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This Might Take a While

improve customer retention with artificial intelligence

This is the year everything CRM changes, thanks to AI.

The importance of CRM seems a settled matter. We need it and the data it captures to support our customer-facing businesses wall to wall. AI is another dimension, and it may take time to get up to speed.

CRM data has been essential to reducing the cost of doing business and increasing a company’s success rate. That data can be useful to managers with or without AI to help them understand how their businesses are operating. Call this the view through the rearview mirror.

But that same data is especially useful when trying to predict how customers are likely to act or respond to offers and assistance. You could call this the road ahead because AI works on the future.

So both views are needed, and while we’ve been trying to gain insights into business performance for a long time, the thought that you can understand and possibly influence near-future activity is still new, though much welcomed.

Decoding the User Perspective

Despite all the early generative AI solutions that seem to have sprung up recently, a new report from Salesforce’s research department has given me cause to ponder the rollout more skeptically. Some of my recent reading influences my thinking too.

The Salesforce research, which I alluded to last time, essentially documents a decent swath of the userbase as saying, “Great! How do we use this stuff?” On one hand, it’s a perennial question. Whenever a new technology is introduced, people on the bleeding edge ask the same question because the people who sign the checks usually seem to fail to ask it.

How do we use this stuff is the corollary of “What kind of training do you offer?” It’s a necessary question that buyers need to ask but rarely do. Decades into the high-tech revolution, we seem to be still mired in the assumption that tech somehow manages itself or that it’s so easy to use you don’t need documentation.

WEIRD-est People in the World

My recent research suggests the how do we use it question has a much more practical punch than you might think. We who use AI and other tech marvels of the last 50 years have been described by some as WEIRD — an acronym for Wealthy, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratized.

That pretty much sums up Western society, including most English speakers and allies such as the EU, Japan, Australia, and others.

According to Joseph Henrich, author of “The Weirdest People in the World,” an earlier tech revolution that began around 1500 CE changed our brains and made us much more likely to invent things like capitalism and modern democracy, but also internal combustion engines, nuclear reactions, and space telescopes, and all that go with them.

We’re only talking about the last 500 years, which means that changes in our brains are not the result of evolution or genetics. Rather, these are changes such as the increased size of the corpus callosum, the cerebral internet that connects the hemispheres of the brain.

There are other changes too, but this is not a course on neuroanatomy.

Literacy Shaped Society and Our Minds

So, what technology was responsible for making us WEIRD over the last half millennium? Movable type and the printing press; reading was the result, and gaining literacy changed society. It was like doing brain pushups that enabled us to do many sophisticated activities we take for granted today.

Keep in mind that because genetics is not involved, learning to read and doing brain pushups still happens today with predictable results. Interestingly, you can see the difference in brain scans between us WEIRD Westerners and people from traditional societies who may not read.

It took decades and, in some instances, centuries before the accumulated benefit of reading and mass literacy reached a point where those benefits affected society. A case in fact, it was roughly 250 years between 1500 and The Enlightenment, that period when modern democratic ideas became codified, capitalism was invented, and science separated from philosophy.

What Might the Future Hold?

More than 600 words into this piece, you might be asking how any of this is relevant to CRM and whatever comes after it. Well, quite simply, if literacy could cause such profound changes in human anatomy and societal organization, what might be the effects of AI or even earbuds?

We don’t have 500+ years to get AI right the way we did with reading. But I think we ought to be prepared to deal with brain changes that might accrue from dealing with it.

What might those changes be? Who knows?

If AI puts you out of a job, will your brain stop doing pushups? Will you become even more creative because you aren’t hunched over a spreadsheet all day? If you work with AI, will you suddenly also have to deal with the results of doing sit-ups as well? Will the differences between AI and non-AI users be as significant as those between literate and non-reading societies?

A Generational Task

If AI is as big a deal as many think it is, we ought to be looking out for how it will affect society, which goes much deeper than trying to answer questions about how we use this stuff.

Still, there will be winners and losers because there always are when we deal with new tech that affects most of society. Right now, we’re fixated on the sonnets generative AI can produce and the visual art-like things it renders. Yet just around the corner might be solutions to some of modern life’s real hairballs, like supply chains.

I might be wrong, but AI that can simplify and improve supply chain operations won’t put anyone out of jobs and just might make life significantly better for all sorts of reasons.

The big point in all this is that it’s going to take some time to absorb something as powerful and manifold as AI, and we shouldn’t expect instant change. That’s why I’m sticking my neck out to say that understanding AI might just be the work of a generation.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. Email Denis.

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