By: Dave Fish and Brian Keehner
AI-assisted CX and business consulting are just two of the big trends driving technological innovation in customer experience improvement
This is the second in a three-part article series on where customer experience (CX) has been, where it is today and where it is going. Read the first article here.
Predicting the future is tough, so we decided to talk those who are shaping it. Dave Fish, founder of CuriosityCX and Michigan State University visiting lecturer partnered with Brian Keehner of the Michigan State master of science in marketing research program to interview more than a dozen of the sharpest technology minds from global enterprise feedback management firms to get their take on the future.
What are some of the big strategic bets the major players are making in the CX space? There was quite a bit of agreement, but also some noticeable divergence on the vision for the future. That spanned from data collection and ingestion, all the way to how to help clients take action. Here are the six key discussion points from our conversation.
1. Burying the Survey
“I like to challenge my team to figure out how we can be the survey-less survey company,” says Mike Sinoway, CEO of MaritzCX, with a big smile. Many others share Sinoway’s opinion, but this isn’t because enterprise feedback management (EFM) providers are sick of sending surveys.
“Consumers are experiencing survey fatigue,” says Brad Christian, chief customer officer of Market Force. “They are everywhere and everyone wants you to take one. We need to make [surveys a] more engaging and interactive experience.” While the death of the survey is not imminent in the minds of most, many agree that surveys as we know them must change and will.
Surveys will get shorter and more contextually relevant to their experience. Most EFM leaders think that “shorter” surveys are the way to go, and the days of multipage surveys are gone. However, Andy Fromm, CEO of SMG, issues an adroit warning about careless pruning: “While SMG also advocates for short, concise surveys, we’ve found customers don’t leave as much feedback if you don’t ask as many questions,” he says. Therefore, researchers must be careful about where they cut when shortening surveys.
One alternative to shortening surveys and losing valuable information is being road-tested by Market Force Information. Christian says the firm is experimenting with ways to shorten surveys for individual respondents while inferring responses for other aspects of the experience not directly asked about. According to Christian, the imputed feedback is generally accurate more than 90% of the time, and it is based on the information an individual’s feedback.
Terry Lawlor, executive vice president of Confirmit, shares the sentiment that researchers need to get smarter in talking with customers. “Never ask a customer the same question twice,” Lawlor says. Being efficient with questions and mindful of people’s time allows researchers to get to a finer level of granularity quickly. Once you learn from a customer, you should retain that information and build on it. Some things, like buying habits and preferences, change while others, such as gender, are more consistent.
Likewise, making the conversation more contextually relevant creates a more engaging experience and yields better data and a higher response rate. Using external data and previously collected information allows researchers to be smarter about things they ask. “We need to make it more of a conversation by building intelligence into the survey world,” says Chris Randall, chief customer officer of ResponseTek. “We need to have smarter surveys that drill down into specifics.”
While there is renewed attention on this often-ignored aspect of customer experience (CX), it has been at the forefront of Max Israel’s mind for some time. “People think [survey research] is a cold exercise in data collection … It’s not,” Israel, CEO of Customerville, says. “Surveys are part of the customer experience, not just an exercise in delivery.”
EFM leaders agree that making survey interactions more conversational should be a priority. In the future, Brian Curry, chief operating officer of NICE-Satmetrix, says, “Interactions will be more conversational like you see in SMS chat.” The future of customer feedback is focused on obtaining a more conversational and organic dialog that is in the moment with customers.
Most everyone we talked to admits that despite the industry’s best effort to bury the survey, it’s not dead and won’t be for some time. “While we are building our technology and preparing for a world where surveys don’t exist, surveys will always have a place [in voice of the customer research],” says Erich Dietz, senior vice president of InMoment.
Much in the same way TV did not completely replace radio, nor did the internet replace TV, new research methods will not obliterate the survey, but will augment it. With that said, the ways surveys are designed, constructed and deployed will change greatly.
