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The Globe and Mail

How Canadian businesses will use AI to improve customer experience

Vala Afshar is chief digital evangelist for Salesforce.

Most Canadian consumers have already integrated some form of artificial intelligence (AI) into their daily lives, whether they realize it or not. Now it's time for the companies they engage with to do the same.

Brands have an unprecedented opportunity today to get inside the minds of consumers by mining the massive and constantly increasing treasure trove of customer data that will be generated by the 50 billion connected "things" expected to come online by 2020.

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Where do consumers live? Where do they shop? How often do they stop to eat on long trips?

All that information – and more – is out there. And successful companies can tap into it to truly understand and engage with customers in powerful and innovative ways. But to do this, they need IT systems to help aggregate, cleanse, analyze and make predictions based on the data.

That's where AI comes into play.

In a nutshell, we're talking about machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing and the idea that, with the right data science technology, you can use big data to figure out what customers want or need and then automatically deliver recommendations to improve their lives.

Netflix already does this by using predictive analytics to produce and fine-tune viewing recommendations for subscribers. Google Now is doing it too by rerouting drivers around traffic jams on their way home. And auto makers Tesla and Ford are about to do it with plans to roll out hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars, enabled by AI, in the next few years.

We are just scratching the surface of all the possibilities in this amazing high-tech arena. In fact, IDC says global spending on cognitive systems will reach $31.3-billion (U.S.) by 2019.

Business leaders who understand the implications of AI will use it to reinvent how they interact with customers at every touch point, including sales, marketing and customer service.

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Here are some ways AI will impact Canadian businesses this year and beyond:

AI will help maximize customer experience — automatically

Customer experience isn't only about marketing; it's about creating positive, personalized encounters at each stop on the customers' shopping journey.

The recent State of the Connected Customer by Salesforce revealed that 81 per cent of consumers just want companies to provide the same level of service every time they interact with them, while 75 per cent said they expect a consistent experience wherever they engage – whether it's in the store, on the phone, while surfing a website or while communicating with a service rep through social media. What's more, half said they'd be willing to switch brands if the companies they buy from fail to anticipate their needs.

So as AI becomes integrated into customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, we are beginning to see more interest in applying the technology to help customers before they even know they need assistance.

Airlines, for example, have mountains of customer data to dig through. By tapping into that information and applying AI, they might be able to proactively advise customers about the best times to drive to the airport, which routes to take or when they need to arrive based on security-line length. The possibilities are endless for assuring travellers have a great trip, start to finish.

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AI offers a tremendous opportunity for marketers to maximize customer experience and sell more services.

AI will unshackle businesses from old data

Many organizations spend months or years amassing customer data. But by the time it's entered into CRM solutions, it's often already outdated and almost useless for the field (which is why salespeople often ignore customer information their company provides to them).

AI changes that by using both up-to-date internal and external sources – including cloud, social, mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) – to arrive at meaningful and actionable recommendations.

Soon, marketers will use AI to augment their intelligence about stakeholders for every campaign they run, helping them develop precise and relevant messaging to the right customers, in the right places based upon their current needs, desires and sentiments. Relying on outdated information just because companies took the time to amass it is becoming a thing of the past.

AI will make everyone and everything smarter

AI is about automating time-consuming processes to ensure that all customer communications and engagement are more intelligent and more efficient.

The "intelligence" in artificial intelligence will soon find its way into just about every technology-enabled application, service or gadget – making seemingly magical abilities such as machine learning and natural language processing more routine.

For a salesperson, that could mean waking up to a bedside smart device announcing a list of leads to be pursued that day because they're most likely to sign on the dotted line (based on statistical probabilities). With the salesperson's approval, the system could then automatically reach out to the prospects through their preferred communication channel (phone, e-mail, text or social media). Think of it as a super-smart Apple Siri for the stressed-out and time-crunched salesperson.

We're in the age of the customer, and companies that embrace AI technologies will have a significant advantage in delivering that next-generation customer experience.

AI will be the defining technology of the 21st century, and I look forward to the day when Canadian businesses use AI in the same way most of us use electricity – without even thinking about it. AI will be the connective tissue between the billions of devices that are proliferating today. It will supercharge productivity and help businesses leaders reach and please customers like never before, maximizing brand recognition and ongoing loyalty.

Executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management in the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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