Leveraging Communities through Analytic Engines

The driving force for the Social Customer era is the participation in communities both for social and professional purposes.  From the structured social networks (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) to company-owned or company-sponsored communities used for support, sales prospecting, or research and development, through communities used internally for collaboration between workers – communities are showing up just about anywhere.

This change brings vast amounts of content generated by the communities.  In spite of the extensive experience gained by organizations in the past few years dealing with large data sets and knowledge, the user-generated content still remains untamed.  What to do with it, and how to leverage it for value, are almost as mysterious today as they were when we first began accumulating Knowledge in the 1980s.  Organizations are struggling to understand how to utilize it and how to derive value from it.  Alas, Content Management Systems and similar enterprise tools can help manage the creation and processing of structured content – but the largest problem still remains the unstructured content produced in these communities.

Realizing Value from the New Large Volume of Content

Consider the size of some of these communities: Facebook is close to 500 million people, Twitter nears 100 million, and a few of the corporate-sponsored communities have over two million members.  The amount of content generated is bringing organizations that were already drowning in data from transactional CRM systems to desperate levels.  They are now saddled by massive volumes of knowledge and feedback that makes finding the needle in the haystack look like child’s play.  In spite of the amazing volume, the storage and management of the content is not the problem – storage space is cheap these days so virtually any amount of content and data can be stored for – well, as close to forever as we need to.  The solution of cheap storage has given place to a bigger problem: what to do with it?

An organization wants to capture and leverage critical information from their customers’ needs and wants to deliver better experiences and products.  On the other hand customers fear that their feedback is not being heard and used. To show customers they care about their opinion, companies must act on the feedback.  Alas, given the volume, and short of scanning each entry posted in any community for useful information or data, how can they capture and act on this feedback?

image by © Plumdesign | Dreamstime.com

Enter analytical engines.

There are two roles that an analytical engine can play in a community – they can either be used to monitor and report on usage, sentiment and trends, or they can be used to structure the unstructured.

Monitoring for the Sake of Monitoring

Social Media brought with it standard monitoring tools.  Whether from Social Media Monitoring (SMM) vendors like INgage, Radian6, ScoutLabs, and Visible Technologies, or embedded within the products of other vendors, these tools are quickly becoming the “first line of defense” for the barrage of data produced.  The ability to collect the raw data, summarize it and report on specific terms is valuable for organizations that are suddenly overwhelmed by these new channels.

These tools are used for monitoring specific words and phrases, brand mentions (or competitors’ brands), and people talking about industries or products.  For example, during the TV airing of Super Bowl XLIV there was an analysis of brand mentions done by Radian6 and partners, called  BrandBowl 2010, which resulted in the naming of a winner by number of mentions and “positive” (like or dislike expressions) sentiment.  During the same event, another analysis done by MarketIQ contrasting Coke and Pepsi, aptly named the SodaBowl, also looked at mentions and sentiments for both drink manufacturers.  Again, the conclusion was to which was more popular – they actually used the term “buzzworthy” – not who gained what from their different approach to promoting themselves.

While certainly entertaining, it yielded no value to the brands mentioned on the success of failure of their campaigns – just whether they were popular or not.

Although there is room for improvement in sentiment analysis, the near-real-time analysis of these events allows marketers to identify which communities are important to them, and which ones need further attention.  It also allows them, for the first time, to understand immediately what effects their actions have and adjust campaigns and plans in real time –invaluable to improve the message and ensure a good reception by the public.

However, monitoring for the sake of monitoring yields limited value to businesses on their way to becoming social.  Listening is the first step, but engaging with the customer and providing a return on their feedback is closer to becoming a social entity.  Organizations leveraging analytical engines to find and structure this feedback are on a more interesting path to assess.

Structuring the Unstructured

Among the contributions to communities by their members there are very interesting nuggets of information, opinions, and suggestions that are often lost since there are no tools that can extract it, organize it, and use it.  This information could be used to improve products, create better experiences, or to better understand the needs of the customers and prospects.  Customers are more open in their opinions among peers than when being asked to complete surveys or participate in focus groups.  This candor and openness often results in very valuable data – which is not always leveraged.

image by © Carsten Reisinger | Dreamstime.com

Analytical engines can find that information and structure it (create a data record from it), distribute it to the specific system that can utilize it, and keep track of trends and patterns on the data they find.  Organizations use them to carry out actions like ideation (the creation of new products and services), feedback management (understanding how customers really feel beyond the surveys), social prospecting (finding more about their prospects and segments to target in sales), and virtual focus groups (leveraging customers’ opinions without formally convening a group).

