Conversational experiences: Building relationships one conversation at a time

Mitch Lieberman, thought leader for CRM and conversations over the years, graces us with a discussion as to why conversational systems are incredibly beneficial to building both business relationships and customer engagement.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

NOTE: While I have my head down writing a white paper, I get the distinct honor of introducing you (again) to a dear friend and thought leader, Mitch Lieberman (who you may have met before on these pages last March). Mitch, now the founder and principal strategist of ConversationalX, has been doing this long enough and exceptionally well enough for you to read this carefully and think about it because it's likely to involve the future of your business. It's not just CRM anymore - it's conversations.

Right Mitch?

Conversations represent the past and future of business relationships; designed and built one conversation at a time. There is often a missed opportunity here. A conversation between two people is as old as humanity itself, and conversations have always been at the core of all relationships. Many often forget this simple point. While a conversation creates a shared experience, its interpretation is unique to each party. Thus, mutually beneficial, positive conversations facilitate the building and strengthening of relationships. This perspective is frequently underappreciated. In order to build better relationships, we need to have better conversations. Conversational Systems will not only support customer engagement, they will take a leading role in the future of building business relationships.

A Conversational System is an intelligent platform combined with brand philosophy and business strategy within a communications framework. The core objective is to facilitate comfortable and familiar discussions between two parties that provide mutually beneficial value, establish trust, and embrace building a co-designed relationship.

Conversational Systems are the result of recombinant innovation focused on progress and outcomes. In other words, this is not something new. What is new is looking at modern communications through a different lens and rebuilding the core ideas and concepts for 'the now'. Focusing energy on conversational flow, design, and understanding will allow directed outcomes to progress through a more natural path. Not to be ignored, every conversation leaves its participants feeling something - an emotional or psychological reaction. The individual's perception based on the outcome of each interaction is Conversational Experience.

Conversational Experience Excellence is the job-to-be-done of a Conversational System


Figure 1: Conversational System Logical Diagram

When focused on customer/company relationships, Conversational System design needs to be closely aligned with the discipline of CRM: Sales, Service and Marketing. A strong focus should be placed on outcomes, not on records or process management. There also needs to be some guidelines, which I call the "20 Principles That Will Guide the Practice of Conversational Experience". Here are the first three. (If you are interested in seeing the complete list, feel free to send me a note. I am easy to find: a twitter (@mjayliebs) DM with your email. It works.

Embedded within each idea is the simple question: How does this make the Experience better? These 20 principles serve as a guide to vendors, consultants and the enterprise. They will also serve as an evaluation guide for capability and maturity.

(3 of the 20) Principles That Will Guide the Practice of Conversational Experience:

  1. Conversations are multifaceted. Getting to the right conversation is about accuracy; having that conversation is about precision. Thus, determining which conversation to have and how to best have it are distinct exercises. While equally important, both are complex. Therefore, practitioners must be clear about which problem they are trying to solve.
  2. Conversations reduce friction. They are familiar and easy to describe. Active dialog allows for clear communication and the ability to course correct. Conversations can take place in-person or over video, voice, web chat, and SMS/messaging. Conversations are synchronous, asynchronous, and may come in bursts. Technological definitions may conflict with human nature.
  3. Conversations have a mission. They create optimal experiences and prove value to both participants of the conversation. This involves supporting and enhancing communication between two people, a person and a system/brand, or two systems. The objective is to have the best, informed, value-based and outcome-driven conversation possible. This is Conversational Experience (cX).

How We Arrived Here

We all have biases. My bias comes from spending the past 20+ years in the practice of CRM and Customer Experience (CX). I have come to the conclusion that CX is often too broad a concept when examining human-to-human or digital engagement; rather, we need to focus on individual conversations. What I mean is that CX includes all interactions from the purchasing experience to implementation (or unboxing) to use. Each experience can be better understood, analyzed, and enhanced if it is segmented into individual points of engagement. Is it possible that we have lost sight of the trees within the forest? Interactions, engagement, and personalization all impact an overall experience. But, do we really understand how and why? What if we narrowed our view and concentrated on the experience associated within each conversation?

We need to consider that each party has their own interest, desired outcome, and individual perception of every experience. A Conversational Experience is a subset of CX by definition. Each conversation can be measured, analyzed and scored, serving as an input into the larger Customer Experience. More importantly, every conversation can be informed, add value and help each side reach their desired outcome.

The approach to defining Conversational Systems and the output, Conversational Experience, is heavily influenced by the fine-tuning and progression of CRM definitions over time. Building on ideas from the past allows for marked progress towards more meaningful and valuable business relationships. Modern thinking and evolving concepts need to support and accelerate discussions surrounding larger topics such as digital transformation and customer experience management. This is not redefining CRM. What is being described is a framework focused on action, based on data, information, insight and knowledge.

