"Human + Machine." That's the theme of Forrester's CXSF 2017 event. It's a theme that will undoubtedly persist for decades to come.
A big statement, I know.
Artificial intelligence is and will continue to dominate discussions around technology. Studies suggest that 30-40% of all companies will, by 2020, employ AI to augment at least some of their primary sales processes. That number will likely reach 80-90% a few years later.
Still, despite incredible advances in this regard, reports from Forrester and others highlight a particularly troubling point: customer experience quality has declined between 2016 and 2017.
How could this be? One reason posited is that our rush into exciting new technology has perhaps caused us to forget about who all of this technology should actually be serving.
Another reason points to how AI and other marketing-related technologies are still in their nascent stage—though they may be making life easier for marketers, they simply aren’t yet able to dramatically improve the customer experience.
With that as an introduction, here are a few initial thoughts about Day 1, followed by a few insights from each of the three parts.
The venue: The San Francisco Marriott Marquis is the perfect venue for the audience size.
There are salons of various sizes, but it still feels like an intimate experience even in the largest of them. And attendees are making great use of the wide spaces and many tables outside of the salons.
The vendors are set up directly behind the furthest seats from the main stage, and they seemed to receive some good traffic because attendees had to walk through their area before sitting down.
The app: It’s from DoubleDutch, so it’s awesome.
I was thrilled to see that the official Forrester event app was from DoubleDutch. I’ve attended many conferences with apps run on other platforms—including proprietary platforms—and DoubleDutch is hands down the best of them all.
Attendees seem to use it more than any other platform, and the results can be felt: there are less people stumbling in late to sessions and there are more conversations happening in the app among attendees rather than dispersed across a variety of social media platforms. Additionally, Forrester used the Q&A feature so attendees could ask questions (and upvote which they like the most) during interviews and fireside chats.
The content: It’s Forrester, so it’s quality.
Which is to say when you check in at registration they hand you a copy of The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath—a book I’ve been excited to read for months—rather than a bag full of junk that attendees will throw away later that day.
On a related note, Forrester’s podcast, What It Means, has become one of my two favorites, alongside Krista Tippett’s On Being. What It Means covers everything from ethical issues in AI to autonomous vehicles and building customer-centric cultures.
The format: Content was batched into 90-minute sections, referred to as “parts.”
At most conferences, talks range from 15 to 45 minutes and are happening all over the place. If you get a great seat at one you’re forced to leave early and hope there’s room to stand at the back of another. And at larger venues, just trying to navigate where you need to be can be a pain.
I personally prefer this highly-focused batched model, but can see why others would prefer the ability to jump in and out of talks.
Now to the show:
Forrester CXSF Part 1: The New Rules
It’s fitting that the founder and CEO of Forrester, George Colony, took the stage first and delivered this powerful message:
“All of you in this room are slowly and inexorably going out of business.”
But he wasn’t wielding the type of “robots are coming for your job” type of fear mongering that often exists in discussions about artificial intelligence.
Colony went on to say that the customer is becoming an empowered force in a changing economy, and that they are “behaviorally difficult to predict,” especially at scale.
Two factors, he said, will determine success in this new era:
- Customer experience
- Artificial intelligence
“CX and AI together will need to create an experience that can draw in and retain customers,” he said.
Colony then brought up a critical point: The fusion of AI and CX is not a finite resource. This is not like the traditional big oil industry in which only a few had access and continue to reap the rewards.
He encouraged attendees to break free of their ideas that Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other big players have a lock on these components.
Colony then handed it off to James McQuivey, Vice President and Principal Analyst.
McQuivey gave a passionate talk that perfectly brought the “human + machine” theme together. “No technology robs us of our humanity,” he began.
“We lose our humanity only to the degree that we choose to use technology to give it away.”
McQuivey then spoke about the importance of fusing both, how the real-time predictive analytics of a call center, for example, could predict both what the caller’s problem is and which human associate on the team is best equipped to resolve that particular problem.
McQuivey then introduced RJ Pittman, Chief Product Officer at eBay.