Good analytical engines will automatically classify all the information collected (using an SMM – social media monitoring tool – is the best way to collect all this information) into different buckets, and analyze those buckets to generate insights.  This categorized information in its raw form is somewhat valuable, but the use of workflows and databases to store this data and process it further yield very powerful knowledge for the use cases mentioned above.

Integration Rules the Analytics World

The most valuable output an analytical engine can produce is the ability to take different inputs, across channels and across functions, and use all that in search of insights.  Organizations receive communications via email, chat transactions, online comments, surveys with free-text boxes, and many other methods.  To focus the efforts only on the communities, because they are the “hot item”, leaves a lot of potentially valuable data un-examined.  This data must be merged and integrated with the community insights for further analysis.  Analytical engines cannot stop at simply producing a report for each community; they have to become a critical part of the platform used by the organizations to interact with and manage their customers.

This platform will then integrate the content generated by all channels and all methods the organization uses to communicate, and produce great insights that can be analyzed for different channels and segments, or altogether.  This analysis, and the subsequent insights, yield far more powerful customer profiles and help the organization identify needs and wants faster and better.

Alas, the role of analytical engines for communities is not to analyze the community as a stand-alone channel, although there is some value on that as a starting point, but to integrate the valuable data from the communities into the rest of the data the organization collects and produce insights from this superset of feedback.

What do you think?

This is the first in a series of sponsored research posts I will be writing with Attensity (cross-posted to their blog as well) to look at the value and purpose of deeper analytics on communities (i.e. beyond simply mentions and sentiments-like words and phrases) and social channels.  Any ideas or areas I should explore further?

Is it a New Social Business – or an evolved Business?

It is certainly quite interesting to hear people discuss “The Social Business” as if it was a brand-new invention, something that we never thought of before.  These are the same people that are claiming that now the customer is in control and we have to turn our businesses to them and vow in their general direction each time they exercise use of the megaphone that social networks have placed in their hands.

The concept of social business is not new and it has already been “implemented” by plenty of organizations in history.  The organizations that realized early in their life that being “social”, relating to the customer and giving them what they want and need, has hefty rewards have already been social for quite some time.  Most people would cite here examples like Ritz Carlton, Harley Davidson, and some other beloved brands – and they are right, of course.  Alas, companies like Amazon, that integrated reviews into their business model way before we had social networks of massive consumption, and MMORPG and MPORPG, the original social networks, should be mentioned as well.

What is indeed new, and what we need to explore in more depth, is the role that new generations play in the fate of business.  This is not a social revolution as much as it is a social evolution driven by a generational shift.  As we move from Baby Boomers and Generation X into Generation Y and beyond we encounter a different model of thinking and communications – and that is what is different today.  The technology and the networks we are creating, sure – they are new.  However, none of them would’ve amounted to much without the communication style and needs of the new generations they support.  And let us not forget the globalization of our world – another core component of this cycle.

We need to explore and determine better not whether organizations should embrace this new (r)evolution (I prefer to call it evolution, as business is constantly evolving and this is our next destination) but rather how they will change their hierarchies, processes, and communication styles to support it.  We have to bring together customers, suppliers, and partners into collaboratively creating better end-to-end business processes to fulfill needs for both the organization and the customers (after all, we did say collaboration – right?).

We need to remodel our organizations to support this collaboration models, and change the culture to embrace the value it brings to both customers and workers.  It is this value that becomes the return-on-investment that justifies the continuation of the model.  This is not a discussion of tools (only), or culture (only), or even processes (alone).  We are talking about the intersection of these three worlds and how we can work better together to create the evolved business model that will sustain us until the next evolution happens.

Let’s start the discussion and discovery — together…

This is a submission I made to participate in Social Business Edge – Stowe Boyd’s social business event.  I thought that in addition to it I would bring the conversation to the blog, get your input on whether I am going in the right direction or not — what are your thoughts?

