Video: How machine learning and AI helps one digital agency create unique customer experiences
For several years in the 2010s, I was an adviser to Infor's CRM organization -- a sterling bunch of CRM leaders who loved the space and, at the same time, had some top-flight CRM-related applications (chief among them, Epiphany, one of the greatest customer-facing products of all time).
I'd venture to say that Epiphany was the founding father of all RTIM and related technologies and remained the ne plus ultra of the interaction universe for a long time. More on that later. But even more foresighted and, to a large extent, more interesting, in 2012, Infor did something that I found (and still find) one of the single most innovative and incredibly valuable things I've ever seen in the tech industry: It created a for-internal-use-only design organization called Hook & Loop. What made this a fascinating and immensely valuable idea (and a true differentiator) was that the hires weren't coders or architects but creatives -- 100 of them -- including the chief designer of Michael Kors and the person responsible for the special effects in the early Transformer movies -- you know, when the special effects (and the movies) were really good.
Hook & Loop, currently headed by the very articulate and friendly Nunzio Esposito , was and remains a breakthrough for a software company, especially one that is focused on enterprise software. What makes it unique is that it is responsible for design. But not just design of user interfaces and a user experience that is unparalleled in the enterprise software world, but also for building design, marketing collateral design, and design support for the customers of Infor. It becomes not only a creative design agency for Infor, but a trusted adviser to Infor's customers. But, this year, Infor and Hook & Loop added another capability to its portfolio: Development. That means not only is it designing the interfaces, but it is developing the applications natively, which makes the user experience and the user interfaces themselves much better, due to the effectiveness and efficiency of the applications, if done right.
The net effect of Hook & Loop is that Infor has consistently had the most beautiful interfaces of any technology on the market. I would venture to say that it set the standard for that beauty, with companies like SAP and others following Infor's lead to "efficiently prettify" its UIs and user experience.
But, of course, Infor isn't a creative design agency. It's an enterprise software company and, after having attended its analyst summit a couple of weeks ago, a damned interesting one. And it's surprisingly more advanced, though with some caveats, than I had expected after this three-year hiatus.
One of the reasons that I was shocked was that, since I stopped being its adviser on CRM, I had seen the company do some things that I thought were not that wise, though I understood them. To be blunt, Infor was an ERP company and its back office was the money maker, and thus, what it focused on for that reason. CRM, despite a very good portfolio of products at the time, wasn't given the time, the attention, or the budget it deserved at Infor, and it slowly but surely started fading from my radar and, as far as I could tell in my conversations, most of the CRM analysts' -- many of who really had no relationship to the company.
I would see a press release now and then, and I'd think, "Hmmm, nice. But it isn't investing in CRM, so I don't hold a lot of hope out for it even having CRM products in a couple of years." Well, I wasn't really thinking that literally, but in that spirit. That would be an awkward literal thought. Its CRM(ish) efforts seemed to be turning ghostly. It didn't appear in too many deals that I was hearing about, and the competitive reports (MQ) would mention it peripherally at best, though favorably on occasion. For example, Marketing Resource Management, one of its strengths, got it a leadership position in the 2016 Gartner MRM Magic Quadrant. Nucleus Research, led by the inestimably intelligent Rebecca Wettemann, gave its CRM solution a leadership position as recently as November of last year due to its investments in multiple cutting-edge capabilities, though some that extend well beyond the CX portfolio (e.g. the acquisition of Birst last year).
Here's a quote from Rebecca:
"Infor CRM has robust functionality with an industry-specific approach that requires minimal customizations while providing mobile options, industry accelerators and social selling capabilities, which are all contributing factors that continue to garner Infor's recognition as a leader in the marketplace."
I'm probably less aware than Rebecca is about what Infor was up to concerning CRM, but, Hook&Loop remained, and that always intrigued me and kept me at least thinking about Infor. That said, I'm definitely curious, so when I was invited to the Infor Analyst Summit in New York City this year, I decided to go and see what it was up to with CRM. One of the major reasons was that personalization, design, and journey orchestration were all part and parcel of the customer engagement world that was beginning to show some real form. Hook & Loop's charter fit the mandate that a technology vendor (and pretty much anyone else in at least the enterprise world) needed to be able to supersede traditional CRM limits -- which had become the must-have technology to enable customer-facing business operations.
