“AI will change everything, and a lot of companies are not ready” Laurence Van Elegem - September 20, 2018

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A conversation with marketing and innovation thought leader Steven Van Belleghem about "AI first", branding and customer experience.

“You know that I’m an optimist”, Steven Van Belleghem started our interview about artificial intelligence, on the occasion of our ‘Customers The Day After Tomorrow Tour’. Steven has a realistic vision on the impact of AI on business, society and privacy in specific, but above all he believes that it will make our lives better. “The very best part of AI is that it will free up our time so we can really focus on what we like to do, instead of what we have to do: it will make appointments for us, or buy washing machines when they are broken, so that we can focus on what really matters. In fact, for me, AI is at the very centre of every latest evolution in technology: it’s what the sun is to our solar system. It will change everything in business and society, and - exciting though that is - a lot of companies are not ready. Worse even, a lot of them are not yet preparing to get ready.”

Steven sees the current “AI First” phase evolving in three important steps: “For the moment, AI is very focussed on prediction, like Uber trying to figure out if a customer is drunk, or if he has a history of violence. And that’s great, but the next step will be even more exciting: it will become a lot more context enabled. Take Spotify, for instance: in the future, it might not play fast beats or happy music, if it would for instance know that your favourite pet has died. You can only really personalize a service, or communication if you truly know the context. So that’s the next phase. And after that, we’ll enter the era of fully automated AI: like the driverless cars, or accounting that will be completely automated, and virtual personal assistants.”

We also spoke about how marketing will be changing under the influence of AI and voice assistants. “There is a lot of potential for brands”, he says, “…if they adapt”. Voice assistants will become powerful gatekeepers, according to Steven: if customers ask for “toilet paper” instead of a certain brand of toilet paper, it’s the AI that will decide: not the customer, nor the brand. So it will become essential to understand how you have to perform marketing to machines, and influence algorithms, instead of customers.

Not just for big corporations

When inquiring about some of his favourite AI cases - that were not the usual suspects - he enthusiastically started talking about the insurance business Voogd & Voogd, proving that AI certainly is not only affordable to big corporations with a lot of cash to spend: “Voogd & Voogd is a Dutch family business of more than 100 years old and they are one of the first in Europe to use AI to better understand customers in insurance, handle the claims more efficiently and manage risks. I really love their story.” He also talked about Nadira Azermai of ScriptBook, which uses Artificial intelligent for screenplay analysis and box office forecasts: “that’s a fantastic example of a local company thinking really big in AI, with some pretty impressive customers.”

“I’m very much intrigued by how AI is completely overturning retail: how physical shops are transforming into digital platforms”, Steven continued. “We saw a beautiful example of this in China with the Hema stores of Alibaba: there are in fact not so many Chinese customers there, but you see the Hema employees bustling around, filling bags with online orders, putting those bags on a hook travelling across a conveyer belt and, … bam, 15 minutes later a scooter drops these groceries off to your house. That’s really impressive: a powerful blend between online and offline. That’s what I meant with AI making our lives better: these people no longer need to waste their time getting in a car, being stuck in traffic and buying boring commodities like milk or toothpaste. They can spend quality time with their family instead, to give just one example.”

AI will do the same for employee experience as it does for customer experience

Steven is also a big fan of US based Digital Genius, which we are going to visit during our Customers The Day After Tomorrow Tour: “they analyse and translate customer data into a mathematic model with a probability score and use it to automate customer service in the most efficient way. If the score is high, they automate the answer or the reaction and are able to move really fast. If it’s below a certain point, the service agent adapts and personalizes the answer.” Steven pointed out how it’s a perfect example of the power of digital and human combined into something that goes beyond the sum of its parts. Another favourite of his is Hello Customer, which uses text analysis to improve customer experience as well as employee engagement: “I love how they use data in the most actionable and automatized manner to help create of customer focussed culture.”

Like Hello Customer, Steven is also a big believer in how AI can be used for the benefit of employees: “The very same AI characteristics that are relevant for improving the customer experience will have a big impact on the employee experience: I’m talking about faster than real time response, hyper-personalization and convenience. I often hear stories of frustrated employees in big large corporates because the latter focus on sales and processes instead of making their own people happy (so that they, in their turn can help make their customers happy). Customer happiness is just a chain of events that starts and ends with employee happiness: both are irrevocably linked, and driven by the same 3 AI-driven forces: faster than real time response, hyper-personalization and convenience.“

If you don’t think about your data strategy now, you might never catch up again

“So where do companies start?”, I asked Steven. “What are the first steps towards an AI first strategy?” “You absolutely need a data plan”, he answered. “That might sound underwhelming, but data, and lots of it, is the foundation of every AI strategy. In fact, if you only have a data history of 6 months, you will end up with a very stupid AI. The more data, the smarter the solution, so it is absolutely crucial that companies start to gather and analyse their data right away. If not, they will lag so much behind that it will be impossible to ever catch up again. The second crucial step in an AI strategy is uncovering which of your processes create the most friction for your customers and figure out how AI could help solve that. Always start with the customer, and then automate the processes that cause unnecessary friction. Never work the other way around: never start with the technology but create value for your customers. These are the two very basic, but essential steps towards success in AI.”

The conversation ended on a slightly darker note, when we talked about the issues of privacy and ethics. “Will some of us build machines that will lie to us?”, he asked. “Of course. That already happened. Just think of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, or about fake news.” But Steven would not be Steven if he did not irrevocably believe in the ability of humans to solve their problems. “I believe that board of directors will need to guard the ethical behaviour of companies. And, even though I’m not the biggest fan of the current GDPR solution, I also believe that governments will play an essential role. They could for instance demand complete data usage transparency from companies: so that the consumer knows exactly what it is doing with his or her data, and why. Blind fear is never the solution. I believe that we can, and will use AI to better our lives in the long run. And that is probably why I am taking local companies with me on a tour to those pioneers who are already doing just that.”

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Laurence Van Elegem

Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and...

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