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benefits of a digital assistant

Why Can’t It Just Be a Lot Easier?

When we started Yesflow last year, one of the first things we did was to get our crew together to talk about what we had learned from growing one of the top CRM consulting and implementation companies in the Microsoft channel. Our goal was to collectively understand what helped our customers succeed and what inhibited their success and to discover what we might be able to do in a new venture to help enterprise customers.

After selling Customer Effective to Hitachi a few years ago, some of us had already been thinking about what might come next, but on this day no ideas were off the table. The main thing was to dig deep into the problem to see if we could identify a problem we could all fall in love with. And then maybe we could come up with some creative problem-solving ideas.

The first big questions that very quickly jumped out of the discussion were these: Why do we always hear users say CRM is too hard to use? Why is it so hard to get things done with the current generation of systems? Why can’t it just be a lot easier?

Our crew has been around enterprise software systems in CRM, BI and ERP for many, many years, and we have helped some of the largest companies in the world implement these systems. We have also implemented and used these systems for our own companies over the past 25 years. As a result, we know the good, the bad and the ugly of enterprise systems.

Pain Despite Proven Success

Over the years, we have helped a tremendous number of customers have great success. (We know of their success, by the way, because they are proud of their achievements, they tell us about their success directly and they have gotten a lot of awards for their work along the way). But we also know – and feel – the “ugly” part of enterprise systems: no one really likes to use them.

In fact, only 37% of sales reps use their company’s CRM, according to CSO Insights. We saw this problem up close and in-person many times. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in them. The CRM market wouldn’t be topping $40 billion today if companies didn’t think that there was value in them. Certainly getting an integrated 360-degree view of customers into a CRM system is valuable and, of course, an ERP function as fundamental as accounting and order entry is just a required part of running a business. However, that doesn’t make a user like (much less love) using their enterprise information systems.

The further our crew dove into the problem the more questions we came up with:

  • If I can order an Uber by touching two buttons on a mobile app, shouldn’t I be able to get at our own company information and take action on our processes just as easily?
  • Why are the mobile apps built by the big enterprise app companies just a reproduction of fields on forms made into a smaller form factor?
  • Why can’t l just ask Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant to go get the information I need from my enterprise systems? Or, better yet, why can’t I have the information I need served up to me before I even realize that I need it?
  • What if I could update my teammates and my CRM by just talking to my phone? Or my watch? Or my smart speaker?

It is maddening to think that we have so much advanced technology available to us, and yet we are still doing much of our day-to-day enterprise work clicking on a bunch of menus and typing data into little fields on database forms. What we have gotten on a mobile device for doing any kind of enterprise work almost always feels very clicky and cumbersome to get stuff done. In fact, it’s just a shrunken version of the desktop app made harder to use by being smaller! But the mobility problem is just one facet of the problems we have seen various customers face.

What Are the Biggest Problems With Enterprise Systems?

After beating all of the questions around, the Yesflow crew summarized the big problems down to these:

1.) Information Is Too Hard to Access.

In short, the walls are too high. Lots of enterprise information is supposed to be available to us to help us get more done, sell more effectively and service our customers at the highest level possible, but this information is difficult to access and not always assembled well for taking action.

A big reason for this challenge has to do with the fact that the information we need is trapped inside an old paradigm. When you look across the board at the enterprise systems we have available to us today (whether it’s Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, Workday or whatever), they were all built around technology models invented over 40 years ago: databases with menus that navigate lots of forms with lots of fields on them. A lot of the databases, forms and fields are in the cloud now, but we are still looking at arcane menus and fields on forms when we open an application.

These systems are fundamentally unchanged since about 1981 when relational databases came to market. It takes a lot of effort to navigate this information, put it together and make it make sense for a user in the context of what they are trying to accomplish.

The cultural norm that evolved from all of the database applications is that it is OK to require users to expend a lot of effort to go get data from these systems (because that is where the data lives) and to require users to input data into these systems (because that is where the data lives). This mode of operation has defined enterprise knowledge work for a long time now, but users don’t like it and, more often than not, simply avoid it as much as possible.

