Personalization and Humanization: Serious about customer engagement? Then you need them both

We spend a lot of time on personalization of the customer's experience, but as the customer demands more control over their choices and greater levels of interaction and better experience with the company, humanization comes to the fore. What's the difference between personalization and humanization and why are both necessary? Paul Greenberg responds.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

First, a note: This is my rawest thinking on the subject of humanization -- not just of workplace, which is talked about a lot, but of the relationship with the customer, which is talked about far less. Even though I wrote a couple of blog posts back in 2008 on this, I haven't evolved a whole lot more since, though, then again, I prefer to think I was amazingly foresighted and things are just beginning to catch up. Let's me sleep smarter to think that. However, please realize that this is probably somewhat derivative at this stage, but I think, or at least I hope, it represents something that will get people and companies thinking about how to work with each other better. I toyed with the words compassionate and humane, but, using them, I'd be like all those other people who love throwing the words around to sound like emotionally intelligent business gurus but don't have any plan or plans to help companies do that. I'm not ready to go there yet. Again, this is the raw thinking. So, if you will, forgive any awkwardness you might find in the logic or thinking. Or don't. Up to you.

Many years ago, in 2008, I was in Naples Florida to speak at a conference and I ran into Kim Kobza, then the CEO of Neighborhood America, a company that was far ahead of its time, an enterprise social network provider that was exceptionally good and that unfortunately was too advanced for the market -- but so well done. (I'm still friends with Kim to this day). He invited me to come to their offices and see how they worked and meet with people. I thought it was a great idea and away I went. Two posts (here and here) on "a company like me" were the results. I'm not going to reiterate what I meant by that -- other than to say that, if I am doing what I need to do when it comes to my\ company's relationships to its customers, the customers are going to feel as if they are part of the company and are enveloped in a satisfying human warmth.

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Over the years, I kind of lost that message. Like everyone else I know, minus one or two truly foresighted folks, I fell into the trap of using personalization to explain both personalization and humanization. Not smart. I'm an English and journalism major. Slap me on the hand. Bad. Language needs to be not just creatively used but precise in definition.

But, recently, I had an epiphany, if you can call it that -- and probably you really can't -- when I was sitting in a presentation at SEAT and one of the teams presenters was showing the efforts the team was making around personalization via mobile devices. What this person showed was five examples, and without exception, all of them were optimized offers. It was reasonably slick -- the preferences of the individual who was identified via device ID were captured, and the offers determined based on those preferences in real time as the fan moved around the stadium. But the outcomes were focused on optimizing around the potential completion of a mobile transaction, meaning it was all in service of buying stuff. I'm not saying this negatively in any way. To their defense, this was personalization -- and the projected outcomes are what it is for. The team didn't claim it was anything but personalization either. It was actually a very decent piece of work and was the product of a clearly defined strategy that aimed that those localized (in-venue), real-time (location aware) offers that would be attractive to the individual receiving them.

But what I realized that day is that almost uniformly: When I see demos of technology designed for personalization or new concept du jour, hyperpersonalization, I see what eventually is a representative optimized offer -- or more broadly a data-driven awareness of an individual's interests and choices that are used to drive a personalized (but not personal) offer or interaction.

Here are a couple of definitions I found that sort of make the point:

  • Personalization is a means of meeting the customer's needs more effectively and efficiently, making interactions faster and easier and, consequently, increasing customer satisfaction and the likelihood of repeat visits. (From Whatsis.)
  • Website personalization is the process of creating customized experiences for visitors to a website. Rather than providing a single, broad experience, website personalization allows companies to present visitors with unique experiences tailored to their needs and desires. (From Optimizely.)

More often that not, personalization is taught as a factor in marketing strategy. It also plays a role in service and certainly sales, but marketing tends to own it. The definition I think is most ruthlessly (meaning strips all hype from it) accurate in describing personalization's purpose is one from Jay Baer:

  • Personalization increases message relevancy, which boosts behavior rates (the likelihood that a consumer will open, click, share, buy).

Kinda makes the business point.

