It’s occasionally useful to ask where customer service as a business process is going in addition to analyzing the latest technologies. That opportunity presented itself recently when Salesforce announced its acquisition of ClickSoftware, a field service and workforce management company that Salesforce has been partnering with since 2016.
I was intrigued by a photo accompanying a news item about the deal at one of the many industry sites tracking the news. It showed a field service technician talking on a cell phone, with an open laptop as he serviced an array of solar panels. What impressed me most about this was that the photo didn’t imply anything about robotics or manufacturing or any of the other tech sectors that have gotten field service attention over the last decade.
In a way those are all derivative of the IT impulse that’s been with us since the 1960s. Solar panels represent a different technological disruption that’s just taking shape and that will be with us untill mid-century, I think. They represent two distinct long economic cycles called K-waves.
What’s fascinating is that the newest technologies likely to need all sorts of service and support are increasingly in areas not considered traditional tech. This is why I think that an economic cycle is turning. Let’s face it, the tech revolution is getting long in the tooth and what once employed many people has been commoditized to the point that what was once a whole computer room now fits in our pockets and the jobs that once supported that infrastructure have evaporated.
The new tech disruption seems to be all about sustainability which I wrote about in a recent book and the people who will need service and support are increasingly on that sector, hence my interest.
In older sectors service and support is increasingly coming from automated systems as Steve Fioretti, vice president of product management at Oracle told me. We’ve known this for some time, nevertheless, the penetration by automated systems has been impressive.
In some government service systems associated with taxation for instance, Fioretti says up to 70 percent of questions get handled by automation. What started as a way to offload service calls and lower costs has become preferred. Millennials and Gen Z customers, especially, are happy to figure things out for themselves rather than waiting in line.
On balance though, Fioretti told me, “Everybody is saying the contact center is going away but it’s not.” I think he’s right. New uses are coming into view. As more routine issues are handled by automated systems, businesses find they can focus more on the difficult issues or at least those that don’t have binary answers. “It’s enabling our customers to hire different competencies,” Fioretti said. For example, he says that one Oracle customer specializing in home goods, hires agents that are more well versed in interior design because they’re getting into the nuts and bolts of a customer’s project instead of dealing with simpler questions about, say, returns. As a result, these agents have better engagement and customers have richer experiences during a call and customers are happier.
The numbers seem to back all this up. Earlier research commissioned by Oracle show that 60 percent of all consumers expect the ability to talk to a human when they call the contact center. Clearly they don’t always use that channel but it’s a confidence builder just knowing that if all else fails, there’s still the phone or text or social media.
But back to the solar panels. New markets, new disruptive innovations, are the places where customers have the greatest likelihood of struggling and that brings with it a need for customer service. It’s likely that these new industries will need a long runway before they can apply service automation to some processes. For them the call center in some evolved form will be very important.
The future looks like the past
But all of that automation doesn’t explain what’s happening in field service. There, machines are becoming more intelligent, at least to the point that they’re able to diagnose some problems and alert home base to generate a service request, for an impending problem. So, trucks can roll with a high certainty that they’re out to fix a specific problem and that they are not on some wild goose chase. We can thank IoT for that but also advances in field service automation, manpower management and navigation tools. This scenario’s importance grows exponentially when you consider what it takes to service, say, an off shore wind mill.
A disruptive innovation (or several) sparks a K-wave and significant economic activity that inspires additional invention and disruption. CRM itself is the outgrowth of a tech sector trying to deal with a hoard of new customers dealing with disruptive products that weren’t always designed or engineered perfectly. The rapid adoption of service automation technology is a good indicator that the tech sector has gotten its act together to the point that most customer issues can now be settled without human involvement.
I think Fioretti is right, the call center isn’t going away. The next wave of tech adoption in sustainability is going to require some of that old-style human to human interaction. I like to think that the aforementioned solar panels initiated their own service request through IoT protocols. But in that scenario, I also think there are call center agents assuring customers that the power outage is being actively worked on. The agents are necessary simply because customers’ experience with this new technology is still nascent and any vendor in its right mind, especially for a new category product, wants to keep customers happy. In that way the next generation of technology products and their service modalities stand on the shoulders of giants. What came around before is coming around again in a more powerful and automated approach.
In a world where information is expected to be free, G2 just made its research reports available to the public gratis. Sure, you have to be a registered user but how hard is that?
