director Patrice Bendon says. “When we look at business-to-business (B2B), with the right audience data, software from companies such as Coveo can support personalised content so that individuals are reached at the right point in their buyer journey.”

Dun & Bradstreet’s ‘The Future of Data Report’ reveals that quality data will become more crucial to drive easier transactions, improve customer support and personalised offers and to identify which services would encourage customer loyalty.

When it comes to customer data, organisations can worry about not having enough or having too much. Ideally, the insight generated should enable leaders to make smarter business decisions.

But to do so, machine learning technology needs to be in place to support decision-makers. Coveo’s enterprise sales director Ben Wild says machine learning is so valuable because it enables organisations to interpret small or large amounts of data and do something useful with it. The key is to personalise an experience in a subtle and refined way rather than being too obvious.

When it comes to customer experience, we must think of this as a human-to-human interaction and not business-to-business. Technology must treat people as they expect to be treated and give them a personalised human experience. You need data to help you listen to your customers

Indeed, Brian Holliday, managing director at Siemens Digital Industries, cites a recent example in which the company attracted 3,000 business registrants to a technology conference in Manchester by serving customers with differentiated content on the invitations. This number was up from 1,000 attendees in 2019 when the event was promoted using a more generic approach.

Listening to customers and using data to improve their experience is something intelligent automation software company SS&C Blue Prism is already doing with its voice of the customer programme. Customer programmes manager Gabriella Blake says technology should enable people to easily reach the right places within any organisation to get the answers they need.

Using technology to enhance customer relationships

Customers want, and increasingly expect organisations to act intuitively and for their experiences to be seamless. This means having mechanisms in place to report whether the software being used is influencing the customer in the right way. Salesforce senior director, customer transformation Dipika Sawhney says technology should be helping the organisation to listen to the customer and make smarter decisions.

One company which has moved to being more intuitive is low-code CRM technology provider Pegasytems. “We have to be switched on before the customer arrives,” says Fari Pirouz, director customer success. “Customers are not going to upsell and cross-sell if someone has had a problem with you. They want companies to listen. Having a more intimate relationship will mean more effective customer lifecycle management.”

Pirouz added that this commitment to long-term relationships extends to having empathy with customers when economic or social events happen that affect their own lives and businesses, such as the Covid-19 global pandemic. Rather than selling to them, AI can be used in a positive way to help a customer in a relevant and real-time way.

There is still some distrust and a lack of understanding around the benefits of using AI-powered platforms to improve customer experience. One solution is to appoint champions within different functions to help spread the word.

Educating and building trust must be a priority because the organisations yet to start their AI or data transformation journey could be behind their competitors by at least three years, according to Salesforce’s regional vice-president Lucy Mills. Those companies are losing ground when it comes to personalisation at scale, making the right data-based decisions to target effectively and creating more positive customer experiences.

Organisations and businesses need to appreciate the science of data and see clearly how AI can link huge volumes of data to produce better outcomes.

Iris Software Group’s chief technology officer Alan Hartwell works across public and private sectors and says there is no room for error in this environment. A school for example, must be able to trust the technology and know it will deliver on its own customers’ experience, whether they are employees or students.

“Your customers will judge technology based on what they think your products can do for them and whether it can deliver,” says Hartwell. “They won’t trust your tech with their customers if they don’t think it will be effective.”

Focusing on trust and culture

Organisations need an internal culture where everyone, whatever their role, appreciates why it is important to use data and technology to listen to customers.

Mulligan-Brown says that there is a massive obligation for tech companies to build trust and for organisations to understand the value exchange when data is captured through product usage. “If you take the government’s Making Tax Digital initiative there may be apprehension and uncertainty among small businesses, so we need to share our knowledge and experience and keep that human touch,” she says.

Holliday adds that sometimes tangible actions are needed to build the correct culture. During internal meetings at Siemens Digital Industries one person is nominated to play the role of a customer and asked to hold up a red or green card when ideas are discussed based on whether the topic would be something they would pay for.

Your customers will judge technology based on what they think your products can do for them and whether it can deliver. They won’t trust your tech with their customers if they don’t think it will be effective

“We are all subjected to a fire hose of information today in every aspect of our lives,” says Holliday. “Being incorrectly targeted is a negative customer experience, like in-person service, which is binary – a positive or negative – never neutral.”

But a data-led and customer-first culture will only evolve if organisations understand the importance of avoiding data silos, and employees in different functions are encouraged to share the customer data they hold. If data is linked, everyone will have a holistic view of the customer.

Crafting a cohesive data strategy

But companies still need to determine whether they need an actual data strategy or not.

