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Digital Engagement Requires Context Integration

The relationship between customer and company progresses through a spectrum of emotional stages, ranging from indifference to brand loyalty. The manifestation of this relationship progresses from listening, learning and asking, through transactions, engagement and vocal brand advocacy (or vocal brand distaste). The specific transition from interaction to engagement is of particular interest and the current hot topic in CRM discussion circles, to many, representing the maturation of CRM as a discipline.

Customer Engagement is the ongoing interactions between company and customer – offered by the company, chosen by the customer.” (PG, 2015)

Since the company/customer relationship will mature at a pace determined by the customer (hard stop), companies are left to guess when and how customers want to engage. The assumption here is that systems and technology will help companies to figure out the answer. The obvious candidates are operational CRM systems, Marketing Automation systems, Customer Support systems and Business Intelligence systems; together these are a System of Engagement. However, it is just not that simple.

First, it is important to understand what exactly we are talking about and the history of how we arrived here. While engagement is a deeper level of ongoing involvement, and intent driven, the technological requirements to support meaningful engagement is what I refer to a “Context Integration” and is required.

Context integration is the combination of information and process instantiated at a point in time for the purpose of delivering user engagement.

Context integration is a critical element in the future, system to system to human interactions; the tie that binds systems of engagement. By prioritizing relevance, user needs, and jobs-to-be-done, context integration is the reason and method required to operationalize data. Context integration requires strong data integration, business intelligence (aka analytics) and process integration. Context integration is not specific only to customers, but the scope of this discussion is focused on customers.

Data Integration

In the modern era, driven by cloud, one data movement has become quite easy; table stakes. Yes, there are nuances, but overlooking these nuances puts the complexity on the low end of the spectrum. The simplest data integrations are read-only (or a copy) and passive, view only. For example, taking data out of an operational system and putting it into a reporting system or display tweets in a CRM application. If you want to be able to write/update and have this reflected in the source system; bidirectional, the complexity scale moves up a notch.

Action item: It is imperative to progress from data integration to information integration, there is too much data, people need information (data aggregated and given relevance). This is not simply semantics, information is different, and of greater value.

Process Integration

Process integration is taking action (human or systemic), based upon something learned, typically from somewhere else; a system, a device or a person. This could be as simple as an alert, or something more complex, think supply chain. Within this conversation the focus is communications; where engagement happens. These types of integrations take place in everything from sales, to support, operations and marketing.

Action item: We need to move beyond the task list of things to do. Companies should be shown the right actions and path; channel, timing and device.

What does Context Integration Look Like?

As stated above, context integration is information plus process, it is real-time, but may or may not be bidirectional. What I mean is that communication is bidirectional, but it might not be operating on the same data. Delivering the right information to the right person at the right time is hard. For starters, there is now a third system involved within each integration scenario, the analytics engine, required to turn big data into small data.

Breaking it down further:

  • Information equates to ‘what’,
  • Process equates to ‘where’ and ‘how’;
  • Context equates to ‘why’, as-in ‘why is this important to someone, now’?

In order to accomplish this feat, we need more insight. We need to spend a bit of time translating data into information, processes into specific tasks and actions and help the customer to understand why something is happening or being done. In a very real way, right time information may also be considered to be proactive, as expectations are low in this area, but changing rapidly.

The following are just some quick ideas, there are so many more and if you would be willing to add your own, I would appreciate it!

Example – Customer Service

  • Data – The Contact Center has account service history, household purchase history, number of claims displayed on the screen (or a couple clicks away).
  • Process – Add to the above, notifications of device recalls, health alerts, community posts, credit checks, invoice verification, payment verification, (think billing and finance).
  • Context -Tell me ahead of time when something is wrong, or a product fix is needed. For example a user social check-in in New York and credit card use in Paris. In travel, make agents aware of weather or flight delays, tell client new flights are booked, via SMS (if that is the preference). Help systems should be product and location aware as well as being proactive.

Example – Customer

(There are many customer examples, feel free to add your own)

  • Data – Give me access to my account information through a portal or smart device, allowing me to check for product updates or re-order a consumable (Diapers).
  • Process – Allow me to schedule future deliveries based up the preferences I have set, credit card stored and other core information.
  • Context – The system is aware of the age of my children (permission), and engages with me regarding size progression, asks if I am ready for the next size. Engages regarding other products and services (permission), recommending articles or other.

An internal, or employee type example:

Example – Sales

  • Data – The CRM application (mine is Sugar) is given a copy of purchase and/or case history, maybe event data, purchase history and company financial information,
  • Process – Based upon a phone call or web visit (shared by the marketing automation), the CRM System recommends a course of action and a task is created to make a call or send an email.
  • Context – The systems together design a set of engagement recommendations, based up information further input from the analytics engine. Context integration moves beyond tasks and reminders and sets a course of action that will drive the deal and create a happy customer!

This Week I Lost a Friend

My friend was small, furry, had the personality of a dog, but the body of cat. Rondo was the spirited, loyal, follow-you-around-the-house type. Rondo was fun.