The world was shifting to require some focus on the right-brained concepts of engagement, interaction, behaviors, etc. Personalization, humanizing the workplace, consumerization of IT, etc, was requiring companies to pay more and more attention to how they were going to create not only the means to interact/communicate with their customers, but provide those customers with what the customers were asking for -- within the limits of budget, time, regulation, and labor, among the many constraints in place. That, when you're an enterprise and scaling up in those areas, was hard to do. Technology was necessary to support scale when it came to all those things. Infor was well positioned for that -- better, in fact, than some of the more visible technology vendors, because Hook & Loop and products, like Interaction Advisor, were all focused around how customers felt and thought, not what operations and processes had to be in place. I can't say that it was fully cognizant of this; I'm saying it, not it, at least not in these terms. I haven't heard it say it. But I'm sure at one level or another it was aware of it, and I know from the Summit that it definitely is now.
What did I learn from the Summit?
Well, I was blown away by some of what I saw. I'm still unclear about some of what I saw (and didn't see), and I'm appalled about one thing that I saw (or, actually, didn't see, but I should have seen).
Let me start this with the most succinct possible statement, via a tweet I put out at the Summit (I thought, for you Hamilton fans, me among them, I'd also include a tweet that came up, which you'll see immediately to my left):
Before I get into the meat of this, I'm going to start with the event: the Analyst Summit. My only complaint is that far too few CRM analysts were there. Basically, there were only two people who cover CRM a good deal -- with no one but me and Sheryl Kingstone from The 451 Group (though I'm only 90 percent certain I'm right about that) who make customer-facing technology our primary coverage. And that was out of what must have been 60 analysts. I think, given what I've seen, and with the new CRM leadership, which is led by the very enthusiastic, nice, and very experienced Dann Lemerand, vice president of product strategy and design at CX, there needs to be a concerted effort to bring CRM analysts into its fold. its lack of outreach is part of the overall issue it has, but more on that later.
The event itself was really well crafted with a mix of executives, product leads, and customers providing the information that we needed, and it truly didn't waste any time at all. It flowed extremely well, with my friend and Infor senior director of analyst relations Sharon Sulc keeping the event on time and flowing properly, and the overall staff made sure that little to nothing went wrong. And, in fact, that most things went right. An "A" for that work. Infor team, thank you so much for all your efforts. Even little things were taken care of: For example, I was thinking of skipping the party the first night, or going for a short time at least, so I could visit with a friend of mine, Scott Jeffer, who runs CRM for the Yankees. I told them that and they invited Scott to come hang at the party, and a great time was had by all -- though it surfaced far too many Red Sox fans for my taste. LOL! Little things that leave a really good impression and make experiences like this are memorable. Smart thinking on its part, though I think it was more act of kindness than a calculated move.
The other event-notable thing, and this was truly something, is that CEO Charles Phillips spent the entire two days at the event -- and I would imagine he had a lot to do. I've never seen this from the CEO of a major company in all the decades I've been in this business. Usually, if the CEO comes at all, he or she answers 30 (maybe 45) minutes of questions and leaves, with the only reminder of its presence being a footprint in the dust. They're in and out as fast as they can go -- understandably. Some have a ton of work to do. Many don't particularly love analysts -- they just tolerate us. Charles Phillips spent both days -- minus one or two things he had to attend to -- there the entire time, and he made himself easily available to whoever wanted to talk. It was much appreciated by all the analysts -- and it was noticed and noted by all of us.
It has me thinking that Infor, if it addressed its problem sufficiently -- and it's a big one -- it could compete with the Big 4 and win as often, though I still have enough questions to keep me somewhat uncomfortable with this hypothesis, and questions remain in the areas that I specialize in, but more on that later.
So, let's get on with the content that the tweet was referring to:
Hook & Loop's design ethos permeates the company. It designed a beautiful office in the heart of Manhattan. It designed the software and is developing the apps needed to affect the designs it is both working on and using. It doesn't only do this with its own people but with its customers.