Personalization, which, again, I endorse strongly as part of a customer strategy, is something that uses available individual data to determine the best way to get someone to buy something that they feel is a relevant choice tailored to them. It can also drive a service interaction and create the conditions for a specific behavior. As you will see in my example below, the first email I got from the Ritz Carlton is a perfect example of personalization -- one designed to drive me to provide more data.

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However, what I realized is missing from almost all personalization in practice, and for the most part, in definition, is the actual deeper human social bonding and perceived social bonds and the feelings and subsequent behaviors that are associated with what can be an important emotional attachment. One deep enough to be a decisionmaker or game changer when it comes to further interactions with the company from the customer, and thus, effectively creating the conditions for surfacing the truly emotional aspects of what makes a business successful with its customers, meaning something that can transform the level of engagement and deepen it in a way that creates advocacy. Advocacy's advantage as a customer "condition" or behavior or commitment, if you want, is not just about repeatable and repeated buying behavior. Its also about the willingness of the customer to promote you to his or her peers actively -- not just have the intent to do it. The benefit, though indirect to the company, is that the customer, by evangelizing for the company, promotes good will toward the company and improves the chances that either customers will buy more or prospects will become customers because someone they trust is willing to go to bat for the company. I can't tell you the number of times that a friend of mine tells me about something, it appeals to my vaguely defined need for it, then a trusted friend trusts this product or company, and without further research, I buy it.

But, then again, I'm a sucker. That also tells you something about the contemporary customer and their expectations. I think.

There is not only a clear distinction between the two, but the purpose and outcomes are quite different also. The one thing that they have in common, besides "ization," is that understanding and then "implementing" both are necessary now - and probably forever after.

So, let the separation of the conjoined begin.

To start, for succinctness, because I am a meddlesome sort of fellow I can't just leave it by itself, I kind of like how Jay Baer distinguishes their purpose and outcomes, though it is a bit clinical for my taste (by the way, the rest of the article in the link is not clinical at all; very good distinctions all in all).

  • Humanization increases kinship, which boosts trust (impacting behavior rates, advocacy, and retention).

Elaborating on Humanization

OK, now let's move on to humanization, because, arguably, this will be the most important thing you get from me at this juncture. Because it's probably what you're not doing, though I'm happy to hear you prove me wrong.

First, let me distinguish humanization from what you may be thinking about acting like a human being in a business environment. That's part of what I mean, but not all.

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Because the contemporary empowered customer is enmeshed in some way with a network of peers, their expectations are dramatically changed. They are straightforward changes, though. They expect that they can interact with a company the same way that they interact with a friend or a peer who they can trust. That means that they expect a personal relationship to the company, not just to a person in the company, though that may be how the relationship manifests itself a larger number of times. That also means that they expect that the attributes, the characteristics of that deeply personal connection they have to a peer is part of the way that the company interacts with them. That means that trust and transparency have to permeate the company's DNA. That means that the company has to have something distinct about them. That means that the customer is expecting the company to converse with them, not push corporate hype at them. It's why you see contemporary marketing so geared toward buzz and word of mouth and engaging customers in conversation through use of social media like blogs, or engaging internal customers in a valued conversation through some form of social media.

Humanization is a cultural initiative and a strategy. So that I don't get people yapping at me with "culture eats strategy for lunch," let's call it a strategic cultural initiative. Good enough for y'all? In the meantime, I'm eating seafood for lunch.

What that means is that the culture of the company needs to be organized around the idea that mutual benefit for company and customer is what they live for and is, thus, part of their DNA. Their strategies, programs, metrics, their training, their determinants for success and failure are all based around the idea that their customers, and they are integrally tied to each other.

What does that mean for the customers of that same company? It means that the customer, to be engaged in a way that is meaningful with the company, must trust the company to the point that they feel the company consist of peers of that customer and those peers are found in all areas of the company that touch that customer -- sales, marketing, and customer service on the front lines, but actually at some level it would be every employee. It also means that in all areas, whether the customer is dealing with an actual staff member or not, the company must show itself to be trustworthy, empathetic, believable, and respectful. The little things, the personal touches, have to be not just taken care of in the moment, but also available to the staff so that they can be used when the opportunity to be personal (not personalized) arises. None of these attitudes and behaviors are easy to measure, because the results are often intangible, not necessarily identifiable in any way beyond a feeling. Regardless, your business can make concrete efforts and establish concrete programs and deliver a supportive culture to make this work the way it should, even if your approach to measuring this isn't all that perfect -- at least at first.