How Chatter May Win the Enterprise 2.0 Game (Maybe Even CRM)

On Wednesday February 17th I attended the event where Salesforce launched the private Beta of Chatter.  Leaving aside the fact that you need an event to launch a private Beta, it was a good opportunity to see the progress that Chatter had made since the announcement at Dreamforce 2009.  If you recall, I thought it was interesting from the platform perspective – not as an application.

During the past three months they have been solidifying both the concept and the product.  The good news? The product they launched into Beta is basically the same they introduced at their event — more refined and easier on the eye.  Having an improved user interface for the entire line does not hurt them either.  The bad news? There is still some work to do — and it is not on the product side (well, there is some work to do on the product side, but since they have no competition on what they are offering, yet, that’s not the bad, bad news).

Read on for more details on what, and why, they need to do in the next few months

I had the opportunity to talk to Salesforce executives, product management, other analysts, beta customers, and “still considering it” customers.  The event was very good to collect information and determine the feeling their customers had towards it.  By far the main concern was the price that non-Salesforce and non-Force.com users have to pay to use Chatter.  This fear of licensing is misplaced, as I understand it, since non-Salesforce or Force.com users would have to pay to access the platform services anyways — and the number of users is not as large as most fear for platform access.  If you are going to use it as part of an existing Salesforce or Force.com implementation, you are already paying for the license and don’t need to pay extra.  The only really expensive case is if you develop a new Force.com application without having Salesforce or Force.com already deployed — but that is a small minority of the cases.

Bottom line is that if you are going to leverage the power of Chatter as a platform you need to pay licenses for accessing Force.com — not for every single user that will benefit from it — and then use that access to integrate to your existing or new application outside of Force.com.  The issue of the licenses is blown out of proportion as a barrier to adoption in my opinion — but Salesforce will be glad to correct me if I am wrong in this point and I will concede it is an issue then (please use the comment section to correct me so we can all benefit).

Once we get past the misunderstanding over price, the second issue was not knowing what “it can do”.  I can see that as a more significant issue in the long run, and one that will be a barrier to adoption.  While they showcased clients who are currently using it, these were the same ones I saw at Dreamforce (excellent implementations and both have matured some since then, Appirio showed their  PSA and Vetrazzo showed how they run the entire company among others).

The key to the success comes down to creativity and innovation.  If they can get interesting, and innovative, uses of Chatter in the next six-to-nine months they will have proven the value of making Chatter part of the platform and not an application. If these interesting, as in leveraging integration to external sources and to other platforms, implementations don’t materialize then they will have lost the opportunity to change the game.

The most interesting part of this discussion? Very few, if any, of their customers and beta customers were discussing Chatter as a CRM tool or Social tool.  While acknowledging the power of the social integration it provides, the demos and the “chatter” (could not help it) were hinting to Enterprise 2.0 tools and architecture areas — not a new CRM tool.  This is a critical point, as it opens up a new way to look at Chatter: a cloud component — not a CRM component.  And this is a massive differentiating factor between Chatter and other vendors’ attempts to integrate social networks: Chatter is part of the Force.com platform.

The implications of this? Chatter becomes a core architectural component of organizations that adopt it, replacing (with simple and faster programming, and more powerful integration) Microsoft Sharepoint, IBM Notes, and (I feel nice today) even Novell Groupwise.  Since you have to create applications for these platforms (and they are expensive and cumbersome) why not move those resources to Chatter and Force.com?  Yes, why not indeed.  Powerful implications.

One more thing: vendors of community and collaboration tools must not worry about chatter replacing them.  As I said in my original post, and continue to maintain, this is a very good thing for them.  Being able to leverage the platform, including Chatter and other applications it can connect to, increases dramatically the value of their tools.  They are no longer silo applications that are single function and single purpose, now they become solution providers to an entire ecosystem linked via the platform.  It actually enables these vendors to provide very powerful features — without having to worry about how since the platform will handle the connections and data-transfers.

This, to me, is the true value of Chatter — a platform that extends any other applications you want to or need to use in your organization.

Am I hyping this too much?  Is my high school-style  giddiness getting the best of my judgment? What is your point of view?