For example, Turtle & Hughes, an electrical and industrial distribution company, around since 1923, (which somehow wangled the URL www.turtle.com from the world's naturalists), uses Infor Distribution, but its approach was what really attracted me to it and attracts me to Infor. It fully recognize that, even in the world of manufacturing and distribution, it has to change with the business climate and alter its activities and its behaviors so that it is aligned with the requirements and demands of a very new breed of customers who are looking at its overall experience with the company almost as much or as much as what products and services the company provides -- and that experience includes how the employees respond to the company, too. So, what a Turtle & Hughes customer told us was that human-centered design and personalization was key to its overall transformative efforts: "No matter what, we have to deal with that."
What makes this so interesting and conflicts me somewhat, too, is that, on the one hand, Infor is at the leading edge of design thinking and engagement, and this permeates its entire enterprise product and services set. Yet, I'm still somewhat unclear on its overall thinking on where it want to take the CX portfolio. That said, I am encouraged by Dann Lemerand's leadership as the jefe of the portfolio, because from my interactions with him at the Summit, I can say, pretty safely, I think that Infor finally has a leader in the customer-facing part of its efforts that can do what needs to be done to make it part of the front and center, rather than the rear, and... wherever. At least, what I can tell initially, the best since George Wright was there. So, that is encouraging, because he gets it. He just does. Again, more on this later.
But what there is no doubt of is the deep immersion that Infor has in design thinking. For those of you who don't know what the hell I'm talking about, I'm going to provide you with a short definition of design thinking.
Design Thinking... the future is now
Design thinking for years seemed to be either an academic endeavor or only in the purview of the creative agencies. The resulting effect in the software and technology world was that the companies provided a lot of efficiencies with the use of the software it produced, but it was ugly and hard to use.
The best definition of design thinking I've found is this one:
Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity."- Tim Brown CEO, IDEO (Note: IDEO is arguably the most famous design-focused creative agency in the world).
He's also defined it in a slightly different way, which adds color to the definition he gave above:
Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success."
George Washington Carver, the great scientist and inventor, had a quote that, while it predates design thinking, obviously, shows you its value in a (pea)nutshell (pun intended):
"When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world."
That's wonderful stuff, but what makes design thinking even more compelling is that the results are actually measurable and dramatic when design thinking becomes part of the corporate culture, strategy, R&D, and output.
Forrester Research and Adobe did a study in 2016 that looked at design-led companies (Coca-Cola being a great example of this type of effort) and those that weren't, and it found that design-led companies had:
- 41 percent higher market share
- 46 percent competitive advantage overall
- 50 percent more loyal customers
- Beat competitors 70 percent of the time with digital experiences
But the results are even more impressive over the long term. In a study in 2016 done by the Design Management Institute, it found that design-led firms outperformed the S&P over a 10-year period (2005 to 2015) by a mind-blowing 211 percent. Yeah, baby, 211 percent.
Design thinking, at least my interpretation, is pretty straightforward. Ultimately, human beings are emotional. They respond to things in ways that trigger a feeling of some kind. It could be, "Whoa, that's cool" or "I hate that" or "Damn it, I can't figure this out" or "That was easy." I know that, as you read each one of those, if I asked you to associate the statement with an experience you had, you could -- with little to no thinking. When I ran workshops on customer experience, I would often provide a grid of the empty boxes with labels. The labels said (though it varied at times): "In love with," "love," "like a lot," "like," "eh," "dislike," "dislike a lot," and "hate." I gave every member of the group five minutes to fill the empty box with a person or a thing that fit that description to them. In the thousands of people (yes, thousands) who took that test, I never had single one who didn't fill it out completely. What that tells you is we all have a very granular understanding of our own feelings, and we can easily associate the objects and/or subjects of the experiences we've had in life to the specific feeling that each of those labels indicates.