Pittman’s presentation was fantastic. He struck a solid balance between educating the audience about eBay’s brand evolution and offering non-branded value. While Pittman of course opened with a glimpse into how eBay is reimagining itself, he quickly dove into an honest, practical talk about the challenges of integrating AI and the types of AI.
“As your company grows, it can become harder and harder to keep your customer at the center of everything that you do,” Pittman began.
“Personalization, generally, sucks. I don’t understand why. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’m seeing little more than recommendations. There’s no longer an excuse.”
Citing Constellation Research, Pittman said the AI market will surpass $100 Billion by 2025.
Here are the caliburs of AI, as he sees it:
- Artificial Narrow Intelligence. He used eBay’s Sneakerbot as an example.
- Artificial General Intelligence. This will be like asking “I am going to a wedding in Italy in June, what should I wear?” and the AI being able to assess the many layers of this question to recommend products for you.
- Artificial Super Intelligence. University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines super intelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.”
Pittman called for the need to keep the customer at the center, but to “park AI right beside them.” And he brought up an interesting point:
“Right alongside marketing and sales and product, we now have an AI practice.”
While much talk is about AI’s integration into various departments, this statement brought to mind the need for AI teams within companies to be their own entity, to refine the AI use case and then marry it to wherever it can improve existing functions.
He ended on a poignant line that resonated with the audience:
“Don’t start with the tech, start with the experience.”
Harley Manning then took the stage, engaging the crowd with this hilarious example of where image recognition software failed...
...before discussing some interesting points about how we view AI skeptically and as though the human-to-human experience has been perfected.
He told a story about being passed back and forth between call reps that simply couldn’t help him.
“How could that have been worse with a chatbot?” he said. “It couldn’t have.”
Manning then introduced Julio Hernandez, head of the Global Customer Center of Excellence at KPMG.
Takeaways from Hernandez’s talk:
- Customers don’t care where the innovations come from, but they’re expecting you to adapt to them. What happens in one industry influences all others.
- It’s important not to forget about the immense value of the employee… without the right employees, everything we do with tech falls apart.
- Chick-fil-A kept the human at the drive-thru, but empowered them with an app to create a perfect fusion of human + machine that is both improving the customer experience and (likely) revenue.
Hernandez also spoke about the multi-dimensional customer journey:
From there he introduced and then interviewed Eric Reynolds, CMO at The Clorox Company.
- “There’s so much hyperbole today, but one thing we can say is that the customer expectation is dramatically increasing.”
- On the importance of the customer experience being a key competitive differentiator: “Consumers are largely indifferent to our products today.”
- It’s important to pair passionate people with brilliant ideas with those who can effectively pitch those ideas and shape arguments around why they’re important.
Anjali Lai, Senior Data Analyst at Forrester, then closed out Part 1:
The main takeaway: We’re holding onto many myths about AI and CX.
“Digital experiences are less emotional than physical experiences.”
“Easy (automated) experiences generate loyalty.” The customer simply wants the path to least resistance, and doesn’t necessarily care how that happens.
Lai then compared Tinder vs. League, highlighting how people believe they can develop higher quality relationships on League because of the upfront work it takes. What may seem like friction in the customer experience has actually led to customers taking it more seriously.
Forrester CXSF PART 2: The New Tools
- The experiences that we build are also for ourselves, not only our customers. It’s important to see ourselves as part of this movement so that we can ask, “will this improve my life?” If not, why do we think it will improve our customer’s lives?
- Stewart spoke to his struggle to define the Slack brand, especially as it continues to expand its capabilities and has grown into a true platform. “It’s like a little pane of glass inside the workflows of each department in the company.”
- On the end of email: Stewart still spends two hours a day in email, and believes internal emails will increasingly die off.
- On the end of the browser: Stewart can see a massive reduction in friction here, where everything from the link opening to the document being signed can happen in Slack. He spoke to how this reduction can shave seconds off of mundane tasks while also reducing cognitive overload.
McQuivey then returned to have a fireside chat with David Isbitski, Amazon’s Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo.
- Isbitski on leveraging the community: “We knew there were going to be all sorts of ideas coming from people outside of our organization.”
- Voice is incredibly exciting because we’re an oratory society, and when you connect at a conversational level it feels incredibly personal.