From what I know so far, these are interesting reports but may not be the last world because they’re primarily high-level overviews and indices based on G2’s crowd sourcing research approach. Crowd sourcing is fine as long as we all know the rules, like one person, one vote. I don’t know the rules so I will take it all on faith and trust in my fellow man until something makes me rethink.
I am most interested in CRM, naturally, and went to the CRM report where I had what might be an aha moment. The list is extensive, but many of the names on the list are only passing acquaintances. Only Paul Greenberg can know so many emerging CRM companies!
At any rate the CRM Usability Index offers some interesting insights. The scores are compiled from indices that track ease of administration, ease of use, meets requirements, and other factors. Presumably the survey takers answer questions from each column and G2’s algorithms churn out numbers that, when added together, give a combined score on a 0 to 10 continuum.
I get it. But this doesn’t give me context. I don’t know for instance if Less Annoying CRM clocking in at the pole position (9.54) has the same complement of features and functions as Freshsales (8.95), or bpm’online (8.82) or how they’re better than market leaders like Salesforce (8.43) and Zoho (8.30). It’s hard to have really high numbers when millions of users get a say. So I’m thinking that the 8.5 range is pretty good.
A few years ago I did a back of the envelope study by searching on a COMPANY NAME and the word sucks. As I recall bigger companies had more to suck about and did which is what you’d expect for outfits with multiple product lines.
Ultimately this list gives you about as much as Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. If you’re a vendor you get bragging rights, and if you’re a buyer seeking information you get a list of companies to investigate if you’re in the market and sadly, a list of companies to avoid if you’re reading from bottom up. Since success with CRM is all about how well any chosen system works within the context of your organization, I’d be careful to use this data as a first step but it doesn’t relieve you of doing your homework.
Also, I’m fairly certain that some of the listed companies don’t support a full CRM lifecycle including sales, service, marketing, commerce, analytics, and all the rest. Having G2’s data to work with is highly useful but as we know from AI, the data is the thing that drives information generation and it’s information we crave. That last step happens in the mind of evaluators and acquisition committees.
What’s the big deal, I thought? Last week Salesforce announced it was paying in the range of $1.35 billion for ClickSoft, a private field service automation and workforce management company. At first, I attributed it to a slow summer news cycle that was driving attention to the deal at a time when many people in the industry are off trout fishing near the Continental Divide or elsewhere. I was in the Hudson River Valley exploring history so that colored my thinking.
Face it, ClickSoft at $1.35 large is about ten percent of the Tableau data visualization buy a few months ago. I didn’t think it was that big a deal. Also, ClickSoft and Salesforce have been partnering in field service since 2016 so the acquisition signals something much more evolutionary than revolutionary. Then it dawned on me that that’s the point.
Ask this: When in the lifecycle of a disruptive innovation are customers likely to need services of all types including field service but also customer service and support? The need diminishes over time as a disruption is increasingly well understood and customers can figure things out for themselves. To crystallize this no one calls frustrated to not be able to locate the “any key” on their keyboards any more.
We’ve moved on and as we have, product prices and service modes have commoditized in tandem. You can’t lower prices along the commoditization curve if you can’t control costs and one of the biggest costs is labor. So today, products are increasingly well designed and made precisely to ward off every possible need for a service call and what isn’t obviated is automated with bots and intelligent systems.
Field service is just customer service for B2B-complex-systems and that has taken some refactoring as well, most exemplified by mobile systems that use VR to show technicians where to look and what to do on a service call. But Salesforce has had this kind of capability for some time now thanks to the aforementioned relationship with ClickSoft and other bought and built field service software. So why buy the company now?
Simply put, the buy was, I think, a defensive move that prevents any other company from buying ClickSoft and preventing Salesforce from fielding an increasingly important facility.
Go back to who uses services and when in the lifecycle of a disruptive innovation you’re likely to see service bloom and you might get an inkling that Salesforce is reading the graffiti and making the following determination.
We’re nearing the end of the 5th industrial revolution, what I call “The Age of Information and Telecommunications.” This is not to say that any of that technology is going away, just that it is commoditizing to the point that it becomes part of the economy and not the driving force. Previous eras, that I documented in a recent book, included textiles, steam power and steel-making, petrochemicals, radio, and cars.
The list is long, and in every case the prior disruptive innovations clustered (e.g. steam, steel, railroads, coal mining were reinforcing) and drove the economy for as much as 60 years. But eventually commoditization took hold and those things all became parts of the economy though no longer the driving force. So if you look at the ClickSoft acquisition you see not a tech company building out its portfolio (though it is) but a tech company getting ready to serve the next great disruptive innovation rather than being the disruptive innovation.