That means that not only do good things for customers when the opportunity arises. (Not big delightful things, good things. I'll be telling you a story to show you what I mean in a minute.)

It means have people that the customer can establish a relationship to and that means they have a name and identifiable personality. I don't mean that it has to be a staff member with whom they have personally interacted.

A great example of the "not-actual-person" is a sports hero. I grew up worshiping Mickey Mantle. He was the Yankees, the team, to me. He was this amazing baseball player that I wanted to be like, wanted to be. Period. I had no idea he was a hard-drinking, womanizing guy, who because of varying reasons, didn't appreciate the fans until he was considerably older and within a few years of death's door. It didn't matter to me. I was six years old when I first heard of him and the Yankees in 1956 (Get my company name now? The 56 Group, LLC? The worship continues unabated.) And he was the human face to whom I could attach my love of the team. The team was thus humanized. But I only actually met Mickey Mantle long after his career was over -- in 1995 -- which was the year of his passing. But he and several others, who I and all other fans addressed by their first names, were the faces of the team and my way, as it is to this day, to identify with the team as human. Of course, not just my way, but the way that almost all fans identify with a team is with the team via the heritage and the players.

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But its also the social media usage. Not just are you responsive within a certain amount of hours to the service question of that the customer raised, but in what voice was it raised. Was the response a stock "We have received your message. We will respond within 24 hours," but voice that responds? Is it the voice of an actual human being who has been given the authority?


Of course, I'm not yelling. However, you have been acclimated to this being ascertained as yelling as a social media convention, and then you've gone and attached some emotional color to that. To you, capitals equal loud. And you get mad at me for yelling at you, don't you?

That's kind of how, in a negative way, humanization works. It's the emotional color associated with actions and the overall feeling that an institution produces via an environment that drives how much it "feels" human to you.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by telling you a story, also because of one the tenets of humanization is that you have to be storytellers.

Puttin' on the Ritz... Carlton: Humanization to perfection

Earlier this month, my wife and I went to New York for a long weekend. What we did has some real bearing on my story about humanization, so here's the bullet point version. We pretty much do the same thing every time we go:

  1. Take an Amtrak from Manassas, Va., to Penn Station N.Y.
  2. Stay at the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South with the spectacular view of that amazing park. More often than not, I use my Marriott points to do that.
  3. We went to see, for the third time,Come From Away -- the hit musical that is based on the warmth and support of Gander Newfoundland's residents (9,000 of them), for the 7,000 stranded airline passengers during 9/11 and the closing of US air space.
  4. For those of you who know me, we, of course, also go to a Yankees game -- this year Yankees versus Blue Jays (we won 10 to 2, though lost Didi Gregorious to the DL). There is a lot more to this story, involving CRM and baseball, and suites at the Stadium, but that's a story for when you buy me a drink.
  5. Finally, we love eating at great restaurants, and this year we, once again, ate at Daniel - also the third time -- a two-star Michelin restaurant that is extraordinary in all respects. Shout out to Elaine and Greg for their amazing service and for being terrific people.

    All in all, it was an idyllic, nearly perfect weekend with my wife of 37 years. But what I want to tell you about is the Ritz Carlton and how they operate. They reflect, not just the obvious that we all know -- great service -- but they are focused around humanization of the entire staff and their interactions with customers, and the environment of the hotel. Not just personalization -- humanization.

    How it happened and how it works

    Two days prior to our arrival, we received an email from the Ritz Carlton from their Guest Relations department, giving us a significant amount of information about the Ritz Carlton, what we were entitled to as Marriott Platinum Elite members, and some of the benefits of the immediate surrounding area (e.g., Central Park). Nice, warmly written, a little bit of a personal note but probably pretty standard, with the only personalization customized to the customer's Rewards status. They asked for some information about what we might want and need, and they asked what we were going to do in New York. I responded with a special room request around allergens and also a list of what we were doing (see above).

