Don’t Let AI Distract from the Real Problem
The 2019 CRM Evolution conference was held in Washington—just about a mile from the Capitol Building, the White House, and other centers of U.S. government—so it's only fitting that there was plenty of debate at the Renaissance Hotel during the two-and-a-half-day event, which was collocated with the Smart Customer Service, SpeechTEK, and Digital Experience conferences (see our coverage starting on page 13).
Much of the debate this year revolved around artificial intelligence—one of the hottest technology innovations in CRM's decades-long history. It seemed that everyone had an opinion on the subject and wasn’t afraid to share it with anyone who would listen.
The AI conversation started with the opening keynote—during which Jarno Duursma, speaker, trendwatcher, and author, called it "the future of customer service"—and carried straight through to the closing town hall meeting. In the many presentations and panels in between, it was obvious that AI was of high interest because of its wide assortment of applications across marketing, sales, and customer service. CRM vendors have been investing heavily in AI, and those who would buy and use the technology are finally giving it serious consideration as well.
Based on the conversations in which I took part, to which I was privy, or that I overheard, the general mood about AI seemed to be one of cautious optimism. The optimism is justified, as AI has tremendous potential, not just on its own but as an embedded component of other applications, like analytics, customer segmentation, and sales enablement.
The caution is also justified, though perhaps a little premature. Throughout the show, speakers, panelists, and attendees alike all emphasized the need to control AI, to prevent it from becoming too powerful. People were all too eager to point out what the technology cannot do, where it comes up short, what its disadvantages might be, and all that humans can do better than AI.
To be sure, there is still much that AI cannot do. It lacks the empathy, warmth, and creativity that are the hallmarks of truly great customer experiences. It lacks the passion that creates die-hard advocates for companies and their brands. And it is only as good as the data and the content that is fed into it. To quote Frank Weigel, general manager of customer care intelligence at Microsoft, "If a chatbot does not have the right answer for you, it does not matter how well the speech recognition worked."
And so that is why the fears around AI are premature. While it can make some decisions for us, about us, and on our behalf, AI, in its current state, is unlikely to completely replace humans or make them obsolete. The human touch is still the most important part of any customer interaction, and machines are still incapable of duplicating that.
While AI is transformative and worthy of all of the attention it received, the closing town hall-style session at this year's conference revealed where organizations' true concerns lie. Based on the comments raised and the level of emotion in the room, it is clear that many organizations still struggle with the same issues they had 10 or 20 years ago. Some, such as data silos and a lack of integration, go back decades more. And organizations are growing frustrated with the lack of progress after all these years.
"The issues are the same today as they were in the 1990s," observed Brent Leary, a partner at CRM Essentials and chairman of the conference.
Sure, vendors keeping adding a wealth of new capabilities to their basic applications, but they have not overcome the most basic challenge that has been a sore spot among end users for years: Sales, marketing, and customer service teams still have to navigate a wide range of different systems, applications, and databases to do their jobs every day. As Aaron Cano, senior vice president of analytics and marketing operations at Fresh Direct, said during the session:"Having things tied together—that's what is missing."
Sure AI is scary, and Hollywood has done plenty to fuel our fears, but the real and present danger is the lack of integration. Without integration, AI will be severely limited. Disconnected systems and applications will prevent AI—or any other technology—from living up to its true potential.
Leonard Klie is editor of CRM magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.