Perhaps the most perceptive photo accompanying a story on the acquisition was displayed on digitalcommerce360. It shows a technician with a mobile phone and a laptop servicing what look like solar panels. If ever there was an industry that’s taking off it’s the nexus around sustainable energy. Co-incidental proof: the top two fastest growing occupations according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics are Solar photovoltaic installers and Wind turbine service technicians. Now, installers are not service technicians, but I think the analogy holds because part of installation is making the stuff work.
Importantly, those top jobs garner $42,680 and $54,370 per year respectively. The third fastest growing job category is Home health aids which only averages $24,200 per year. Disruptive innovations drive good paying job growth and neither of the jobs mentioned require a college degree. More proof.
My two bits
So what does the Salesforce acquisition of ClickSoft say about Salesforce? Well, Marc Benioff has been talking about a 4th Industrial Revolution for some time now, something I believe he picked up at Davos. Some people refer to Industrial Revolutions, I go with Ages because they’re more descriptive. The point to me is that so much of CRM was developed to help tech companies lift their customers over a big disruption caused by technology. Today the disruption is adjacent, and it is sparking another Age or Industrial Revolution. Salesforce saw this a while ago though I doubt they understood that sustainability would be the thing that received the torch in an unending relay race. So buying ClickSoft in such an environment makes all the sense in the world no matter who is on vacation.
Oracle just published some commissioned research that both gives us insight into CRM generally and insight into the times we live in. According to a study of more than 1,100 people across several generations,
- Almost half (43%) of consumers have blacklisted a brand as the result of a bad experience; while more than one third (34%) of consumers said they would never shop with a company again after just one bad experience.
- Consumers are twice as likely to trust family members (77%) and friends (75%) than any other source for shopping recommendations. The next most trusted source is colleagues (38%).
- Politicians (2%), celebrities (7%), a company employee you engage with online (12%) and influencers/bloggers (14%) are among the least trusted sources of shopping recommendations. (ouch!)
- Consumers from different age groups have very different attitudes toward sharing personal information. 64% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers are comfortable sharing personal information to receive better experiences compared to 50% of Gen X and 35% of Baby Boomers.
There’s more and you can check out the Oracle website if you’re inclined. But what does this say to us, about us, and about CRM?
Research like this spawns development including product development and messaging when an existing product can be turned toward a newly discovered problem. I’d say this research might do a little of both.
It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Oracle has pursued this angle partly because it’s a good one and partly because the company has technologies that help minimize the likelihood of a bad experience. All that’s fine but perhaps we need to be thinking in another direction at the same time.
One area of white space in the sprawling CRM product set right now is any kind of technology that helps to recover customers who’ve cut the cord so to speak. It’s entirely possible that each of us will have an experience with a vendor in the next year that produces grounds for divorce but hold on. The supply of vendors in most markets is far from huge and a personal policy of cutting off a vendor for one bad experience or even a string of them might not always be viable.
Consider Amazon for instance. There’s only one Amazon and they invest heavily in the customer experience, but they still have oopsies (a new technical term for ungraceful customer relationship endings). Most vendors aren’t Amazon and don’t command Amazon’s resources so it’s highly likely that they have even more oopsies than Amazon, which we can agree is far from perfect.
So what happens when a customer runs out of vendors to trash? There-in lies the fallacy of the very human impulse of, “off with their heads” or some such custom. The point is that we need vendors almost as much as they need us. Divorcing a vendor might have worked in the early days of many tech-driven markets when new competition was spinning up as fast as venture capitalists could cut checks. But these days aren’t those days and some recalibrating of consumers’ attitudes toward markets and vendors might be in order. But the impetus will come from CRM vendors not some customer driven kumbaya moment.
The opportunity for CRM vendors is to develop both technology and business processes specifically oriented toward clawing back customers who’ve gone away. Not all of them will be mad, some might have simply gotten out of the habit of dealing with a vendor. Maybe they were on vacation. Whatever, those customers need rescue too and there should be technology to help the process.
We’re in the midst of a big natural experiment in which many customers suddenly decided they didn’t like any of a provider’s offerings and have decided that the whole edifice should come down. But notice in the natural experiment as well as in CRM, pulling the edifice down is not the same as setting up a new one in its place. Pulling one down is also no guarantee that a new, revised and refined edifice will ever hove into view. Often what’s left after the revolutionary teardown is simply chaos.