2.) Inputting Information and Taking Action Is Too Cumbersome.

The correlating problems arising from the old database paradigm of fields on forms is that inputting and updating information is even harder than accessing it. To add insult to injury, it is very difficult to take action from within these systems. Typically, a user will access a system like CRM when they are in the process of nudging a deal along or servicing a customer issue. These actions are nearly always connected to communication with the customer or communication internally with a teammate. Unfortunately, these “fields on forms” systems are not very adept at promoting great communication and collaboration as that is not their central purpose.

As a result, the logical communication and collaboration action that a user wants to take in connection with customer information is not super obvious to them. What happens when it is hard to input data and hard to take action? People opt out and do their own thing in spreadsheets, email and via simple apps on their phone (like contacts). Not enough updates into systems like CRM means there is not enough sharing of information with other teammates. A lot of very professional knowledge workers just drop to the lowest point of friction and just keep information in their heads! All of that unshared information could be very beneficial to others if it was shared correctly. We have often heard that less than 10% of interactions that actually occur with customers is ever posted into a company’s CRM system. This is simply because it is too hard to access and update. If the walls and barriers going both ways were much lower, then maybe users would access and update more often.

3.) Leveraging Information Effectively Is Not Becoming a Best Practice.

Updating and sharing customer information is the BEST best practice that remains elusive to many companies. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, once said that the greatest insult to a customer is to ask them to tell their story twice. Fundamental knowledge about who has touched a customer, when they touched them and what was done has served as the core values for many successful companies. The companies that value this knowledge and use it well are serving their customers at the highest level possible, and, over time, those customers reward this type of treatment with increased loyalty and business.

A simple example of this is our experience with an enterprise customer that sells insurance. They sell multiple lines of insurance (property & casualty) and their “customer” record used to be the insurance policy. However, when a customer had multiple policies, it was very difficult for them to fully understand the true customer 360-view (they still had to look up a bunch of different policies). It wasn’t until they re-structured their customer records with CRM that they were able to associate all policies to a person. Once they did this, they were able to serve the customer more effectively. This is a nice win, but they STILL had a nagging problem – getting the employees who interacted with the customer to routinely update their team about the customer’s situation so that everyone could be on the same song sheet about what was going on. CRM is a great place for storing this information, but too many users opted out because of the hassle factor of doing something as simple as sharing a note after a meeting.

It often comes down to a company’s information systems to facilitate and reinforce best practices. But what happens when knowledge workers avoid or bypass the very enterprise systems that are intended to engage them in best practices? The micro best practices that are baked into their systems get ignored or bypassed. It makes sense that, at a macro level, a company should implement the best practice of making it uber EASY to access and update customer information.

The biggest best practice of all is this: care enough about customers and employees to curate a clear picture of all interactions that have occurred with each customer AND make it easy for employees to access and update this information.

This requires that a company have the practices in place to collect the touch points about who has interacted with the customer, when they interacted with them and what was done. Without this very macro and very fundamental best practices approach of making it easy to access and update customer information, a company’s leadership has completely missed the boat in serving customers, growing revenue and motivating their employees (not to mention that they have probably wasted a lot of money on a CRM system that no one is using proactively).

Creative Problem-Solving that Addresses these Challenges

By now you have probably figured out that the Yesflow team has fallen in love with the problem: people don’t like accessing and updating enterprise systems like CRM even when they know it is the smart (best practice) thing to do.

From those initial problem discussions, we began making a few observations and thinking about ideal solutions. By nature, we communicate with written and spoken words, and we have been doing this quite well for thousands of years – long before the modern era of computing. We’ve now reached an inflection point where Artificial Intelligence is making it practical to dramatically change the way we interact with the information available to us.