He wrestled, played fetch, put his paws under doors, hated going to the vet and came running when the doorbell rang. He jumped up on the bed, licked me awake at 5am and put his paws- er claws- under the covers if the lick did not work. He was agile, fast, jumped up and sat on the back of my chair; every chair, whether he fit or not. He chased flies around the house, chased Izzy (sister) around the house and chased a ball around in a circle; see, dog!

When I worked at my stand-up desk, Rondo laid down right behind me, causing me to trip at least once per day – I am going to miss that. He hissed, did not bark (all hiss and no bite does not sound right), he was fascinated by the shower, hated the tub and he liked to sit on the seat of my exercise bike and watch me as I worked out on the elliptical; an inspiration for sure.

I am quite sure I will never be able to look at my office chair the same. Rondo would sit down and wait for me to come play. He would follow my finger through the mesh and then I would lift it above the chair and he would ‘pounce’. He then put his head over the chair or peek around the side and lick my chin… If I tried to walk away, he would grab my arm, pulling me back. He loved to connect.

I am surprised at how wonderfully engrained in my life – our lives – this furry friend had become. I am traveling home as I write this, looking forward to seeing the family, but saddened by the one who will be missing; my friend. I do not consider myself a cat person, but by definition Rondo was a cat. More than that, he was my friend and I am not ashamed in any way to say it.

I am not going to dive too deeply into the value of friendships, nor animals. I will simply say that there is a lot we can learn from our furry little friends. For one, it is about the journey, not always the destination and no judgement. [added] After being home, it is clear by action that your little sister, partner in crime, is missing you as well.

He did jump into my suitcase every time I packed, don’t worry Rondo, you are always with me.

RIP Rondo 2010-2014 you will be missed, by me.

The Parallel Lives of Open Source and Social Networks

Early today, just after my morning run, my brother forwarded to me an article from the NYT about making money with Open Source software. For many in the tech community, this is a bit of old news. The summary version is that you really can’t make money with free software. Stated simply, people want something to help them get their job done, not free software. Think about names like MySQL, Drupal and yes SugarCRM, all fit into this category.

About 10 minutes later, I am scrolling through my Linkedin feed, another morning ritual, and there is an article, referenced by a connection. The article is about how Linkedin has “Lost its Luster”, the theme, hit the nail on the head. Linkedin has unfortunately, progressed from one of the most valuable social networks to business professionals, to almost ‘just another network’. More people, more noise, more content, we need more filters, rinse and repeat.

How are these Topics Related to Each Other?

In order to survive, progress from ‘free’ to making money, both of these business models pissed-off a great many people. In the world of open source, the idea was to rally the troops to build something cool, that is open and available for everyone to use. Then, it did not quite work as planned, to quote the NYT article:

Get a software project going that outsiders can work on, and with your own team sell proprietary stuff that makes the open source project actually useful.

In other words, open source basically follows the 80:20 rule of developing almost anything. You can get just about there, but the ‘spit and polish’ required to go mainstream takes a bit more effort than anyone wants to put into the software. Then people change jobs, when they leave, you realize that the enterprise <something> is running on a 10 year old Dell Server under a desk. The management team is now jaded on open source, and that is something very hard to over come. The company, who “makes” the software is trying to figure out how to make money. They throw it onto the cloud, spend money to polish it up, rebrand it a little, sell subscriptions, support services or consulting services and now it makes money… except, all the people who helped get it to that point are yelling and screaming in IRC ‘how dare they’!

What About Social Networks?

While the article I reference above, and quote below, talks about Linkedin, it could be stated (and has) about Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Google+.

LinkedIn is successfully manipulating me. I’m spending more and more time on the site, viewing more pages, contributing more data (including data about other people) and ultimately driving up LinkedIn’s advertising revenue. At the same time though, LinkedIn is delivering less and less of what made it valuable to me in the first place.

The way in which these Networks grew up was to slowly gain trust and encourage you, the user to add more and more data, spend more time on the site and then WHAM! advertising, gamification, strangers trolling, unwanted solicitations, er connections. The same people who helped to build of these networks are now disenfranchised, annoyed and they are yelling and screaming in Skype ‘how dare they’ – oh, the irony.

The summary version is that Facebook announced its numbers yesterday and they tell an interesting story. Looked at from a yearly perspective, $11B (yes, B) in annualized advertising revenue 1/6 of the total Television advertising number. These platforms, whether we are talking about Open Source or Social Networks were built by the early adopters, but they were not meant for us. In the open source world, there will always be the purists. However, mainstream business really just wants something that works and they prefer not to have to build it themselves – sorry. In the world of social networks, just deal with it, complain if you are paying, or move on – obnoxious, maybe.