Design-led firms get that. Companies that do the design well are not just developing highly navigable user interfaces or developing what is a great user experience, nor is it just designing the consumable, monetizable experiences that benefit its bottom lines. It is deliberately being positively, and if done well, evocative. Unlike so many damned pundits out there who are stupidly promoting customer delight as the non-stop necessity for businesses, the truly successful design-led companies thT are executing well are evoking, say, anything from a "wow" to "comfort." If I feel that this thing I'm doing is getting done easily and quickly because the design is simple and clean, then the sheer convenience of the frictionless activity and result makes me content, not hyper-excited. What that means is that part of the design mantra is to make the ordinary day to day as easy as possible -- not just evoke some orgasmic sensation every second with customer.
I'm not going to pursue this much more here, because this post is getting really long, and I have some more Infor things to finish, but you, I hope, get the idea. Design thinking takes the beauty, the utility, the effort, the limitations (e.g., the products, area, whatever) it is working with into account when you are thinking through the customer's experience with you as a company. And you are building that into everything you do. The right brain is an integral part of your corporate universe.
OK, primer over. Back to Infor.
To close this section out, Infor's appeal in this realm -- design thinking; Hook & Loop; and its design and development services available to the company and to customers; its overhaul of the UI and UX of all the products including now the CX portfolio and the successful nature of that -- makes it unique in the industry. It can be a remarkable differentiator if it took advantage of the extraordinary range of its offerings including a still more front-and-center approach to CX than it currently has, but, the question is, is it ready and willing to do that? I will attempt to answer that after I get briefly get through "Astonished."
Design-led companies need to apply design thinking to something. Infor is among the very few technology companies that has the end-to-end enterprise, front-and-back office capabilities to satisfy the largest companies in the market place with the operational functionality it needs to run a business completely and the services to make it.
Look, I cover the customer-facing space, but I have business experience in the back office (ERP) world, and I keep an interest (though not a keen one) in the space. Minimally, I know what is good and what isn't. Some of Infor's products (the basic back office) competes with anyone's and, of course, the interfaces are much better than most. One or two of its back office products were literally exceptional. One example is its enterprise asset management product (EAM). I don't cover the EAM space per se. I do see it frequently enough, most typically, when it crosses into customer-facing products, such as Adobe Experience Manager, which, at its core, was an asset management tool until a major refresh a year ago turned it into an experience-building solution that had asset management at its back end. Infor's EAM tool is arguably the best I've ever seen -- though the caveat, of course, is that I haven't seen a lot of them. Its customers-lauded Infor Distribution, Infor Retail, and a host of its other back office products... Its analytics seem competitive; Coleman's AI offering seems really promising and sort of at an "early mature" stage. All good.
Of course, my interest is in its CX suite -- which, as best as I can tell (thank you PJ Jakovljevic -- a good friend and analyst for TEC, for some help in starting to piece this together during the Analyst Summit) is the following:
- Infor Customer Relationship Management
- Infor Configure Price Quote (CPQ)
- Infor Sales Intelligence for CRM
- Infor Omni-channel campaign management
- Infor Marketing Resource Management (MRM)
- Infor's Integration with Marketo
- Infor Contract Lifecycle Management
- Infor Rhythm (this is its ecommerce solution)
- Infor Interaction Advisor
I was told there was a tenth product, but I am unaware of what that is right now. I'll find out. To make it easier to understand, here is something I pilfered from its website that explains what it offers quite well:
I need to start this with something of a caveat: I had less than one hour to see anything on CRM/CX, and thus, I have a million questions, because, when I dig a little with what's available, I'm just not clear on a few things. And, this is no one's fault; I just didn't have enough time. This is being rectified by Infor.
Caveat No. 1 -- Some core 21st-century CRM functionality seems to not be there. For example, a Service Cloud-like offering. Alhough I see customer service and support, it seems to be more case management-heavy, but it's not aligned with contemporary customer service offerings.
Caveat No. 2 -- Equally as important, I can't understand what the CX narrative is, per se, or how CX as a portfolio fits into the corporate narrative. I didn't hear that at the event (other than random mentions of CRM, really). I see why and how it fits the corporate narrative. It's a natural -- given the visionary thinking and the interest in personalization that Infor customers have overall. But Infor doesn't seem to see it that clearly. Also, as far as the CX overall narrative, I don't have the clarity I need, which provides me with a reason why this is so marketing heavy, with its own marketing capability, Marketo and MRM.