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    This is where it got human.

    In response, I received a warm, totally "handwritten" personal email from Cassidy Davis, who is one of their guest relations staff at the Central Park Ritz Carlton.

    Dear Mr. Greenberg,

    Thank you for these fantastic details!! I got chills hearing that your wife's relative is a part of the Come From Away story! I'm sure this will be an unforgettable weekend.

    I would love to say hello! I am here all weekend 8-4pm. Please ask for me at your convenience!

    As always, I remain in your service if I may be of further assistance.

    Warmest regards,


    Note that this is a personal email, not generic, and it reflects not just the Ritz Carlton's level of service and interest, but also is Cassidy's voice. The Ritz Carlton is not trying to throttle their staff's individual voices to meet some imaginary hotel standard.

    Some Ritz Carlton "history" supports that supposition. Several years ago, a mandatory part of Ritz Carlton training was to make the response "my pleasure" a mandatory one for all their staff to all their guests when they were thanked or responding to a customer after doing something. However, it was overdone and became something that you could hear possibly 3 to 4 times in a single short conversation. It felt mechanical and customers began to at least show their discomfort with that constant, very sincere fake response. Ritz Carlton realized that this might be personalized (it's a valid optimal response, scripted or not) but wasn't seen as personal (human), meaning it didn't reflect at all who the customer service staff member was as a person themselves and seemed stiff and mechanical and thus false. So, it was dropped. That was one of the vestigial remainders of a company that was transitioning from a company that valued and taught personalized service according to the Ritz Carlton, in the voice of the Ritz Carlton, to a company that now values and teaches humanized personal service, according to the Ritz Carlton, in the voices of the human beings who work for them.

    To continue... We arrived at the Ritz Carlton, which I presume you know is now a Marriott property, so I had done a mobile check-in. As always, the initial interaction was extraordinary. The doorman personally introduced himself to us (as he did and does to all incoming guests) and we went to the front desk, then met a check-in staff member (Kyra), and arranged to go to our room, which was ready right away, due to our use of mobile check-in.

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    We got to the room (lovely upgrade with a park view) and what we were told was a joint bath and shower. Except it wasn't. It was a shower and no bath. Not a big problem unless you wanted a bathtub, which we did. First-world problem. So, we requested a room change but weren't sweating it and they said fine. We came down to the lobby and we waited and waited and waited. Well, Kyra came over and apologized and said how sorry they were for the extended wait and that it would be another 30 minutes. We were cool. This was a weekend for chillin', not freaking out. So, we waited and, after about two hours or so, went to the room, unpacked, and went to get something to eat. When we got back to the room, this was waiting.


    Entirely unexpected and unnecessary since we were the ones requesting the room change and it wasn't due to much more than a room preference that we had -- nothing was wrong with the original room, really. Yet, the Ritz Carlton decided to thank us for our patience when we should have been (and did) thank them for their accommodation of our request.

    Keep that extra mile effort with the personal note in your head.

    That same night, they welcomed us to the hotel with a plate of chocolate covered strawberries and, on two other occasions, the same night, briefly checked to make sure we were fully stocked with water, toiletries, etc., in room that was even better than the last one -- with a full view of Central Park and the separate shower and bath.

    So far, so good.

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    Saturday, we did what we planned: Went to the matinee of Come from Away and went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at Daniel. When we got back to the hotel, this was waiting:


    Wow. That wasn't necessary, needless to say, but they had done that once before when we went to see Hamilton. Nonetheless, take your eyes off the CD, and note the note: "Please enjoy this gift at home to remember your heritage." Human, warm, personal. Cassidy's voice combined with her knowledge of why we came from away to see Come from Away for the third time. This was decidedly not an optimized offer for a vacation to Newfoundland at a good discount. Don't get me wrong. I'm not decrying personalization -- far from it. It has a great deal of value so that, in time, there would be nothing wrong with that vacation offer. It might get me to go to Newfoundland (though I don't need better price incentives; I love the place), It's also far better than an offer for a vacation to the Maldives, which has no foundation in my preferences beyond perhaps some knowledge of my income or something else transactional.