2. Data Weaving
Alternative sources of voice of the customer and other data used to create smarter, more actionable CX ecosystems is a top priority for CX technology leaders. “Through feedback (such as surveys), the interactive space (such as contact centers), and social sphere, customers are providing a crazy amount of digital footprints [that are] forensics for their experience,” says Sid Banerjee, founder of Clarabridge. “We then use this to build a 360-degree view of the business, connecting the dots between feedback, interaction (contact center) and social. It involves a heavy amount of unstructured data. We sit on top and make sense of everything, pulling data together from multiple platforms.”
Data integration is at the forefront for technology providers in the CX space. Lawlor says these data can be organized in terms of whether they are actively solicited and whether opinions and sentiment are expressed or inferred from customers.
In Lawlor’s view, they are all legitimate and necessary ways of knowing the customer. In this taxonomy, combining solicited and expressed voice of the customer (e.g., surveys) and harvested data (e.g., social media) and placing it alongside data from which we can make inferences such as soliciting location (e.g., one-time opt in) with unsolicited data (e.g., click stream data) helps to create a 360-degree view of the customer. The EFM experts view integration of multiple data sources as key to providing better insights and the bedrock of prediction analytics.
With the daily creation of terabytes of unstructured consumer-generated data readily available from organizations such as Gnip and Datashift, the future of voice of the customer is moving toward text and other unstructured data. EFM companies have made this one of their top priorities moving forward.
Methods to organize and analyze unstructured data are enabling this transition. Advances in text analytics over the last 20 years have been staggering, going from a mild curiosity at the dawn of EFMs to something that is a central workhorse of the CX tech community. These advances, whether vertically integrated in-house solutions or third-party systems, have been refined within vertical sectors to understand CX, provide a high level of detail and allow users to quickly sort through large amounts of data to make sense of them.
3. Cybernetic CX
“Skynet is now active,” says Dietz.
“Yup, the robots are coming,” Qualtrics Head of CX Luke Williams agrees.
The role of artificial intelligence (AI) and specifically how AI will assist CX in the future was at the forefront of the conversations with these leaders, and a clear framework emerged regarding how to think about AI and how it will affect the world of CX.
As mentioned in our first article, cybernetics can be traced back to the 1800s and is simply the combination of people and machines. Cybernetic CX monitors and measures patterns and problems, then determines and applies remedies.
The tech leaders predict we will use advanced analytics and, in some cases, AI to detect patterns in data. What Lawlor calls “anomaly detection” will be used to figure out what is normal and what is different. Many of the advances in modern EFM platforms are advancing in this area today, assisting the human analyst or removing them completely from initial pattern detection triage.
But it doesn’t stop there. “‘What do I do with it?’ is a question many end users ask once they have the answer,” says Williams. From a set of patterns, AI will help derive a known set of potential root causes of problems.
This will operate much in the same way as visiting a general practitioner, but automated. When you visit your physician, they are operating from a nomological network refined over years of experience. They use this knowledge to connect known patterns to determine a probable diagnosis.
Imagine thousands of end users as the practitioners feeding the AI with conditional information. Over time, the AI will become smarter and be able to narrow a pattern down to a smaller set of known problems.
The next step will be to determine the potential remedy. Every problem has a known set of possible solutions. “AI will be helpful in getting us there,” says Williams. Sinoway agrees: “The differentiator [in the future will be] … having purpose-built recommendations.”
“Today, most strategic predictive analytics of CX data is delivered through Ph.D. statisticians and data scientists,” says Christian. “Machine learning and AI will facilitate moving that predictive insight into many of the technology platforms that will be available in the industry.”
In the future, CX-fueled AI will not only determine the remedy but will automatically apply the remedy. There is some early evidence that this is already happening in other areas. Some large firms like IBM are investing in content marketing based on individual preferences and profiles. This same technology can also be applied to potentially fix CX problems or anticipate them before they are broken. There is no limit.
Like most technology, robots will not completely replace humans, but if used correctly, they will help CX practitioners do their jobs much better. We are on the verge of cybernetic CX, but we are still some ways from automating the entire chain from problem detection to automated solution. Much like the progress in analyzing text analytics, we will get there soon.
