A couple of technologies floating out in my peripheral vision are going to require a greater focus. I think that both IOT and Bots are going to have a profound impact on more than just Dynamics 365 partners and users, but possibly the world as we know it. I realize that these are both sprouting from the Azure side of the house, but Dynamics 365 will play a key role with both.
The Thing about the Internet of Things
I remember an episode of Shark Tank a few years ago, where Mark Cuban said the future will be all about “sensors”. It seems the future he saw, is in the process of arriving. Soon, everything will have a sensor attached to it, and these sensors will be sending massive amounts of data somewhere; if Microsoft has anything to say about it, that somewhere will be Azure. Many of these sensors will be monitoring the health of whatever they are attached to, and if something is amiss, one would assume that a service ticket is automatically created, and the logical place for that to pop up would be in Dynamics 365. Microsoft is calling it “Connected Field Service”. Like many things that Microsoft has launched recently, this one is also in its infancy. Connected Field Service is but one way that this sensor data will manifest itself, but it is the one closest to what we all do and therefor the one we have the best chance of understanding. There is no Opportunity, until there is Understanding.
Sensors are not new, what we are seeing here are significant advancements, and the potential democratization of the technology. While all of it is well beyond my technical ability (which, to be fair, is quite limited), there are some whiz-kids out there who can figure it out. The potential for a partner might be offer to a customer the addition of sensors that they can place on either their own equipment, or equipment that they sell, and have that connected up to Dynamics 365 for monitoring. Smarter people than me are working on this, and I expect this IOT effort will eventually be productized. If it is going to really take off at scale, it will need to be packaged up into more of a turn-key solution that us normal partners can wrap our heads around.
Toll-Free to Portal to Bot
Unlike IOT, I see Bots as something that we might be able to take on. I say that without having lifted a finger yet, but conceptually it does not feel as techie as IOT. Do you remember Tay? Tay was a Microsoft Research project Bot that was designed to mimic the language patterns of a 19-year-old American girl, and to learn from interacting with human users of Twitter. Unfortunately, Tay quickly turned into a racist who swore like a sailor, and had to be silenced. Hey, we learn from Betas right? As Bots have moved beyond the early “Oops” stages, I am seeing significant opportunities for our customers, mostly around Service and eventually Sales. It also feels like the next logical progression from Toll Free Numbers, to Self-Service Portals, onto Bots.
It was not that long ago, that a toll free sales or support number was an absolute requirement. Business decision makers at the time would say things like “I will not deal with any company where I cannot talk to a live person“. This actually started a while ago with the advent of Auto-Attendants answering the phones. Auto-Attendants were the first primitive Bots. As the Boomers give way to the Millennials, the attitudes are changing. The Millennial says things like “I can do this myself, so I will not deal with any company that forces me to talk to a live person“. This explains the high level of interest in Self-Service Portals today. The selling advantage that a customer “gets” to talk to a real person, is quickly becoming a disadvantage. We are seeing more customers offering both Toll-Free Numbers and Portals to straddle the fence. Bots are next.
Can you transfer me to the Bot?
Imagine that you are up-to-speed with a self-service portal. Wanting to be as helpful as possible, you integrate Cafe-X to bring live chat into the picture. You are on the cutting edge… for the moment. But where tickets could be responded to in time, you had to staff up on Sales and Support people to be able to respond to live chat requests. To maximize your resources, and minimize your costs, you took the smarter people and made them Tier-2 or Tier-3, and let the not-as-sharp ones handle Tier-1 and triage incoming chats. So your customers’ first interaction with your company is with someone who is not that sharp. It is no wonder that most users of support, feel like support sucks. It does, and for you to provide it without losing money, it unfortunately must suck. To make money on free, or low cost, support, you need the users to look at support as the last resort. How much googling do you do today to avoid opening a support ticket with Microsoft? The “not-so-sharp” Tier 1 live chat responder can also have had a bad day, give incorrect information, not speak the native language, say things that are not in-line with your policies, or otherwise frustrate your customer. This whole strata of Tier-1 support is ripe for disruption by Bots. A “live” chat Bot could be able to handle the entire Tier 1 conversation. Always happy, never wrong, never veering from the party line, and engaging in whatever language the customer wants.
This is not new, we have seen this already. But today’s bots are not smart enough, or personable enough, they feel very “robotic”, they are primarily routing bots, one step up from an Auto-Attendant. But like Tay, those are all beta bots too. We are on the cusp of Bots that engage more human-like. Not that the goal would be to fool users, many users will know they are talking to a bot, but they won’t care if the information provided is correct, and efficiently provided. Soon, users will prefer Bots to people, and could very well ask a live chat operator if there is a Bot they can be transferred to. Think about this from your customer’s viewpoint, who is currently, or soon will be, providing live chat support. A Bot eliminates a massive expense. One Bot could replace thousands of Tier-1 operators. How much would your customer be willing to shell out for that? I get that this is not good news for Tier-1 operators, but I blog about technology, not the economy, I’ll leave the repercussions for others to debate.
The Coming Sales Bot
I am a seller, I always have been. As a seller, I would like to think that I could never be replaced by technology. I am pretty sure cab drivers thought the same thing, and factory assembly line workers, and any number of human jobs that have been eclipsed by technology. Sales is now in the cross-hairs of technology. Technology is ruthless and unrelenting, and does not care about you or your job security. If technology can do your job better than you, technology wins. You can rant, you can climb up on the file cabinet and scream “I have 20 years of experience!“, technology does not care.
But Steve you say, “Sales has always been a people business, it’s all about relationships, etc.“. We have all heard, over and over by now, various statistics along the lines of “Your customer is 80% of the way through the sales process before they even contact you”. Your “relationship” is starting too late in the process to have any real effect on the outcome… unless you’re an asshole, and then, yes, I can see that having an effect on the outcome. We are not quite order-takers yet for all of our customers, but for a number of them, we are not doing much more… those damn Millennials again. Look at how many things are sold online, via a portal, that not so long ago were sold by people. Look how much of live-chat is focused on pre-sales. A “live” chat Bot could potentially handle the entire pre-sales conversation, particularly if it was chatting up a Millennial.
The next evolution Bot
I saw an article in Fortune about a company that is offering a “Smart Sales Assistant.” They just got $34 Million in venture funding for a Sales Bot that uses scripts. This is pretty cool, but still not new. I remember many years ago LinkedIn, for one, had tried this with their help system. I guess it is a matter of “degree of intelligence”. According to the article, “if the software finds it difficult to interpret a response, or if the prospect sends signals (using certain keywords or phrases) that suggest he or she is receptive to a deeper sales conversation, the exchange is escalated to a human on the sales team.” So, that is the limit of the intelligence behind this company’s “Smart” Bot. Enter Microsoft’s Bot framework, powered by Azure Machine Learning, and remember what Tay was able to do. Tay did not use scripts, granted that turned out to be a little kerfuffle, but Tay was built on a machine learning platform that sought to understand, and respond dynamically with a unique answer, even if it turned out to be racist and vulgar, it was not one selected from a script of most likely answers.
I would like to say it is early days for all of this Bot stuff, and that everything I said above is very futuristic, but it is not… it is here now.