BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
ORLANDO, Fla. -- While it might be tempting to dismiss Microsoft's AI technology hype as slick marketing to drum up sales revenue, a number of the company's customers said artificial intelligence is moving deeper into the real world.
Several Microsoft blue-chip customers displayed their experiences with the company's customer experience AI technology here at the Microsoft Ignite 2018 conference.
BMW uses AI and Azure's bot framework to enhance on-road driver support in cars. Swedish clothing retailer H&M launched Afound, an off-price outlet that includes physical stores in Sweden and globally via a digital marketplace infused with customer experience AI to drive sales. Two other retail giants, Nordstrom and Walmart, are remaking their online shopping experiences to match their online-only competitors.
In a separate initiative, experimental H&M store mirrors listen to what people are saying and offer real-time fashion advice from virtual agents, supplemented by interactions with store staff.
"Computing power is being used to generate ... AI-driven business processes [and] that next-generation of multisense, multi-device experiences that are much more people-centric," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in his keynote here.
Business drivers trump tech
It's all part of a movement among brands attempting to make the digital customer experience resemble the physical world or, barring that, enhancing those experiences by identifying and serving supplemental information that might induce a sale.
Or, as Wesley Rhodes, vice president of technology transformation at Cincinnati-based supermarket chain The Kroger Co., put it, it's a movement "to give customers an experience that considers what's happening right now," such as figuring out whether they're in a hurry at their Kroger or in a more deliberate, even exploratory mood, and reacting to that.
"That's what's lacking in shopping today; it's the same bland experience, no matter what's happening in my life," Rhodes said.
That requires closer partnerships between IT and the business sides of each company to ensure they're making technology investments in line with business strategy, said James Phillips and Alysa Taylor, corporate vice presidents at Microsoft, during their own session on customer experience (CX) sales and service transformation.
Customer experience AI is no silver bullet
Once that alignment is achieved and a business identifies a customer experience AI use case to pilot, there's a long trail to hike before the bottom-line benefits show up on the ledger. The company must identify and purchase cloud support tools.
Richard WingfieldCTO of Majid Al Futtaim
Then, tune the algorithms -- and retune them several more times after that, said Richard Wingfield, CTO of Majid Al Futtaim, one of the luxury mall developers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which includes the Ski Dubai indoor desert snow park. The company also runs about 20% of the stores on its properties -- its own brands -- and employs AI projects to optimize traffic and sales.
"[AI] is not a silver bullet," Wingfield said. "A lot of vendors and powerful consultancies will sell it as a silver bullet. When you deploy a piece of software today, you develop, test, deploy, you walk away and you let your [admins] run it. With AI, it doesn't work that way, because you've always got to go back to the model. It's a completely iterative process."
While that seems like a lot of work and financial outlay, in the end, customer service AI initiatives can and will pay off, he concluded.
One example Wingfield cited was an AI tool Majid Al Futtaim purchased to optimize movie schedules at the company's various theaters, which show a mix of Hindi, Arabic and U.S. flicks. It took AI to make sense of which films to play in which specific rooms at the best times and intervals.
SAP, Microsoft, Adobe promise customer data interoperability
Data, of course, fuels customer experience AI technology. It connects customers to usable insights and the right sales messages at the right time. To promote freer flow of customer data between systems that either exist in silos or require much development support, Nadella launched an Open Data Initiative to exchange and enhance customer data across Adobe, SAP and Microsoft's platforms.
The companies' cloud platforms compete with each other at times for sales, service, support and e-commerce; in other instances, depending on a customer enterprise IT topology, the competing vendors' technologies supplement one another. Nadella explained it as Adobe, SAP and Microsoft agreeing to "unmark data" across competing platforms so companies can improve AI and other services using a customer's full data set.
A joint statement offered few further details, without enumerating many technical specs or governance structure for the initiative. Nadella also invited other software vendors to join. The Open Data Initiative -- the brainchild of SAP CEO Bill McDermott, who joined Nadella onstage with Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen to discuss it -- enables companies to build IT processes to cede control of customer data back to its customers.
That's a bedrock tenet of the European GDPR privacy rule that went into effect earlier this year.
"Every single enterprise has to meet the mandates of their customers, which require all interactions to be digital, personalized and relevant," Adobe's Narayen said, mentioning Walmart, Coca-Cola and Unilever initiatives to improve digital CX. "When we hear from customers jointly, and we bring together our technologies, we can architect this ... we can reimagine customer experience management."
Two industry experts speaking on background said it is theoretically possible a company might use all three companies' platforms -- one possible scenario would be Adobe for content production, Dynamics for CRM and SAP for ERP -- but they didn't know personally of any real-world companies that might benefit immediately from the Open Data Initiative because it uses all three vendors. Certainly, one commented, it wouldn't likely sway a big Salesforce customer to rip and replace it with Dynamics 365.
Rhodes said while the Open Data Initiative sounds interesting, his company would have to learn a lot more technical details about it and first rigorously examine the impact on data security and customer privacy before even thinking about its possible business benefits.
"I like the idea, but it would be devastating to us to let our customers down in those two areas," Rhodes said. "In my experience, sometimes new initiatives don't think through the ramifications of [privacy and security] in the early days."
Explore how brands are using AI to gain a competitive edge