My two bits
We’ve spent most of the last 20 years trying to make CRM applications work. We’ve gone through converting from client server to cloud, integrating social media and analytics, machine learning, bots and automated interfaces and more all with the view of getting to a point where our machines can serve our customers. But maybe we should give that a rethink. Perhaps we need to make sure there are easier ways to get out of a process and speak with humans and maybe we need to consider how to recycle customers when they get angry enough at us to churn away.
In the natural world if you clear cut a forest, a forest might regrow, but it will take thousands of years. The initial phase of that process is a lot of weed growth. If you want trees you have to plant trees and maybe the same must now be said of customers.
It was bound to happen. Salesforce was going to China at some point and it announced that action this week saying that it was partnering with Alibaba. There are so many ways to read this, but I don’t have the filters not to compare the announcement with what Richard Pryor once said about cocaine: “It’s god’s way of telling you that you have too much money.” Only slightly modified, I’d say setting up in China is god’s way of telling you that you’ve been too successful.
Where to start? There are two scenarios, god’s and a happier one. Let’s flesh them out.
China is potentially the biggest market in the world (depending on what you’re selling) and although their more than 1.4 billion people are rapidly climbing the economic ladder, China is still a mercantile, manufacturing-for-export and agricultural economy. Forget China’s current challenges like a bulging population, energy, water and environmental needs for a moment. They have about four times the population of the US and more than double the US and EU together and China, especially when combined with Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan represents a pool of opportunity that most Western businesses have rarely experienced and that Salesforce needs to continue its growth.
However, China’s well-known business practices of ripping off technology companies through technology transfer demands and joint partnerships makes this deal look less like an opportunity and much more like an organized theft of American tech expertise.
(Gee, Denis, why don’t you tell us what you really think!)
I shudder to think of Salesforce setting up a few datacenters around the country and I wonder what will become of the company’s Ohana, the Hawaiian word it uses for family that represents how Salesforce treats its employees and customers, in a totalitarian state where all memory of Tiananmen Square has been suppressed.
The company’s record of changing minds about repressive activities has had mixed results. For instance, CEO Marc Benioff stood up for LGBT rights in Indiana when Mike Pence was governor moving some Salesforce activities out of state, but the company still maintains a major development office there. Last time I looked, Indiana still wasn’t officially a showcase for diversity and tolerance.
So, it concerns me technologically, economically, and culturally that Salesforce would be putting its head in the proverbial dragon’s mouth.
Is there a better plan?
Times are changing. The trade war spun up in Washington that challenges Chinese practices like dumping steel and unfair partnership agreements and technology transfers has yet to show results. Some analysts suggest that China will simply wait out the current administration in Washington, accepting that it will lose a bit in the short term. But already we see China resetting by seeking alternatives for US soy beans, for instance. And its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) spanning in 152 countries to develop trade routes touching 65 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of its GDP (as of 2017) is something to seriously challenge anyone’s expansion plans.
Trade wars are not simple, and they don’t resolve quickly contrary to the wisdom of the moment. Still it has taken Salesforce 20 years to get to this point and although another entity could recapitulate that march in less time, it would still require determined effort and resources.
Perhaps the trade war and other issues bubbling up will have an effect on China and make the Salesforce mission to China less of a risk. But I’d prefer to see some deeds performed with other companies before investing my own in such a venture.
What’s at stake
The BRI refers to overland transportation (belt) and maritime shipping (road). FYI, in ancient times maritime shipping used what were described as “blue roads,” which were far simpler to make than the land versions. But there is another road not accounted for in BRI and maybe not thought about yet; certainly, it is not thought about enough. It’s the information road and the looming consolidation of IT into a global utility. It’s going on right now before our eyes and if anything can be considered a next Industrial Revolution it will be how we leverage the information utility in the global market.
By placing itself in a relationship with China Salesforce is positioning itself as a player in the IT Road competition. Others like Oracle and Microsoft with contributions from IBM and others (including Alibaba) will form the backbone of the global IT utility.
My two bits
So, from a belt and road perspective, it’s better to be in the tent than outside of it but that doesn’t give China a free hand in IT. Although the country has high expectations for taking a leading position in the tech markets in the decade ahead, these markets bear only a superficial resemblance to China’s mercantile experience.
Modern markets for information or anything else depend on transparency, rule of law, access to capital, and great transportation. China is making strides in some of these, but it will need to up its game to succeed. Salesforce is in many ways an ideal partner for helping China accomplish this but despite all the upside, what I see most is the down side and I wish Salesforce was staying home.