4. Balancing Self-Service
Until the robots take over, we will continue to have a vibrant conversation on who should steer CX—clients with managed services or software as a service from technology suppliers. Some software suppliers, such as Qualtrics, Clarabridge, and Allegiance, had their roots in self-service SaaS, only to learn that some clients don’t want to handle all the complexity of an enterprise-strength CX program. Other EFMs started in managed services and are now slowly moving toward offering self-service features.
Some still feel the self-service model is not the way to go. “You don’t operate on yourself. You don’t prepare your own defense in a court of law. Why would you conduct your own survey system?,” says Christian. “We think that is a mistake.” Others, such as Israel, promote offering more self-service capabilities.
In reality, we are seeing convergence on the issue of offering self-service capabilities. Firms that are almost completely managed are moving toward more self-service capability. Those that primarily sell software as a service are now offering premium managed service options for their clients.
Randall takes a contingency point of view. “People want to do the easy stuff [themselves], when it comes to the hard stuff … they want the experts,” he says.
“You need to have the flexibility of a service model from ‘Give me the keys,’ to full implementation and manage,” says Sarah Simon, senior director of CX consulting for Confirmit.
So, the key is likely a mix of capabilities for clients—management services for those clients who want extra help and self-service for those who do not want or need them. Even in self-service scenarios, experts believe the experience needs to be easier. “We need guide solutions that help end users, so it will take us from weeks to days to set up a program,” Williams says. Those offering self-service either need to make it easier to self-serve or get consulting help; managed services need to let clients conduct operations normally done behind the scenes.
5. Engaging, Enabling and Motivating
It will take more than technology to fully realize the value of CX initiatives, but how do we do it? One bet many tech experts are making to get organizations to change is in engaging employees by communicating and empowering the front line to make a difference.
This is an area of great passion for Israel. In his view, creating exciting, engaging content that is relevant for end users is the key to getting the front line engaged. “We need to go from being postman to publisher,” he says. “We need to create reader-powered curated content through machine learning, [and] we need to move from providing just a dashboard to publishing. It’s about getting people to feel something.”
For Israel, there is a need to create more powerful stories that stir people to action and take ownership. “People are too focused on software and lose sight of the emotional connection [to the customer],” he says.
Williams agrees, welcoming “… the death of data gazing.” “It is a big mistake to get stuck in the back room … just being a ‘data whisperer’ … just hiring tacticians and methodologists rather than strategists,” he says. The role on both client and supplier sides must move beyond surveys, scales and sampling to business issues. We need business thinkers to help solve real world problems.
Organizational leaders and front-line employees demand evidence of the personal and business efficacy of investing in CX. Demonstrating a clear ROI for their CX efforts is a major concern for clients and the industry. Unfortunately, organizations’ ability to find this connectivity has been tenuous at best. For example, a study by Confirmit found that only about 1 in 5 organizations are successful in demonstrating this link, a shortcoming the experts are planning for.
“The good news is we have gotten superior at accuracy and scalability and the ability to drive ROI,” says Banerjee. Dietz and Lawlor concur that platforms need to show clients measurable impact (e.g., how it helped make or save money). This might include building ROI calculators directly into platforms to show the impact in real time and direct terms that end business users can understand.
Though leaders motivated by the evidence of CX’s impact, employees personally invested in the outcome and AI-based action fueled by integrated data are all great enablers to get us where we need to go, one major obstacle can still thwart all others.
“Culture is the single hardest thing for you to change,” says Williams. Changing the perspective from CX as a task to the embodiment of an organization appears to be a necessary condition to evolution. “Don’t do CX on the CX team,” says Christian. “Your front-line people need to embrace it. CX isn’t a program, it should be always on.”
6. Creating Change
The technologists also acknowledge they can’t go it alone with only technology to solve the CX problem. Today, many organizations struggle to use the data they have to make meaningful and sustainable change. A study conducted by Forrester in 2015 revealed that less than 25% of CX professionals found that company programs had an impact on improving the customer experience. In the words of the Bob Thompson, the editor of Customerthink, it is “time for CX to put up or shut up”.
