Automated conversational CRM or the return of markets as conversations

Denis Pombriant Profile picture for user denis_pombriant December 19, 2016
It's time to consider whether automated conversational CRM has the ability to accelerate the deal process. Yes - it involves elements of machine learning and chatbots.

You can’t truly accelerate a deal much beyond today’s state of the art—everything that could be done has been done. That’s mostly because a deal is a conversation in which one side says, or more broadly communicates, something and the other responds back and forth until closure or breakoff.

It’s not complicated and the only reason I bring this up is that the other side of the discussion will cite the plethora of advanced technologies that people use assuming that they’re accelerating something. But they aren’t.

Instead, the available technology does something else that’s valuable.

All of the tools normally associated with CRM widen the pipeline, enabling sales people to work many more deals than was possible in the past. That was the original promise of SFA and it worked until the number of deals and their data overwhelmed the humans consuming their information. So now we’re looking for technology to enhance the human.

If technology is well tuned, it will alert the user when something is amiss or when something changes in an account so that the sales person can take action. A simple example might be a customer rapidly responding to multiple incremental offers. Downloading a white paper and similar actions might be interpreted as a buy signal worthy of action.

All of this is good and its practical effect is to accelerate the pipeline overall but not an individual deal—this is simple demand, an important difference. Multiply this over the entire book of business and you have pipeline and revenue acceleration due to a fatter pipeline (i.e. greater demand); you can’t really call that deal acceleration because it lacks synchronicity.

Take a hard look, whether it’s email, social media or any of a dozen advanced channels, they all suffer from the same drawback—they are asynchronous and that’s important. Asynchronous conversations are those where the respondent is under no pressure or obligation to get back to you.

A fax (remember them?) can go unanswered but so can email or a social media message or even, in a manners challenged era like today, a phone call. It’s a little like being on Mars. When we get there, conversation between the planets will resemble letter writing in colonial days.

Lately, I’ve seen an increase in the number of people who will ping me a second time a day or two later with a polite reminder that I didn’t answer their original message. That’s because I’m not interested and that’s pretty much been the default response ever since Eve was selling apples.

In my humble opinion the last technological developments, in reverse order that could truly claim to accelerate deals were giving sales people car allowances, putting telephones on everyone’s desks, and inventing the railroad.

The common denominator is that they forced synchronicity, getting people face to face to make decisions. Modern technology does a lot but until recently it didn’t do that.

I might have to modify my opinion now because a new generation of technologies is entering the world with the express purpose of encouraging synchronicity. It goes by various names most often beginning with the modifier 'conversational' as in conversational commerce and of course CRM is becoming conversational with alacrity. At least in the minds of AR/PRs, anxious to push this latest message.

It’s been a while since genuine deal acceleration was possible. But an article from September’s Harvard Business Review, Messaging Apps Are Changing How Companies Talk with Customers, by Gadi BenMark Dilip Venkatachari suggests that we could be at the beginning of a new era in which acceleration is possible again. It’s all in the difference between brand- and messaging-apps so in this context, the idea is that apps move the conversation forward in a digital manner. As the authors point out,

Although the use of brands’ mobile apps has exploded since 2008, ‘brand app fatigue’ is starting to settle in.

That’s the bad news supporting the point that conversations can easily drop in brand apps or social media, but messaging apps are hot, they claim. For proof they run off some impressive numbers,

Today six of the top 10 global apps are messaging apps, used by 1.4 billion people worldwide and growing by 12 percent annually. Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger are leading the pack.

Alongside the potential that sets a marketing person's eyes a-twinkling, this approach can open up a virtual can of snakes.

Machine learning and natural language processing driven conversational apps suggest the gobbling up of jobs, s topic we’ve discussed here before. But it’s also true that many of those jobs fit one of the 3D descriptions of dull, dirty and dangerous for jobs that humans might well be happy to see passed over to a machine.

Conversational apps are good for customers and the customer relationships if done well and at this early stage that “if” is well qualified.

Done right and with powerful algorithms behind them, the apps can zero in on customer needs based on past behavior and through analyzing a customer’s breadcrumbs. There are the odd examples. Jomashop for example has good insights into how readers of its email promotions are behaving, providing better targeted content after each visit or click.

Better yet, when a customer has a history with a vendor, information becomes highly granular; including prior preferences and purchases that can be used to inform a conversation. All this will make conversations better and faster, possibly accelerating deals.

On the question of jobs, it’s really about who the technology’s user is. An employee using an intelligent app to serve customers would be seen as providing a premium service while a do-it-yourselfer might be seen more as a frugal shopper.

This brings up the dilemma that all of this is independent of the product because we long ago reached a level of product adequacy. Manufactured items are more than good enough and it’s the extras, the extended product that Regis McKenna once described, such as personalized services that make the top of the line product both desirable and worth desiring.

My take

I have no doubt that conversational messaging will win its share of adherents and there will be many sales processes that get by and maybe even get better with little influence from humans.

But that’s always been the way it’s been. It’s part of category commoditization and given all of the technology product introductions of the last few decades, a little commoditization might be in order.

Some jobs will be squeezed out but what’s left are myriad new opportunities to invent jobs that require humans, working with advanced technologies, to mediate new processes that only they can navigate through both expertise and communication skills.

That's when the idea that Markets are Conversations, which sparked much of what was once social media, and which today is little better than recycled ad pap, takes on an entirely new and useful meaning.

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