AI 2019 – A View Into the Glass Bowl


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It is hard to believe, but the year 2018 is already coming to an end. It has been an exciting, yet incredibly busy year for me personally, as you might have realized by my decreased frequency of posting.

First things first!

Still, I would like to say a big thank you to you, my faithful readership, for reading and thoughtfully commenting and challenging my thinking.


A little retrospective of 2018

It has also been a very busy year for the CRM industry, turned into the CEM industry that now tries to reinvent itself as the customer experience (CX) industry.

I am very glad to accompany this industry in exciting times like these. Together with you, I was able to witness improvements through AI, conversational user interfaces and the attempt of blockchain providers to deliver a solution set that is fit for customer-facing processing. Not utterly unexpectedly the latter did not (yet?) succeed. I covered main use cases for blockchain as a technology that complements AI and as a way to fix the broken advertising industry.

We have seen the arrival of GDPR and did not see the expected high visibility lawsuits come.

We have also seen the Clash of Titans intensify – driven by the fight for data and the platform war. I have written a readable (ok, at least in my opinion, but hey, decide for yourself) 4 piece series on this clash (1, 2, 3, 4).

Strong partnerships evolved; think of the Open Data Initiative by Adobe, Microsoft, and SAP that got announced by the three CEOs during MS Ignite. Let’s see whether and when other players like Salesforce, Oracle, Zoho or Freshworks join this initiative. Doing so would be beneficial for all involved parties, especially the customers.

High stake acquisitions happened, e.g. SAP just acquiring Qualtrics or earlier this year Adobe acquiring Magento, and Salesforce acquiring Mulesoft, or less visible ones like SAP acquiring Coresystems.

Exciting solutions for customer problems got released. Look at the continuous improvements of Nimble or the newly released Zoho CRM plus.

Sometimes there even have been some solutions that still look for their problem.

And, most importantly, the CRM suite is back by consent of every important player. We took a 520-degree turn from best-of-breed to suite and back, now returning to the suite again.

Act – Measure – Act

Last year I used this column to have a look into the glass bowl and come forward with some predictions and their expected outcomes for experience, vendors and customers.

Let’s briefly revisit them. I am at least as curious as you are about how the results turn out to be.

  • AI will more and more be seen as a means, not an end.
    Big check on this one. All, and I mean all, business software vendors have concentrated on building solutions with embedded AI and machine learning capabilities. AI is an integral part of business applications now.

  • The coming years will be all about platform and data.
    Another big check. There have been big-time acquisitions by all players and equally big efforts to strengthen and extend the reach of their respective platforms. Just look at my 2018 articles

  • Chatbots will become mainstream.
    Well, check, albeit not a big one. Conversational is on the rise. But it is not yet mainstream. Part of the challenge seems to be that it is not yet really understood. Read Mitch Lieberman’s very good albeit somewhat theoretical article covering this topic.

  • AR and VR will enable new ways of interacting with data.
    No real check here. Although we have seen this in showcases like SAP Signal. These scenarios work and are cool and exciting – I have been immersed in them myself. But they haven’t really reached real life yet.

  • The need for data will lead to an intensified gold rush targeting firms that can deliver third-party data and intelligence based on it.
    Check here. SAP just spent 8 bn. USD on Qualtrics and there have been numerous smaller acquisitions this year.

  • Consolidation will start.
    Well, it plainly didn’t.

  • AI as a service is coming.
    It is, but not at the level I expected it to come.

Looking forward

I will concentrate on only three topics here.

Embedded AI for efficiency and experience

AI is not self-serving but an integral part of business applications. Be it lead and opportunity scoring, product or offer recommendations, solution suggestions, fraud detection or many more. Embedded AI helps users to focus on their important tasks while the machine takes away the more mundane ones. It also helps in operating a company on a unique set of data, a single source of truth.

AI also helps in offering customers a consistent brand experience, starting from the first contact and ending at terminating the relationship.

In brief, the use of AI makes a company more effective and more efficient.

This double promise will make business software vendors continue to invest heavily in embedded AI capabilities.

Voice is here to stay

One of the more interesting topics this year has been voice commerce. With Voices Carry, Brent Leary started a whole column on ZDNet about this topic in June 2018. German medium-sized consulting company valantic has seen significant interest in showcases and webinars about this topic and done some implementations using, a conversational platform that got created in 2015 and that was recently named a cool vendor by Gartner Group.

Apart from the positive user experience that voice bots can deliver one of the main reasons for them to become more prevalent is the increased ease of development and deployment. Platforms like Cognigy are essentially low-code platforms that allow iterative cycles that lead to fast successes.

Vendors will work on both, the ease of building and deploying voice bots as well as in improving their capabilities. Although it is a consumer scenario, for a glimpse of some of this have a look at the new Mercedes Benz User interface MBUX.

Blockchain to build trust efficiently

While I concluded in this column that blockchain is not yet there, this technology is something to keep on the radar. It has the potential of doing things in a different and more efficient way. Smart contracts are one topic here. Every department has a link to customer experience; therefore I cannot discount blockchain, even though I do not see it adding value in customer-facing processes of traditional businesses yet. Blockchain also offers the possibility of developing business models that couldn’t really been pursued before. Many of them are about putting the customer at the center and concentrating on their data needs and privacy. Let’s see how this pans out. It is too early to be sure.

The economic environment becomes a factor

Currently, business success is determined to quite an extent through offering a positive customer experience at every interaction point. Though economy seems to be pretty resilient in spite of all the current uncertainty and threats (tax wars, Brexit, China economy slowing, potentially another Euro crisis, to name but a few) businesses need to prepare themselves for improved efficiency needs and for being better able to deliver what the customer wants. This requires concentrating on two things:

  • Laying the foundation for more automation
  • Offering those user interfaces that help customers and users to best do their ‘jobs’

There will be a turndown and the time to prepare for it is while times are good.

Means now.

What does it mean for businesses?

Both can happen at two frontiers:

  1. The foundation for more automation that is needed in more bear’ish times needs to be laid now. For this, avenues to concentrate humans on tasks that require more creativity, complex problem solving, and independent thinking need to be pursued. Machines can take over the dull, dangerous, and dirty tasks, therefore helping the human workforce. This requires embedded AI throughout the suite of (business) applications that are used by the company. It also can require the use of blockchain technologies to improve processes or to reduce processing cost, especially where different parties are involved.
  2. For every task or offering the most efficient user interface needs to be offered. For some, this may be chat, for others voice, touch, or an AR overlay. Likely it will even be a combination.

Of course, not everything can, or should, be done just because it is possible. So, from a customer experience point of view, start by identifying for yourself where you would like to be. Set yourself an objective and establish metrics that support the achievements towards this objective.

Take a serious and honest self-assessment of where you are and get your customers’ and employees’ perception of what you do well and bad.

Based on this assessment, harvest the quick wins and start to execute on a prioritized portfolio of initiative that brings improvements.

Rinse and repeat. Think big, act small.

Thomas Wieberneit

Thomas helps organisations of different industries and sizes to unlock their potential through digital transformation initiatives using a Think Big - Act Small approach. He is a long standing CRM practitioner, covering sales, marketing, service, collaboration, customer engagement and -experience. Coming from the technology side Thomas has the ability to translate business needs into technology solutions that add value. In his successful leadership positions and consulting engagements he has initiated, designed and implemented transformational change and delivered mission critical systems.


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