Yes, I had my own small part in both, but I learned a lot, so it is ok. I disconnected FourSquare, yesterday, no interest in Swarm, but I like Slack. This is all about value exchange, and I will continue to play, learn and adopt or adapt as needed. I will skip Snapchat, dabble on Instagram and well…see what comes along next. One additional point, one of the biggest differences between the first Internet bubble and where we are now, is that companies can now quickly spin up servers in the cloud, which by the way, is all based on OS. Open Source enabled a whole generation of innovation (including many of the Social Networks referenced), we cannot lose sight of this point.

(x-Published on Linkedin)

Burlington Free Press gets a ‘C’

I read with interest the article, “An F for business friendliness?” As a person who seems to dance between being a small business owner and an Entrepreneur, in Vermont, I do see the issues, feel the struggles and I am very aware of the landscape. As someone who helps companies from all over the world to interpret data (Big Data, Little Data), the headline simply missed the mark and the article tells an incomplete story.  Full disclosure, I am not a subscriber to the Burlington Free Press, so it is possible that I am not qualified to give them a grade. That said, the data science behind the article is also a bit loose, and the company does not do business in Vermont.
The article takes a cue from an Economist article, which references data from the original Thumbtack data, that unfortunately compares data from different years. While the BFP article did recognize this point and did highlight the fact that Vermont was excluded for 2013 and 2014 because it did not reach the threshold of 30 responses, it missed one important element, the reason why. By the 2012 standards, Vermont did reach the threshold in 2012, of 10 responses – a different threshold. Is 10-30 respondents from 2012 statistically significant enough to warrant a 2014 headline? (It could be more than 30, but we would need to ask).  Why was the threshold changed?
Thumbtack seems like an interesting company, but they do not do business in Vermont. This is a significant data point, as the survey methodology described selects from users to their website, and randomly offers a link. However, if they (Thumbtack) do not do business in Vermont, how valuable can a respondent from Vermont be? (Honest question, I do not know the answer). The analysis suggests that the Vermont response rate was “inline with US population”, but is the state by state analysis statistically significant? (Only a handful of states did a deep dive on the regression analysis).
The science in general does seem sound for the US in general and for some larger states, granted. But, it all needs to be put into context. I would encourage a review of the Kauffman data (PDF), specifically the 2013 Entrepreneurial Index data and the 2011-2013 running Entrepreneurial Index data. The prior puts Vermont middle of the road (almost exactly) and the later put Vermont in the top third, or higher.  My takeaway, that trends are important, as noted by the Kauffman study.
I am not going to look at this through rose color glasses. Yes, Vermont has some things to fix, all states do (It could actually be a Marketing problem, another point made by the survey results). But, an F, I am not so sure about that. In school an ‘F’ suggest a student incapable, Vermont does have both an Entrepreneurial and Small Business economy, an ‘F’ would suggest this is not possible. The point of data is to create actionable insights and help people to change. Is it more important to change the perceptions, or the realities?

BTW – Why did I suggest in my title that the BFP gets a C? Because it is average – it does just enough of the work to get the job done. I am not really qualified to give it any other grade…

Freshdesk Attracts another $31M in Series D Funding

I do not typically write about IPOs, or funding or things of this nature. But, this is interesting for a number of reasons,, in a space I do watch carefully. Yes, Freshdesk has 23,000 customers,  10,000 in the past two quarters, across 175 countries, what is fascinating is that they made it to this point with a very small team in the US, and no team on the ground (as far as I know) in 160+ of the 175 countries (I need to verify this, and will) even then the team in the US is new. If you want to see more press worthy coverage, TechCrunch covered the news this morning as well.

Another interesting tidbit is who participated in the round of funding; Google Capital and a strong show of support from the current investors, as the current round was actually led by Tiger Global Management and Accel Partners. But, Google Capital makes different kinds of investments – late stages than Google Ventures, the two should not be confused. taken from their own blog, a few short months ago:

Like our colleagues at Google Ventures, our goal is to invest in the most promising companies of tomorrow, with one important difference. While Google Ventures focuses mainly on early-stage investments, we’ll be looking to invest in companies solely as they hit their growth phase. That means finding companies that have already built a solid foundation and are really ready to expand their business in big ways. We’ll look across a range of industries for companies with new technologies and proven track records in their fields. Our investments to date include SurveyMonkey, Lending Club and Renaissance Learning—with many more to come.

Then there is the space, customer service, support, and helping to manage customer expectations. We need (the greater we) the ability to provide businesses strong capabilities to be agile and adapt to the needs of the customers. Zendesk went public, SugarCRM is knocking on the door and many others have been scooped up by larger companies, RightNow, Desk, just to name but a couple. Is this about subscriptions,  customer service and support or something different? In the end, (having just come from the SDL Innovate Conference), companies need a holistic view of the customer, from as many angles as possible and it must not require the moving of mountains to allow these system to speak to each other. 

Freshdesk is aligning itself will to attach this space.  What will they attack first? Going up market with more seats, investing in their sister products (FreshService)?  Will more integrations with sales and marketing systems be built (hint: I think they should) With this funding in place, watch-out for good things to come, best of luck to them!