    There is more -- but before I get to that, let me add some atmosphere.

    We had conversations at the bar with the bartender and a guy who was a concierge of sorts but was attached to the bar and restaurant. For example, each drink at the bar was numbered (e.g. No. 2) and not named. When I asked what the numbers were for, the bartender brought over this gentleman with an accent that spanned birth in Ireland and nearly three decades migration to New York City. He explained that every single drink was named/numbered after an event or important moment in Central Park's history. They took the time to tell us that and to answer questions about the numbers specifically. I mean, who does that as part of their routine? Its like explaining the colorful origins of a Manhattan or Vieux Carre. No one explains that. They serve it, you drink it. But here there was a story to tell about every drink that was named with a number -- and it was all about Central Park -- not the drink.

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    We had one more discussion there with the restaurant maître de, Rachel, and she gave us a great restaurant recommendation not too far from where we live that we will go to and report on in my new blog (opening at www.the56group.com in a couple of months) because she used to be a close friend over many years with the chef there. Always helpful, friendly.

    Again, the human voices, the desire to respond to their customers with answers, the warmth of the personalities involved all impact the feeling you have -- almost, and I do almost, not exactly, make it nurturing and comfortable and human.

    But it didn't stop.

    Sunday was game day. We were going to head out to Yankee Stadium early, so we could hang out with some of the Yankees CRM staff as well as the other teams and MLB CRM staffs who were all in town for a CRM best practices exchange-focused annual shindig that the teams and MLB hold. Interestingly, in the course of a conversation with a staff member, we were asked about what time we were leaving for the game. I didn't make anything of that until, about 30 minutes before we were leaving, a knock on the room door and a staff member we hadn't seen before came in and delivered this:


    I mean, can you believe it? This has a lot going on. First, the frame that the Yankees logo sits in is made of chocolate, as is the stand it sits on. The backing of the logo is made of white chocolate. The cookies are important because not only are there normal cookies but gluten-free macarons, because Yvonne is gluten-free, which they knew only because we had eaten at the bar and mentioned it to the bartender so we could get the gluten-free food choices. That was the only time up to that point we had mentioned it. Its not in my Marriott profile. I didn't mention it in the emails that I responded to, and the bartender seems to have simply taken note and passed it on and it showed up in the presentation of this this pre-game treat. Aside from the holy-cow part of this, there is a real lesson in the strategy for humanization in this... this is the epitome of personalized detail for the purposes of humanized service.

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    As we were leaving for the game, I asked to meet Cassidy to thank her for all that she did for us and for her extraordinary level of warm attention. Hugs everywhere upon meeting. Not surprising, given her remarkable warmth, charm, and knowledge and my reputation as a hugger to begin with. Yvonne is amazing that way, too.

    Needless to say, the trip was defined by this enveloping warmth. The trip was thus, magical.

    A long story for what purpose?

    If you've read this far, you might be thinking, "OK, so they had a great weekend, so what? What good does that do? How does that help me? I should use my Marriott points more often? What?"

    Hey, thanks so much for asking. Here's the scoop. This isn't just an exceptional behavior with an exceptional staff -- though the staff is exceptional there, The warmth we felt personally was palpable, it was so well done. But make no mistaken about it, this starts with a strategy and a framework, not just individual good will and exceptional charm. The good will and exceptional charm are enveloped in a framework for humanized service.

    How do you extract the lessons and apply the strategy? I'll get to that right now.

    Lessons in humanization

    This goes far beyond the original service-level thinking and activities that made the Ritz Carlton famous in the 20th century. Their famous mantra, "We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen, " while still a very nice statement, is no longer how service is defined. Elegance a fine desire, sure, but a contemporary more casual elegance, which means more direct, personal interactions become the drivers of how to succeed in business with really trying. (Who gets what I just did there?> The distance from the employee and the customer implied in "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" while still leading to nice results, needs to be replaced with empowered employees able to personally interact with customers at an individual level.

    So, what can we glean from what the Ritz Carlton does now to adjust to the needs of the contemporary customer? Let's start with a fewlessons extracted.

