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Data Like Oil Is Thick Goop! You Need AI To Refine It: Vala Afshar

Data Like Oil Is Thick Goop! You Need AI To Refine It: Vala Afshar

Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist, Salesforce
Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist, Salesforce

Getting customers to stay on with you for the long haul, if there is one, can be tough and its getting more challenging. In any and every industry. How do you or how can you use technology, artificial intelligence, digital to actually help you to perhaps bring those customers back or find new ones. More importantly, what should your guiding principles be ? Are digital companies different from others ? What are the values that will matter most ?

Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist for salesforce and author of Pursuit of Social Business Excellence, is perhaps most uniquely placed to answer this question uppermost on the minds of every CEO and CMO out there.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Vala, it is a pleasure to meet with you. You’re the guru ! I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to speak with you !

Vala Afshar: My pleasure to be here.

Vala, what is happening in the artificial intelligence and digital that gives you confidence that companies can actually use this to hold or bring back customers ?

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Sure. So as the World Economic Forum defined the age that we are in the age of the connected consumer, the fourth industrial revolution. You saw that report speaking to India’s trillion-dollar growth plan. You have 564 million internet subscribers, 354 million plus smartphone devices. So we live in this hyper connected knowledge sharing economy. Every consumer on the B2B side or B2C side is now carrying a super computer in their pocket.

So they’re more knowledgeable, they’re more demanding. Studies show, surveys show that the customer experience is as important as the product or the service that you provide. So when we think about the digital economy, where people are sharing and collaborating and information is incredibly robust, the new currencies are speed. The expectation is that you deliver service quickly and personalisation.

No one wants to be treated like a number. They want to be treated like a human being. This means personalisation at scale. How do you as a business have a good solid understanding of your customers at scale ?

Where you can anticipate their needs.

And this is across all industries, all company sizes. It could be hospitality, at their hotel, it could be airlines, manufacturing, retail and lastly intelligence. Speed, personalisation and intelligence. That’s where Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes. AI allows you to gather data in this algorithmic economy that we are in, and based on those algorithms, go from insights to foresight.

Be able to anticipate and its about building your anticipatory muscle where you can proactively meet the needs of your customers. If you are delivering products and services that are not powered by AI, in the fourth industrial revolution, I believe you will lose market share.

If you’re not marketing, if you’re not sales or customer services support powered by machine learning, you do not have the ability to address the blind spots that exist in business, in terms of understanding our needs.

And what’s a good example of a company, product or service that’s using this technology to effectively connect better with its customers ? Existing or potential ?

You know, I will give you some US examples. You know, certainly we’ve been using artificial intelligence all along. The most indispensable mobile apps. When Amazon recommends a product to you, and you don’t feel like you’re sold to, you actually, wow, this is something that I could use.

When Netflix provides movie recommendations, based on your habits, when Pandora or Spotify provides music. I met with a manufacturer of a tires company where now they’re feeding over 200,000 locations…

Right here in Mumbai…?

Right here in Mumbai, exactly. CEAT. They’re using artificial intelligence to understand and classify tyre defects, so that they can process the warranty in real time. You can take a photo, you can see the defect classified, you get immediate warranty information and you can have the new product delivered to you in a matter of hours or next day.

Its about creating a frictionless environment. Where you can meet the needs of your customer, in the most expeditious and intelligent way.

For which you obviously have to start collecting data, extracting it. How are companies or how should companies be doing it ? And I’m assuming as the consumer base or the product base becomes larger, the challenge becomes bigger too…?

The biggest challenge in terms of this whole potential that you can have with AI is a more cultural core value challenge. Every company needs to have trust as their number one core value. If I am willing to give you my personal information, if I’m willing to give you, the company, access to my buying patterns or behaviours, I need to be comfortable knowing that you’re going to use this data to deliver a valuable experience to me in the most trustworthy way.

When it comes to collecting data, unless companies can practice radical transparency, where their North Star and guiding principal is trust, they will not have access to the data. They need to have a successful AI operating model.

I also think that you hear a lot of times where people say the most valuable resource in the world is no longer oil, it’s data. But I have to remind folks that, you know, that oil is just thick goop until it goes through a refinery and becomes fuel. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is your refinery.

Having access to data is not enough. You need to have the algorithms and the power of machine learning and other technologies within the AI umbrella, but without trust, without a culture of empathy and radical transparency, you will not succeed in the fourth industrial revolution.


Also, I think as you pointed out in the past, trust works differently today. People are willing to trust their co-riders in an Uber cab but may not trust an organization, media or a government or a politician.

That is absolutely true. It’s something that you earn a lifetime to earn and you could lose it immediately. Unfortunately, in the tech industry in the last two years, society as a whole has a greater understanding of how misuse of data can have profound implications. Political, societal and business implications. So there is a trust deficit, a trust gap, a digital gap and that divide will only widen if you’re not true to your core values and guiding principles.

And how do you see the shaping out? The big social platforms are facing a lot of flak across the world, not just in the United States. And somewhere in the middle of all this, consumers like me have to connect using the same platforms, the same internet to really understand what’s going on or really to maybe get the benefit of a certain product or service.

Our research says better than 90% of consumers are loyal to companies they trust. Unfortunately, better than half don’t believe that companies are using their data for the best benefit of the customer and consumer. They don’t believe there is radical transparency and practices in place.

So there’s a lot of work to be done there. Ultimately, when we think about business success, in my humble opinion, the priority is culture, people, processes and lastly technology. This trust deficit that exists is not a technology issue, it’s a human being issue. It’s a cultural issue.

These are tough problems to solve. Because if you don’t have the right talent, the right processes, you need to break things. And you need to make some really important decisions, in terms of why you do what you do. Its not how or what, but why you exist as a business.

And I’m going to ask you in a second about the two or three things you’re looking out for in the next year. Before that..many studies including by Gartner which you’ve also referred to now talk about net jobs actually rising post adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics by companies. Is that a change, is it the reality versus maybe the fear that was there even until a year ago ?

I have an optimistic view that we will see a net gain. But you have to re-skill your employees. There will be different job categories. Look back 15 years. We didn’t have mobile app developers, cloud computing architects or Uber drivers. We didn’t have a lot of social media managers and so on and so forth. I certainly didn’t think chief digital evangelist would be my title even five years ago. So you will have different titles, you will have net gain.

What’s important to understand is the most important skill in the fourth industrial revolution is to stay teachable. You have to be continuously be learning about these emerging technologies, new business models and how to compete and win. So your ability to unlearn the old and learn the new will become the most important skill.

And what are the two or three things that you’re focused on as the game changers or innovation points in the next year or two ?

I am focused on the multiplied innovation impact of using a number of emerging technologies concurrently in order to shape new business models. In order to have hyper growth you need not just modernise legacy processes with new technology but you need to think about new sources of revenue and benefits to stakeholders; Your employees, your customers, your partners and your communities.

Enabled by the multiplied use of these emergent technologies. We have a fantastic opportunity to really think about new business models that can be game changers based on how surgically we apply these new emerging technologies.

Vala Afshar, a pleasure talking to you.

Its my pleasure. Thank you.

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