Dina Apostolou of Microsoft: Mixed Reality Offers A Unique Opportunity to Enhance Sales Experience

I recently asked a number of CRM industry executives how they thought artificial intelligence could help SMBs with some of the big challenges they face using CRM applications.  This was all inspired by a poll question we posed to the Small Business Trends community, which found the following results:

Why Small Businesses Need CRM

One of those executives that offered her thoughts was Dina Apostolou, Global Product Marketing Director of Worldwide Business Applications for Microsoft.  And it just so happens I was able to have a fireside chat (and I mean literally a fireside chat) with Dina this week at Constellation Research’s annual Connected Enterprise conference in Half Moon Bay, CA.

A Closer Look at Small Business Tech Needs

Dina expanded on her thoughts on why AI can help SMBs get more out of CRM and Microsoft’s approach to bringing AI and CRM together.  She also explains what mixed reality is and how the company is bringing it to their customer base to help improve the selling experience, while also improving workforce productivity.  And she explains why she’s more of a talker than a texter.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.  To hear the full conversation watch the video or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.

Some Still Don’t Know What CRM can Do

Brent Leary: Are you as surprised as I am that today in 2019 there are so many people who still don’t know what CRM can do for their business?

Dina Apostolou: You would think at this point, that technology is kind of been a little bit more profoundly known across all industries and all segments at this time, but there’s still a lot that are adapting to the change in the pace of technology, right? So while something as traditionally known as CRM, but then there’s all this other technology that’s entered the place, when you look at the MarTech stack, when you start hearing AI, the scary word of AI, I think that starts to concern some of those businesses that are smaller because they think costs. Right?

AI is NOT Just for Big Companies

Brent Leary: Right. And some of them think AI is just for big companies, but I mean, I’ve been to 25 conferences this year, and AI is front and center pretty much everywhere. Do you think there’s a disconnect with  those that think “AI is not for small businesses”, and that disconnect is causing small businesses not to understand what CRM could do for them? Because AI can really do a lot in the context of CRM.

Dina Apostolou: I agree. I think that there’s a lot of barriers that are actually limiting, anywhere from SMBs up to enterprise around AI. But I think that artificial intelligence is definitely something that, I would say, any SMB owner or you  work your way across different functions within that organization, they think expensive, they think job elimination. They’re not thinking of how it actually can support their business process.

Some Businesses are Definitely Struggling

And so I think they’re probably struggling to kind of grasp, like how do you break through and get it into your organization in a way that’s quicker time to value. Right? And either they don’t maybe have the in-house knowledge to help them walk them through that or maybe there isn’t an ecosystem there that’s able to help them to kind of see through that path. That’s unfortunate, but also a good opportunity.

Dina Apostolou of Microsoft: Benefits of Mixed Reality Offer A Unique Opportunity to Enhance Sales Experience

A Look at How AI Can Help

Brent Leary: You kind of just segued into my next question is how does Microsoft help them understand how a CRM helps them, but also understand the benefits that AI has which could parlay into how CRM could help them?

Dina Apostolou: I think Microsoft’s unique in that we do see a lot of our customers, especially in this segment, as being on that path to of wanting a customer relationship management solution if they’ve been really comfortable with the productivity tools.

And so there’s a lot of good benefit, especially for us and how we’ve designed Dynamics 365 and our professional version of sales to accommodate those buyers that start to kind of outgrow what maybe a point solution could offer or what basic email could do in a sense of either marketing or sales engagement.

Creating an Onboarding Path for Customers

And some of that familiarity built in and having the productivity piece makes it pretty unique and it also makes it an onboarding path for customers that it doesn’t feel so big and clunky. First run experience is extremely important, right, because if you can’t get past that first run experience, you’re not going to win the customer.

So that’s an important aspect of it as well. I think the ease of first run experience on onboarding the rest of your organization, how do you build that into your products? So I think those are all important things that you have to accommodate for, for different segments of customers, understanding what their technical capabilities are.

Brent Leary: During your one of the keynote sessions, you actually had a fireside chat with Ray Wang, but he didn’t have a fireplace like this…

Dina Apostolou: He didn’t. This is nice.

Benefits of Mixed Reality

Brent Leary: I think he was asking a question around mixed reality. I think a lot of people may not, at least in the SMB community, may not understand exactly what mixed reality is. Could you kind of help understand, help them understand what mixed reality is and how it may be something that you have to be at least on their radar?

Dina Apostolou: It’s actually an important part of our portfolio. When you think about our business applications portfolio, we have a set of transactional applications, we have a set of analytical applications and then how we call it is observational applications. And that’s where our mixed reality apps fit into that and how they can kind of support a different solution area or a line of business. And that’s important because that’s data that’s coming in from a different means, right?

So we’ve talked a lot about, obviously, this conglomerate of data, but data being transactional, behavioral and observational, super important. So there’s different means of mixed reality, obviously. I can talk about the ways that we are bringing it to market and how it’s changing the workforce and how it’s changing use cases. So in our portfolio, we have customers that are using Dynamics 365 Product Visualize as a way to enhance a selling experience.

Don’t Bring a Yacht into the Showroom

So without having to bring maybe a yacht into a showroom with a customer, how do you use mixed reality in that sense to give a perspective buyer, especially in a luxury industry and space, the opportunity to go look at a yacht or multiple models of a yacht, right, or especially something that doesn’t exist yet that’s still in the manufacturing line.

And then you can shift towards guides and the ability to help your workforce to be able to conduct training and onboarding and education.  So it’s happening across different industries, that’s for sure and use cases. And some are more prevalent, I would say, in the enterprise space for us, but I think Product Visualize is a good example of one that is happening as we see it in the SMB space as well.

Brent Leary: I think Ray asked you voice or text.

Dina Apostolou: Text or talk.

Going from Voice to Text

Brent Leary: Right! I went right to voice or text. All right, so you said what?

Dina Apostolou: I said talk.

Brent Leary: And why did you say that? Because there’s just so many people texting. Why do you say talk?

Dina Apostolou: I say talk just because I feel like you lose that emotional connection over texting. Sometimes, you lose the context of your meaning, intent, so I just don’t feel the EQ part can always come out as part of text.

Brent Leary: I’m a talk person too. I would go with talk. I think in the future, people are going to be able to talk to their applications-

Dina Apostolou: That’s right.

Brent Leary: … and make it easier for them to get stuff done.

Dina Apostolou: Yeah. And there’s, again, new technology that’s happening around conversational intelligence, being able to scan calls and have the realtime feedback that can help a manager coach an employee in that situation, teach them situational leadership and how to address a customer on the spot. And so I think that, that’s an important element of both; how you relate to someone face to face as well as how technology is going to continue to advance, and we’re going to see more of that come across.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

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