    Humanization has to start embedded into a culture. Humanization, while hard, is also natural -- almost by definition. As a company, treating customers and employees as individuals with hopes, dreams, and goals, and treating them as distinct personalities with different histories and who think differently in every case, is something that good companies know how to do, and they embody it in the way that they establish their culture. The DNA starts with mutual value. If you value the individual customer, they will value you, and as a company, will provide value to you. Proof-point is obvious though indirect in my case: The Ritz Carlton was exceptional, and they are getting a 5,000-word blog post with them as one of the central characters.

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    However, it is also a strategy with a program. While humanization as part of the culture of a company is as much for the emotional jolt it provides for the employees and the customers, it is also a business strategy. That means that once you just do it as part of what comes naturally to your work-life, you also create a game plan on doing "things" that drive outcomes that are specific and beyond personalization's limitations. In the case of the Ritz Carlton, part of their strategy is giving their guest relations managers the authority to provide gift and extras and make some commitments that advance the brand in a way that enhances that human touch with the outcome (desired minimally, potential future stays; and optimally, that and advocacy from the customer). But it has to be a repeatable set of capabilities that are planned and budgeted for and delimited so that there are boundaries that aren't to be crossed but the latitude still remains wide.

    It requires the efforts of a lot of moving parts. Humanization's success requires a lot more than just a nice person. It requires the collaboration of different parts of the company (e.g., an employee picks up information from a customer in the restaurant or at the bar, which is transmitted to the guest relations manager and it is made known to other "need-to-know" areas). Yvonne's gluten free requirement being an example. Its also the atmosphere. The environment has to be warm and inviting as do the employees. It means that the baseline needs have to be fulfilled. Regardless of how warm the employees are and how much leeway they have to give the customers gifts, etc., if the baseline needs of a hotel, meaning a comfortable room with expected toiletries and working shower and lights, etc., aren't there, then the rest (e.g., in this case, the humanization effort) fails. I wrote a post on this idea years again. I call it meeting the "margin of utility." It requires, again, a tweetable sound bite: "Keeping the ordinary, ordinary." Making sure that the baseline generic requirements (you have a place to sleep, shower, and work in your hotel room) are met is foundational to the humanization.

    It requires knowledge of customer actions and intent as well as the standard data transactional and behavioral data needed for personalization. Intent and it's "why" are everything when it comes to humanization. You have to be able to anticipate not just the behavior but the whys of the behavior. For example, our intent was to see Come from Away. But we had seen it and were seeing it for the third time. Why? Because not only did we love the musical but there was special connection through one of the characters -- the head of the Gander Academy, who, in real life, was my mother-in-law's cousin. Yvonne had met this relative many times, and even I met once or twice. Cassidy found out the why and addressed it directly, thus helping to humanize her interactions with us.

    There is needless to say, much more to this. This is raw and is formative for me -- so you are getting what definitely is incomplete and possibly certain aspects either wrong or need a lot of tweaking from me. However, what I do know is that this has me thinking, big time. I did a podcast with SAP's GM of Sales Cloud, former Callidus Cloud CPO, and really good friend, Giles House, a couple of weeks ago. The discussion of humanization and sales experience wasn't planned as part of it, but it went that way, and as you'll see, is now the title of the podcast. Another take in a different way on humanization. Might be worth listening to here.

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    Either way, humanization is: A. not personalization; B. goes hand in hand with personalization; and C. is a subject that you have to take seriously if you are truly trying to drive a customer-engaged culture and link you and your customer's fate irrevocably and for the better. My thinking is raw, but my commitment to the idea is not. Trust me.

    NOTICE: The CRM Watchlist 2019 registration and the registration for The Emergence Maturity Index Award for 2019 is closing on Sept. 30 with no extensions possible. So, if you want to make sure that you are part of these (see the links in the names for the details), then you have roughly three weeks to go. I'd do it, if I were you, though I'm not. You, that is.

    To request the registration form for either of them, please email me at mailto:paul-greenberg3@the56group.com.

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    Customer experience: Lessons from the real world

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