The Build-Up

In 2009 Paul Greenberg defined Social CRM -

"Social CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a technology platform, business rules, workflow, processes and social characteristics, designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment. It's the company's programmatic response to the customer's control of the conversation"

Then in 2015 Paul Greenberg stated -

"Customer Relationship Management is a technology and system that sustains sales, marketing and customer service activities. It is designed to capture and interpret customer data, both structured and unstructured, and to sustain the management of the business side of customer related operations. CRM technology automates processes and workflows and helps organize and interpret data to support a company in engaging its customers more effectively."

While we have not come full circle, it is time to add philosophy and business strategy back into the CRM equation, reducing the heavy focus on technology from the 2015 definition, embracing recombinant innovation, and adopting Conversational Systems. This will allow us to alter the focus of our attention where it needs to be, on the conversation between a company and a customer. This is not visionary. This is about being practical and meeting the needs of the customer wherever they are, whenever they elect to engage, and over any channel in which they choose to connect.

Why This and Why Now?

An informal sampling and reading of vendor websites suggests that CX is part of the marketing messaging for greater than 75 percent of software vendors who design, build and/or deliver technology to their customers in support of company customer communications. In each case, the stated business goal of the technology is to facilitate communications, reduce friction, and provide sales/marketing service excellence. The complication is that experiences can neither be dictated nor given. An experience is the customer's perception of an interaction. The only way to create a shared experience is through a conversation. This is called Conversational Experience. This is different from CX. A conversation is the most natural and comfortable method of communication for people. While each and every conversation needs to be natural and well informed, communication needs to be precise.

In seeking to understand how customers choose to engage with organizations, many look to map the set of steps and touches from first contact through the entirety of the company/customer relationship; the Customer Journey. Where a customer is located along their journey is often misunderstood by the organization. This is more prevalent during the pre-buy phase, the decision cycle, but can happen at any point along the journey. More often than not, a seller hopes that the buyer is ready to make a purchase, only to learn that they are at the research phase of their journey. Meaningful conversations identify misalignment and narrow the gap between organizational process and the Customer Journey. Conversational Systems facilitate and enhance an organization's ability to bridge the gap more effectively, leading to positive experiences and valuable outcomes.


Figure 2: Journey versus Process

Conversations Reduce Friction

Conversations are comfortable, familiar and easy to describe. They can take place between two or more parties face-to-face, over voice, or via text-based chat and SMS/messaging. Conversations can be synchronous, asynchronous and may come in bursts. When real people as opposed to Bots are involved, the technological definitions for synchronous and/or asynchronous communication may conflict with human nature. Conversational Intelligence is the practice of designing and supporting well-informed conversations between the company and its customer or an employee and the organization. Intelligence can be active by recommendation, passive by suggestion, or artificial by taking over the conversation. The business objective of a conversation is to increase a customer's brand loyalty, help solve a problem or provide information. This is the next generation of customer engagement. Conversational Intelligence for employees is about augmentation of knowledge, increased productivity or reducing workload.

Conversational systems need to support optimal business outcomes that lead to positive interactions and experiences for all involved. At a practical level, this is Conversational CRM. Conversational CRM pushes past silos of information and data objects. Conversations ebb and flow, relationships twist and turn, intelligence identifies gaps, and precision narrows and closes that gap - this is Conversational Experience. Within CRM, innovation is happening around the edges, not within its core. Where CRM is traditionally focused on records and data, it is becoming increasingly more about information and insight. While people need information, systems like data. The edge, action-based systems and innovation that use CRM data, is where the action is. The reason is straightforward, where there are many similarities across industries and geographies, as well as between consumer focus and business to business; the differences, no matter how subtle are what allows differentiation.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Many companies have capitalized on the transition from Social to Message based communications, and are moving from broken or choppy communications to Conversational - we are only just at the beginning. Here are a few areas that are ready to breakout, along with a couple that could use some attention and possible rethinking.

Social Customer Service has nearly completed the transition to Conversational Service. Messaging is a core part of the mix and needs to be one part of a larger communications / conversational strategy. Stay tuned, I have my favorites here, the world is going to change!

The future of Digital Assistants or Intelligent Employees is bright. Keep your eye on productivity and AI - where A is "Augmentation" with a strong focus on helping people do their jobs better. I am cautiously optimistic about pushing Assistants beyond what they are ready for... People still buy from people, but Intelligent systems have proven they are here to stay.

The future of CRM is less about managing a relationship and more about focusing on the inputs that define the relationship. Conversations serve as input. Each conversation fosters engagement, and each conversation determines the path of the relationship. CRM is the single best use case for Conversational Systems.

Voice is a valuable type of input and best for an Intelligent Assistant; however, multi-modal is probably better with an Intelligent Advisor. Clarity in marketing messaging is really important here; Voice is not the only mode for conversations, but the importance of Voice as an interface is huge.

CRM is the hub of ALL customer information. There are two market forces trying to alter this course, a risk and an opportunity: unlocking data from organizational silos, and in reverse, making sure data within CRM is accessible to other systems. The idea of system of record, ownership and management of Data is now, and will continue to be a required area of focus for companies of any size.

I hope that's food for thought and for, well, conversations with your peers. In the meantime, I'm back to work. A few announcements coming up in the next post. See you then.

Editorial standards