- Get rid of all of the terminology you throw at your customer. Why do they need to know all of this stuff? At a bank, for example, people just fundamentally want to know if they’re doing okay.
- Voice is a challenge: “forty times” is different than “four tee times” and “for tee times.” Then there is voice recognition and how the pronunciation of Munich, for example, can depend on the area and accent.
Michelle Yaiser, Principal Analyst on Forrester’s CX Index, then closed out Part 2:
- On human + machine: “You will use both, and you will integrate them. Because you have to.”
- “Humans aren’t the magic elixir.” Research shows that combined [human + machine] experiences caused customers to feel more appreciated and valued.
Two aspects critical to improving CX through data:
- Communicate clearly, everywhere. This matters whether it is AI or human. Clear communication can make customers feel up to 10x more appreciated. Recommendation: The Center for Plain Language.
- Customers that receive quick customer service feel 11x more valued.
Forrester CXSF PART 3: Innovation and Collaboration
Manning kicked it off by interviewing Nick Sugimoto, CEO of Honda Innovations.
- “The car is becoming a platform for apps.”
- Honda went from seeding capital like Y Combinator or 500 Startups to strategic, collaborative engagements to build new technologies and business models while empowering others with their resources.
- Sugimoto shared the story of Soichiro Honda, the mechanical engineering genius who essentially built a motorized bicycle after WWII because the Tokyo metro area was completely destroyed and he needed to travel 50 miles to get food. Everyone wanted to buy this, and that’s how he started Honda.
Rik Reppe of PwC then took the stage and delivered the best speech I’ve heard in years. Cliche as it sounds, his talk had me laughing at several points and at another point in tears. It was poetic, heartfelt, real. And it was so engaging that I didn’t even think to take a picture during his talk (sorry, Rik!).
- We’re applying incredible technologies in boring, barely incremental ways.
- None of the companies thriving with AI, robotics, and machine learning actually started with AI, robotics and machine learning. They started with a business problem.
- “With AI we are in the same kind of nascent state as television was when it first began. The common use case for a television was for staged radio dramas. We couldn’t see past applying our existing art to a fascinating new technology.”
- “We are setting a bar for artificial intelligence that is both too high and too low.” Too high because we are expecting perfect data input, which is fundamentally not how human decisions are made. And too low because we are applying this technology to improve call center times and other small tasks.
- Pair technologists with creatives and don’t kickoff project plans… have conversations and capture the moments that might lead to the business problem. Filter through those.
Up next was Pinterest’s first and current CTO, Vanja Josifovski.
- Unlike the platforms it’s often compared to, Pinterest isn’t to project your persona; it’s for people who like doing things in real life. For him, this is a fundamental difference that impacts how he thinks about the user experience.
- AI can take things that are hard to describe with words, such as images, and pull out values of style and taste.
- “I don’t see a big difference between AI and machine learning; it’s just an evolution of application and algorithm.”
- On Pinterest becoming profitable: “If you want to build a great company, create value for users first. Repeatedly solve their problems. Our motto is: “Pinners first. Then partners. Then Pinterest.”
- It’s getting to the point where you don’t have to understand AI in order to use it and build great stuff from it.
Karen Van Kirk, Vice President of Viewer Experience at Hulu, then closed out Part 3:
- To embed the customer experience into their customer success operations, Hulu tries to hire people who are already interested in TV viewing.
- They believe their customer success team is best when they are together (not remote) as they can more easily share ideas and stories with the product team.
- “We’re moving hard on the personalization front to get people the content, help, and information they need as quickly as possible.”
- On omnichannel: “We want the entire picture of you when you’re on the line for help – if you’ve written an app store review, for example, we want to be able to see that when we’re helping you troubleshoot.
- Going beyond metrics: Hulu takes sentiment seriously and believes in the importance of blending qualitative with quantitative.
- Question: How do you build a brand when delivering content from other brands is what you do? Answer: The Hulu brand is the interface and the experience.
That’s a wrap from Day 1 at Forrester CXSF 2017. Stay tuned for insights from Day 2.
Cameron Conaway is the Director of Content at Reflektion, an AI-driven customer engagement platform that is fueling dramatic conversion and revenues increases for the world's best brands.