There are a few broadly obvious observations. To repeat, this is heavy on marketing, with three distinct products for marketing: Omni-channel Campaign Management, MDM, which comes to Infor via the 2012 acquisition of Orbis and the integration and go-to-market partnership with Marketo. I have to assume, though, I haven't fully seen it yet. It claims to have core Sales Force Automation capabilities wrapped up in its Infor CRM product, and the value add via the Sales Intelligence product, which would be something in the vein of InsideView and perhaps Lattice Engines, among other players in that market. However, it seems to lack a "Service Cloud" at the moment, though it provides its cousin, Field Service, but, then again, a Service Cloud may be the mysterious "Tenth Product."
I'll be getting a deep dive into the CX portfolio soon and will be able to report back on what I think will be an exciting part of Infor's offering and one that Infor (finally) is going to invest in to make better. So. here's what I don't know and what I do know:
What I do know -- and like a great deal about the CX offering -- boils down to three things:
- The UI and UX have been overhauled with Infor's/Hook & Loop's signature interfaces and excellent navigation -- making an enterprise grade portfolio arguably easier to use than any similar product that has this industrial strength.
- It has put a strong emphasis on its non-core pieces -- the ones that aren't offered in CX suites as the norm -- that would be Rhythm, its e-commerce solution; CLM, its contracts solution; its MRM solution, which is highly specific to managing assets and budgets -- geared toward marketing ops people; and its CPQ solution, which is fully integrated into its CRM offering.
- Its most singular piece is Interaction Advisor, formerly the Epiphany product, that many, including me, think of as one of the greatest customer-facing business products in the history of technology. Infor has spent years improving what was Epiphany and is now Interaction Advisor, and it's arguably still the best Real Time Interaction Management engine on the market (RTIM) because of its capability to understand the customer journey (though, to be clear, this is not a customer journey orchestration tool) and to provide truly optimized responses to customers in the form of offerings or interactions. That sounds a bit buzzwordy, so I'll give you an example: You get an email. Attached to the email or embedded in the email is a time constrained offer (good until... whenever). However, you are on vacation. You don't open that email until after you get back, which is after the expiration date of the offer. But, when you open the email, there is an even more appropriate offer, with a new, viable expiration date. The old one is gone. That's what I mean. This product is what Infor has and has had for a long time to offer truly effective personalization.
But I still have a lot of questions. I am trusting that Infor is willing to invest in the CX portfolio. I think its missing some things, but I can't speak to that until I get a better sense of what actually is there and the value of each product that is germane to it at the moment. Plus, I need a clearer picture of how Infor is incorporating CX into its corporate narrative and what the CX narrative is per se. Once I have that, I can do something a bit more productive.
What I did get a renewed sense of though is that Infor seems to be willing start making the investments in CRM/CX/CE, both from the product side to the personnel to make it part of its end-to-end engagement with customers at the enterprise level -- something that it hasn't done since George Wright left the company.
But, and this is a big but...
Here's where I have a serious problem -- one that I hinted at when I said there wasn't very many CRM(ish) analysts at this event and the same one I made clear in the tweet. Up until now, Infor's marketing efforts -- its attempts at being visible in the customer-facing market (which is much the same as the enterprises it serves on the back end) and in the customer-facing technology industry -- have been just plain awful.
From my standpoint, how did I not know what I now know? Infor is one of the most innovative companies in the market and carries seriously good looking and highly outcomes-focused products that are industrial strength and end-to-end. How did I not know this, my fellow CRM analysts not know this, the general technology buyers' population for all intents and purpose not know this? Why is it that, with all it offers, no one knows about it? If a tree falls in the forest and no one sees or hears that...?
I can't speak to why that has been the case since I haven't heard much from the company for four years, so treat it as a rhetorical set of questions but at the same time as a serious problem. Because not only does Infor have to fix its marketing, but it also is lagging behind, so there is catch up necessary, too.
Infor is well aware of its lack of market presence.
One of my favorite Infor management team members, Chief Digital Officer Marc Scibelli in his Hook & Loop, design, and develop presentation, made the point that, "Our only problem when we go to a customer is 'Infor who?'" Charles Phillips, in the Executive Q&A, when speaking of its competitors said, "The only thing it has is brand and scale, but it is easier to beat them." (He meant on product quality and design/development support). I think that he made it easier than it really is for spin purposes. It won't be easy to beat any of the Big 4 -- never is.