Experts agree that a data strategy is crucial if a company has so many internal projects that it has created a number of data silos. But having a data strategy in place is always important in order to ensure different functions are working collaboratively.

Matt Dunn, CTO, Europe at AI cybersecurity firm Darktrace, says businesses need to ask themselves why they might need a data strategy. “You must establish this before putting all your data in one central pot where it is connected and accessible to everyone in the organisation,” he says. “If it is disconnected and not monitored in real time by security technology it is like having a jigsaw with some of the pieces missing.”

Dunn warns that there are cybersecurity risks when it comes to the centralisation of data and these must be taken seriously. “If you make information more accessible to employees, it is also more accessible to the bad guys. There is a significant amount of data leakage and the more you centralise data, the more dangerous it can become,” he says.

Employees certainly need to be aware of the cyber risks, and this should be part of any process to empower them. They need the right skills as well as the confidence to make the most of an AI powered CRM platform.

Holliday says his company has adapted its bonus scheme for account managers to ensure they utilise the company’s CRM system effectively in terms of inputting data.

Bendon adds that it can be difficult to find the right talent to analyse data and apply the insights that enable smarter business decision making. Dun & Bradstreet’s research discovered that 27% of organisations are looking to improve their data literacy.

She says: “This lack of talent and knowledge is being felt elsewhere across business. New regulatory requirements are another concern for anyone that depends on insightful customer and supplier data. Half of businesses are worried about maintaining data privacy (50%), while a quarter point to data regulation and legal procedures as a source of risk (25%).”

Engaging employees around data

When a company does find the right talent it can make a massive difference to culture and results.

Hartwell says his data scientist is arguably the happiest person at Iris because of what AI software tools can do in terms of delivering for customers. When employees understand how it can improve their own job, it boosts their mood and ultimately improves staff retention.

Pirouz agrees that employees want to be involved in using new technology and data to improve customer experience and their own work. “Within every business there is a secret sauce and we need to empower people with these new tools and techniques and not leave them behind,” he says. “Employees need to be impassioned about AI and what it is possible to achieve in terms of improving customer experience and growing the business.”

Looking to the future, companies may see more automation of less meaningful tasks so employees can spend extra time on the jobs they value, which should improve customer experience. AI may become more accessible and democratised with individuals choosing their own personalisation rather than brands acting as curators.

Some more companies say they will create communities with peer networking and learning around AI and data. This will encourage collaboration and improve customer experience because there will be more data on consumer preferences, allowing them to generate actionable insights and improve customer journeys. If functions are working closer together, there will be more data on consumers’ preferences and interests.

However, AI still needs to mature further to be more proof than promise in displaying real benefits to people’s lives. Holliday cites work Siemens is successfully doing with Yorkshire Water to help predict nine out of 10 flood incidents through AI. “We have to get to the point where there are so many clear use cases that it becomes a no-brainer to switch to AI,” he says.

A minimally intrusive, efficient and easy-to-understand technology and data platform will enable employees to spend more time focusing on customers. That effort will pay off in the form of greater loyalty and stronger relationships between companies and their customers. Similarly, the speed of decision-making will be improved, as will companies’ abilities to achieve more personalised customer journeys.

Considering the government’s July pro-innovation approach to regulating AI, the landscape for data management, customer technology and AI has undeniably changed how businesses interact with and gain insights from their customers.

How businesses will use AI and data technologies in the future

Gabriella Blake, customer programmes manager, SS&C Blue Prism: “We’ve found that integrating all our systems to give us a more holistic view of our customers’ data makes a huge difference. Our survey data, for instance, integrates with Salesforce and this has helped to break down data silos. More personalisation has also improved our customer experience index because we are closer to our customers.”

Brian Holliday, managing director, Siemens Digital Industries: “There is something about recognising the customer in everything you do. This also means consistently measuring customers’ experiences to ensure they choose to come back time and again.” 

Alan Hartwell, chief technology officer, Iris Software Group: “We retain our employees because they want to progress and break new ground using technology. If you give them the ability to try new things, they will stay with you. They just need to know what tools to use.” 

Kate Mulligan-Brown, vice-president small business, Sage: “When AI helps you to spend more time with your family or makes your life easier or helps with strategic thinking at work, then that promise will be delivered and there will be more trust in the technology.”

Fari Pirouz, director customer success, Pegasystems: “AI uses a lot more processing and energy, so businesses need to be smarter and use AI in the right areas.”

Matt Dunn, CTO, Europe, Darktrace: “Society has yet to resolve the balance between end user privacy concerns and the potential benefits of centrally collated personal information.”