Disclaimer: I was invited to the event by Salesforce in my role as independent analyst because I have a relationship with their Analyst Relations department.  They gave me a nice lunch, I chose the vegetarian dish over the beef in case you are wondering, and yet another copy of Marc Benioff’s book (which I left behind for another fortunate soul to read since I already have a copy).  I received no compensation from them for this writing (not even validated parking in downtown San Francisco), nor are they a client (yet, they can still get wise and hire me).  Even if they were a client, my views above would not change (but their product may improve on my advice).  If you are reading this as part of your Due Diligence on Chatter, please read more opinions and don’t act just on mine.  If you do, you are solely responsible for your potential failure (but I will take the credit if you succeed).

About Them Customers' Expectations

I wrote a blog post at TheSocialCustomer.com trying to define what a Social Business is.  I am quite certain I am far from done with the definition, but there is one part in the post that I want to expand a little bit more: customers’ expectations.

I wrote that for a Social Business (actually, it really means any business with aspirations to leverage social channels) you have to over-deliver to customer expectations.  I did not say you have to meet them, I did say you have to exceed them.  Some of my peers in the #SCRM Accidental Community were not too thrilled with the idea (apparently, not sufficiently upset to comment on the blog post either) of having to exceed expectations, telling me that meeting them should be sufficient as long as it is done in a consistent basis.

I disagree, and here are the three reasons I disagree:

1) Competition – if you only meet your customers’ expectations, then your competitors will find out what they want and take them. It’s very simple, people’s loyalty (in most cases just rational with few exceptions — see next point) are for purchase.  What’s that? You want an extra 10 days to pay your credit card bill and the rigid bills at the your bank won’t allow it?  Well, guess what I got for you — an extra 15-days to pay your credit card every month!  Poof, customer lost — Loyalty can be bought.

2) Loyalty – I wrote before how loyalty becomes an emotional thing over time when you over-delivered to your customers.  The consistent over-delivery is what creates a bond with the experience that makes customers move from rational to emotional loyalty. We are more willing to forgive a bad experience from Beloved Brands than from any other brand.  If the Ritz Carlton screws up (yes, it happens) and they say they will make it up to you, you better believe it till blow your expectations of “making it up to you” out of the water.  If AT&T says they will make it up to you — well, you get the picture.  Which brand generates emotional loyalty in every interaction? Beloved Brands — the ones that are out to exceed customers’ expectations.

3) Long-term Strategy – Interesting thing about Customer Service and Experiences, they are not a destination; it is something you will continue to do until the day you close your business.  Planning for meeting your customers’ expectations, as opposed to exceeding them, is like planning to make it to the end of the month with your paycheck — you can get what you want done in the immediate term, but you cannot prepare for the future or properly accommodate unexpected occurrences.  If something happens that requires you to go beyond your current setup you won’t have the bandwidth or the capacity as your systems and solutions are only set to meet present  needs.  Sounds like it would never happen?  Think again.  When JetBlue was faced with apologizing for keeping people in a locked airplane in the tarmac for some ungodly number of hours (was it eight? 12?) a couple of years ago, they could’ve just said we are sorry, here is a voucher — as most other airlines would’ve done.  Instead, they changed their systems and procedures to make sure it never happened again.  Customers, accustomed to what the airline industry had to offer, never expected that.  As a result, over 90% of them intended to continue flying with JetBlue.  Trust me, JetBlue did not just want to meet expectations – they wanted to blow them our of the water.

Do you want your brand to become a Beloved Brand? To have emotional loyal customer? To have your service commitment work as your marketing campaign?  Your plans should be to exceed your customers’ expectations then.

Am I wrong? What says you?

Why PaaS is the New Black

I had very interesting conversations and strategy sessions with my clients lately, and noticed peculiar things in the market as well — all of them around the same issue: Platforms.

No, I am not talking about the shoes of the 1970s we loved so much, I am talking about the intermediate layer of the cloud model – Platforms used to deploy applications.

I wrote about Chatter back in November, and Genesys couple of weeks ago — and in both I expressed my firm belief that Platforms are going to be the issue that defines the cloud in the next few years.  I also wrote about the cloud as being more than simply SaaS (Software as a Service) applications in my 2010 “predictions”.  I truly believe this is going to be the issue that will define the next generation of enterprise applications (this whole SCRM v CRM v Enterprise 2.0 v Social Business has limited future — and even If I am wrong, they still need a platform to run on, right?).