The good news, at the end of the Summit, with a few of the analysts raising the clarion call of "Be Out There," Charles Phillips introduced Ashley Hart, who was literally starting as its new CMO the following Monday. She is an accomplished CMO. Here's her LinkedIn bio, if you're interested.
She spoke for a few minutes and made a cogent and very important point -- paraphrased -- we are going to build our corporate narrative and the product messaging will flow from that. Encouraging, very encouraging.
So, being the New Yorker I am and always willing to provide advice whether it's wanted or not, I am going to do just that to Ashley Hart or Charles Phillips or Dann Lenemann or whoever at Infor wants to listen... or not. Again, DNA.
- Because if you are making yourself something more of a customer-facing company than you were in the past -- which is what you seem to be doing, and your products, services, etc, seem to reflect that, you are in a different world than than you are used to. Marketing in the 21st century is content creation, distribution, and consumption, and it is theatre.
- For the creation, distribution, consumption of content -- make it outcomes-focused. Use cases, case studies, sure, but all the self-interest of the buyer personally should be reflected in the collateral you produce.
- For the creation, distribution, consumption of content -- thought leadership, which Infor seriously lacks -- Infor needs to identify the areas that it feels like subject matter experts, decide on what kind of thought leadership content it will produce and the formats that it will be in -- and produce it. It needs to ally with thought leaders in the industry, but it also needs to make sure that it has "home-grown comes-from-the-team" thought leaders ready to get out there and evangelize.
- And it needs to hire a chief evangelist.
- Analyst outreach to CRM/customer experience/customer engagement -- responsive to not only products, but design.
- Make your partner program far better than it, or expose it far better than you do.
So, let me summarize all this, because there is a lot to chew on, and there are still some uncertainties.
All in all, if I'm looking at the Infor portfolio, it is competitive with anybody, and because of its extraordinary commitment to design thinking and development, it has the chance to win big. It should be the fifth of the Big 4.
But it isn't. The biggest reason for that: It has done a very poor job participating in the industry and has far too little visibility in the marketplaces it address -- especially around the customer-facing aspects of what an enterprise solutions and enterprise platform company needs to be involved with. Up to now, it hasn't marketed well at all; it hasn't been active in the CRM universe in any way, unlike all its other enterprise-grade competitors. That's its biggest issues -- marketing and industry presence.
However, it is a truly brilliant company with a transformative approach to the enterprise built around the charter of Hook & Loop -- being design-led in everything it does and produces internally and externally -- and is more advanced than anyone else in the industry in that regard.
To solve its problem, it hired a new CMO to deal with the very issues that has hobbled them in the last few years -- and her brief conversation with the analysts was very promising.
It still need some clarity, both in the positioning of its CX portfolio in the overall scheme of things, and in the composition of that portfolio and in what its own narrative will be, but its new internal hire to the leadership of CX is confidence inspiring. Ultimately, we'll all find out if that confidence was well placed. I don't think anyone is going to be disappointed.
For me, this is a great re-up with the company, but there is still a lot to learn and a lot that I did learn that I need to process. The uncertainty around the placement of the CX portfolio, in conjunction with the clear commitment of the company to design thinking and the execution thereof, leaves me excited for its future and concerned a little for its ability to deliver it. I'm in the camp that says it will succeed. The caveat is that I'm a glass half-full guy, always. However, this time, it could be justified.
Previous and related coverage
Changes in the CRM world have led to major changes in the CRM Watchlist and the new Emergence Maturity Index Awards. See how the customer-facing technology market correlates to these changes, and how you can register and submit to these.
I promised that I would cover my speculations about Oracle and SAP, and to fulfill my obligations for 2017, here they are -- in 2018. The best way to put it is, when it comes to both Oracle and SAP, I'm very cautiously optimistic for very different reasons. But caution rules the day, and these are speculations, not deep analysis. More of that later. For now, read it, and tell me why you weep or laugh or nod.