The root cause of the lack of progress is multidimensional, but there are some critical components that have long been known to make or break CX initiatives. The first and foremost of these is top-level support. “Executive engagement is critically important in CX,” says Christian. His sentiment is shared broadly and written about often. If this condition is not met, you might as well save your money and go back to making widgets.
Without the mandate to work toward a holistic CX vision, departments and divisions will continue to work on their individual mandates and goals. This challenges coordination of collective action to improve or radically redesign the customer experience. “There is a need to break down silos, which will enable the technology to follow” says Lorraine Schumacher CX management evangelist at Clarabridge.
There is a need for demonstrably faster change. A study conducted by West Monroe Partners “Adapt or Fail: The Customer Experience Imperative,” found that 61% of CX professionals agree that being able to quickly adapt is a top strategic priority. Agile approaches are needed to quickly demonstrate CX program successes to create meaningful change by bootstrapping small successes into larger ones over time.
Experts agree that technology alone can’t achieve agile adaptability. “The [CX] industry is still in adolescence, and the big challenge we face is there are a lot of practitioners who need a lot of help,” Simon says. Most experts agree that there is a strong need for human help in making this happen. “There seems to be a divergence between those firms that want to move down a software-as-a-service-self-serve path and others being more intentional about analyzing the data and making recommendations based on those insights,” says Christian. “Given the success of both models in the marketplace today, it becomes a question of the specific needs of the brand and the level of sophistication within the business to derive and act on those insights to improve the customer experience.”
Influencing organizations to change requires people to help. For Williams, this is where traditional market research has fallen short, stopping at providing the results without cajoling organizations into action. “Traditional market research didn’t do the one thing it needed to do: [provide] value-added business consulting,” he says.
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
It is clear that there will be continued consolidation, partnering and alliances between market research firms. As the definition and scope of CX continue to broaden, more players will be brought in, adding their own respective twists and practices to the domain. While there are many bets being placed in technology, what is especially surprising is the amount of emphasis being placed on the human aspects of the enterprise.
The future is not just human or technological; it is cybernetic CX. Using machines to help humans complete the monotonous predictable tasks, while allowing humans to handle the high-order elements and knowing when to use which will be critical.
Most of all, if CX is to survive, it will need to demonstrate to companies more clearly that it’s earning its keep. Perhaps Skynet can help.
In coordination with Michigan State University, AMA continues to develop a comprehensive look at this broadened market intelligence space within which we contribute and compete. The Broad School of Business at Michigan State University is one of several U.S. universities committed to developing the next generation of marketing leadership through internship-based master of marketing research programs. As part of the Michigan State University Research Transformed Collaborative, the program’s students partner with industry experts in conducting studies to better understand this marketing research transformation topic.
Dave Fish is the CEO and founder of CuriosityCX, a consumer research and customer experience consultancy. He is an academically trained consumer psychologist with over two decades of applied research experience holding senior positions on both the client and supplier side. His primary vertical experience is in automotive, financial services, hospitality, restaurant, B-to-B and retail. He knows the business firsthand, having launched more than 50 large-scale CX programs across multiple industries. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in social psychology from Claremont Graduate University. Fish is also an adjunct professor of marketing and supply chain management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and an advising students in the master of science in marketing research program at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University.
Brian Keehner is currently pursuing a master of science degree in marketing research from Michigan State University. His areas of study include customer experience and alumni affinity as they relate to donor behavior and trends. In his current role as the assistant director of development for the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University his focus is on utilizing geographical, behavioral and financial data to research, identify and match individuals’ philanthropic interests with relevant funding opportunities. Keehner earned his B.A. in advertising from Michigan State University in 2010. Prior to coming back to MSU, Keehner worked for DePaul University’s Annual Fund. There, he discovered a passion for analytics and using data to increase donor support and retention within the university’s telefund program.
This article was first published at AMA, and is republished here with permission.