Here is where I stand on this, an unedited version of my brain right now (careful, may scare you).

There are three layers to the cloud: IaaS (infrastructure), PaaS (platform), and SaaS (applications).  They all ride on a universally known and publicly available network — they need it to exist (note: thus the impossibility of the “private cloud” — sorry, pet peeve).  This network is controlled by — well, let’s face it Cisco and a couple of others that have some products here and there.  OK, mostly Cisco.  This “Mostly Cisco Network” supports the infrastructure layer which essentially handles the communications between the network and the platform, while providing some services (authentication, security, encryption, integration and links to database and legacy systems, and common protocols among others).

Right on top of the infrastructure is where the platforms live also interacting with the layer above: the applications.  The platform is the management layer that connects the infrastructure with the logic and presentation layers provided by the applications.  Here is where something like a community, a knowledge-base, and a rules engine (as examples) would exist in a cloud environment.  Platforms provide an answer to the application on whatever information they needed, with the infrastructure and network supporting them.

Finally, the applications – the stuff that truly, honestly is the easiest of the three (complexity decreases as you climb the three layers of the cloud – or the seven layers of the OSI model in which it is modeled).  As I used to say about survey software, anyone with a garage and a couple of weekends can build a cloud applications (as long as they have the platform and the infrastructure in place — otherwise is not a “cloud application”).  Maybe more than a couple of weekends, but you get the idea..

This brings me back to my original point that platform solutions seem are emerging.  A platform is what would make a call center (OK, contact center and we can accommodate several channels) flexible, dynamic, and able to add a new channel (say, like Social Channels) with relative ease.  The social networks we talk about so much are all platforms (yes, Twitter, Facebook, Communities, etc.).

Why am I bringing this up?

I am sensing a rising problem: interconnecting the platforms.  While ideally and in theory this would be handled by the cloud as long as the platforms support an underlying infrastructure, this is not the driving force for the design of new platforms.  I am seeing platforms that MAY be open and easy to leverage and integrate, but with zero effort spent in trying to figure out how these platforms can and should work with each other.  I am seeing half-baked efforts at platforms that don’t consider integration with infrastructure and other platforms as vital. This is not only bad, it makes the platforms not cloud-compliant and thus not very useful in the long-run.

I am trying to make sure that the new platforms are indeed open, integration-ready, and cloud-compliant.  I want to raise the flag early on so we can actually leverage them, and make application development easier while making the problems they solve more complex.  I want to make sure that this time around the cloud actually has staying power since my poor heart cannot take another CORBA-style disappointment.

Got it?

What do you think?  Am I asking too much? Is the cloud even possible? Are platforms going to be the big thing for 2010?  Would love to hear your thoughts on this…

Look Ma, New Content at TheSocialCustomer.com!

I write two posts a month exclusively on TheSocialCustomer.com, which I do think is a very interesting community to share all things related to Social Businesses and Social CRM.

When I told you what I was going to focus on for this year I said I wanted to look at the evolving business functions in a social business.  I am going to use that platform for that exploration — but will also announce it here in case you just get the feed for this blog (yeah, I am that smart and figured that out last night…).

First post looked at the role of Customer Service as the new Marketing (conclusion, no).

Today’s post looks at the role of Sales in a Social Business.

Enjoy, and feel free to drop your comments there — as the content won’t be republished anywhere else…

The Re-Genesys of Genesys

If I mention Genesys to ten analysts in the customer service or CRM space nine of them will tell me they are a telephony company, and one probably won’t know who I am talking about.  I was one of the nine when I first started with Gartner: to me Genesys was the software arm of Alcatel, and you could not have one without the other.  In other words, Alcatel led with voice and telephony products, and if the client wanted a software product, they would offer the eService Suite from Genesys.

Somewhere in the mid-2000s this began to shift.  I remember in 2004 when I was doing the research for the ERMS (email response management system – email automation tools for Customer Service) Marketscope I was very pleasantly surprised to see their offering was actually — good.  Not market leader at the time, but good.  It continued to get better and better over time, and the other components of the eService Suite were also getting better.  In 2007, the last year I conducted the research for the eService Magic Quadrant, they had actually qualified for inclusion and were rated fairly well (unfortunately, the report was never published — but that is a long story and requires time and drinks).