In fact, with the recent advances in speech-to-text technology, speech detection is 3X faster and 20% more accurate than typing on a keyboard.* Consumers’ desire to interact with virtual digital assistants is also giving rise to an amazing growth in the adoption of smart speakers. This category is exploding with an 82% annual growth rate that will increase from 200 million devices today to over 500 million devices in 2023.** And that is just smart speakers. Google, Siri and Alexa are even more widely available on smartphones where there are already 2.5 billion instances in the market – a number projected to reach 8 billion by 2023, according to Juniper Research. With all of these statistics, one thing is abundantly clear: consumers are telling us that digital assistants are the path they want to take for getting information and being guided on actions to take.

What Are Consumers Really Telling Us?

The rapid uptake of consumer-grade digital assistants tells us more about how people want to interact with this information than what might be obvious on the surface. Consumers are piling into digital assistants based on a desire to do much more than just talk to a device to have it play music or tell us the weather or turn on the lights. In fact, these simple voice commands and use cases are just the tip of the iceberg.

What we can interpret from consumers’ actions actually sounds more like this: “I prefer talking to an assistant versus looking things up on an app or on the web. I would like my assistant to deeply understand me and do things on my behalf. I am comfortable with an AI agent that can serve up whatever I want whenever I want. This is really easy, and I am going to do more of it.”

As behavior with digital assistants evolves, consumers will desire even more capability from their assistants, and it is only natural that they will want to apply these assistants to their work and to the information systems that support their work. There are certainly challenges to allowing a consumer-grade digital assistant help your employees access your enterprise information. The thought of Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant crossing the security threshold into your most sensitive information might scare the heck out of even the most innovative CIO. However, enterprise system users are the same consumers that have Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant on their phones and in their kitchens, so they are eventually going to demand it for their work environment (because it is the easiest path and makes the most sense).

We see a place in the very near term where every professional knowledge worker has numerous digital assistants helping them to navigate their personal and professional information super structure. These assistant agents will come in many different forms and will specialize in aiding us in different types of work.

In many ways we are already seeing this happen. Some agents are great at scheduling meetings. Some are great at finding hints in your email about unresolved commitments. Some are great at booking travel. There will be God bots like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant that will help with generalized knowledge and daily tasks (tell me the weather, turn on the lights, etc.), and they will coordinate a wide array of other helper agents that are all working hard to help us optimize our lives.

The Need for an Enterprise Digital Assistant

Since the time of our early discussions about “the problem,” our team has been out in the field in conversations with hundreds of CRM, ERP and BI customers and users from our past, and it is clear that many feel the same way we do: users are frustrated with the current way of getting things done with enterprise CRM systems.

It is quite practical – and very timely – to invest energy and capital into more modern ways to make it easier for users to get stuff done. Furthermore, it is the perfect time to apply digital assistant technologies to enterprise systems with a focus on helping these users engage in their enterprise best practice processes. Based on our love of the problem and feedback from the field, our team has evolved with a very clear focus on building the Yesflow Enterprise Digital Assistant platform.

Everything we do starts with a perspective of making enterprise work radically easier for individuals and teams. We come from a place of deep empathy for users of enterprise systems because we are users of these systems ourselves. So what do we want for ourselves and for our customers? We want an enterprise digital assistant that is highly tuned to our work processes and guides us in doing our best work with ease. We want to have conversations with our enterprise information systems. We want to be able to get our work done quickly and easily, and we want to interact with our systems and processes with as little friction as possible. We want all of that work to feel like an “oh wow, that was easy” magical experience.

Last but not least, we believe that enterprise digital assistants will become the norm for interacting with corporate information, and we believe that the Yesflow team has the vision and ability to help our customers take advantage of this innovation wave and ensure they are following the biggest best practice of all: knowing their customers well.

* Source: Speech Is 3x Faster than Typing for English and Mandarin Text Entry on Mobile Devices
** Source: Canalys: Global Smart Speaker Installed Base to Top 200 Million by End of 2019

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Scott Millwood
Scott Millwood

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