After that debacle, I lost track of them and recently regained contact when I was invited to their Analyst day, which was last week in Palo Alto.  Here is where I need to insert a short note to congratulate Joe Heinen, Rob Hilsen and the Genesys AR team for a wonderful and amazing event.  Lots of great information, good pace, and good interaction — incredible how well they pulled off a very hard thing to do: keeping a squad of analysts interested and engaged.  Joe Heinen had an interactive voting session that inspired me to write this post, and to jokingly post the following on Twitter:

Results of Live Polling at Genesys Analyst Day

Alas, all joking aside, the intent for this post if not to show my screen-scrapping skills but to share something very interesting I spotted at the event.  Genesys, the little telephony company that could do better in software — has done better.  The new vision and architecture introduced (parts available today, the rest coming out with the next release – version 8 – in Q1 of 2010) was significant for three reasons:

1. It was re-architected to work with a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) server in addition to switches and cards — making it easier to tie telephony with other channels, which leads to

2. They are using a framework called iWD (intelligent Workload Distribution) – a follow-up to an Universal Queue that leverages the concepts I laid out in the Customer Interaction Hub (CIH) while at Gartner making it not only a multi-channel management unit, but also an universal interaction resolution framework.  Very powerful indeed as we move to a tight integration of the three layers of the cloud, which in turn leads to

3. They have the only working model (being implemented right now at a client that shall remain nameless under NDA laws) I know of a truly cloud-centric (not hosted applications or on-demand solutions) customer service solution.  This is the biggest thing I took away from the event.

Unfortunately, this is only a summary of the event and the very-cool stuff I saw while there.  I don’t have time (but do have the slides, email me if you are interested and I will share what I can with Genesys permission) to describe in details how the product works and how it does what it does (parts of it are still under NDA).  But let me tell you this:  as we evolve into a cloud-centric world, being able to work in all three layers (IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS) is what distinguishes the vendors who get it from those that just try to pass hosted applications as cloud-applications.  Salesforce gets it now, as they’ve shown when they released Chatter as part of the PaaS and linked to Service Cloud 2 and other Force.com applications.  And Genesys not only gets it – but can operate at any (or all) of the three layers.  This is a very big step forward.

Now, wiping the drool and going back to being an analyst — will it work and stick and change the industry?  Don’t know, too early to tell.  It is going to be very hard to convince contact centers to replace their telephony hardware solutions with a SIP-based solution, and tie that into Genesys components that will also replace existing solutions.  Technology refreshes that would address these issues happen every five-to-seven years at contact centers, so we are just beginning to see what could be a very large trend to come in the next few years.  One point in their favor: lots of organizations have already committed VoIP (and by association SIP) as a core component of their next technology refresh.  This is a good-news / bad-news item though, as Genesys has time to continue to improve and perfect the offering (yes, it is a version 1.0 right now, and with very limited distribution), but they may have to wait longer than they want to see adoption of the model.

One thing does remain in my mind: this is a good first step towards a true cloud-centric deployment of a Customer Service architecture.  I am looking forward to seeing how it progresses in the next few months and years.

Am I seeing something that won’t happen?  Is then cloud just vapor (not literally, of course)?

Disclaimer: Genesys did invite me to their conference and paid for all costs, which would have included a stay at a very nice hotel if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to get up at 3 AM, drive 250 miles, spend the day in sessions, have a great dinner with show, and drive 250 miles back (leaving at 11 PM) on the same day.  Alas, did not get the nice hotel room (bummer).
Genesys is  not currently a client, they may be if they are smart enough to hire me — but even then, my analysis above will  not change.  I am not that cheap of a date, takes more than that to buy my impressions.
I was truly impressed by their progress and the way they presented the new vision.  Time will tell, and then I may be vindicated for pointing it out first — or may be ridiculed for thinking it was possible.
This analysis is based on my experience, knowledge, and time in the market.  If you base any decisions solely on this, you deserve what you get as a result.  Do your due diligence and read what others are saying, talk to existing users, and take your time to decide.  If this is your only data point to make the decision — well…