Has there ever been a two year timeframe where consumer needs and expectations have changed more rapidly and dramatically than they have since the Coronavirus pandemic broke out and forced us into a new way of life? Maybe they have, but definitely not in my lifetime. And we still have over a month until we hit the actual two-year anniversary, so there’s still more to come as Omicron and Delta has taught us.
Consumers have never been more in need of the combination of more empathy from vendors to go with the products and services they need to adapt their lives to the situations they’ve been hit with. However, technology has also given them the opportunity to be more selective in choosing companies that not only show they understand their needs, but also can communicate to them and act on that understanding in a way that makes them feel valuable. But how well are marketers, in particular, doing communicating with customers and prospects today?
I recently spoke with Shoel Perelman, Vice President of Product for 1:1 Customer Engagement of Pegasystems, a leading customer engagement platform provider, to get his take on how marketers have evolved their engagement methods and interaction approach over the past few years. Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.
How Have Marketers and Marketing Evolved the Past Two Years
Brent Leary: As we close one year and enter another, what’s changed the most in terms of customer engagement, especially given what we’ve faced over the last couple of years?
Shoel Perelman: I think one of the biggest things that’s changed, and it was in play even before the pandemic, was that people really expect to be communicated about something that’s relevant to them. I think for a long time it was just generally accepted that
there’s going to be a bunch of junk that goes to the one where you sign up for things. But I think people’s patience have worn thin on those. I know, during the pandemic, I had time to sit down and just unsubscribe to tons of stuff that I didn’t care about, because it wasn’t relevant to me anymore.
One of the things that’s changed is, there’s been this recognition in the industry that we don’t need to do that anymore. We have the technology to do better. I think people have also, because they’ve been dealing a lot more with calling companies up directly, there’s an expectation that companies will listen and remember.
When you’re on the phone and you express, “Don’t talk to me about that subscription. It’s not something I care about,” there’s this assumption now that they will have heard you, and they will make note of it, and use it in the future. Our expectations have risen. It’s not enough to just make use of it in that conversation. I think there’s the expectation that it will get remembered for a long time. And next time you talk to someone, they won’t ask you about the same thing again.
Grading Marketers’ Effort to Interact with Customers
Brent Leary: What about how marketing is handled? If you had to give marketers a grade of how they have reacted and responded to customers during the pandemic, what grade would you give and why?
Shoel Perelman: I think it was like a C-minus for the first eight or nine months. Then, I think it shot up a lot. You could even see it, like on advertisements, on TV. Remember the first few months, you saw these ads where people are hanging out and they’re face to face, and there came this certain point in time when that became a strange feeling, to see that, right?
There had to be this immediate adaptation to people’s perceptions. It’s no longer okay to make people uncomfortable with things that were from a previous era, pre-pandemic. One of the things that I’ve been excited about, and one of the things that’s increased the importance of using machine learning, is these campaigns people have traditionally ran just based upon demographics.
What happened is, people’s behavior suddenly changed drastically over the course of three or four months. All of the pre-scripted campaigns that were defined before suddenly were completely out of alignment with what people were expecting. So, it’s really the ones who are using machine learning, those systems were able to adapt to the fact that people’s behaviors were very different. It changed so fast that it’s hard for the pre-scripted parts of it to get reworked. There’s a lot of work that goes into making those changes.
Brent Leary: Customer engagement in particular; what finally made companies have to change things, and what are some of the best ways that you’ve seen that happen?
Shoel Perelman: It’s been in the numbers. Marketing, regardless of how you do it, tends to be a very quantitative profession. You could really measure, is it working or is it not working? My response rates used to be 3.4% and now they’ve plummeted to 0.6%. Right? I’m getting unsubscribes. You can’t argue with that. It’s become this force of change. That’s been a positive driver towards change.
AI’s Impact on Customer Journeys
Brent Leary: That leads up to this whole discussion around journeys, customer journeys.
Shoel Perelman: I think there’s been this idea in the industry that the customer journeys are in conflict with AI, right? I was in a room once where folks broke out a 10-foot Visio printout. They put it on the wall with all these really intricate lines and branches.
They were really proud of it, because they put a lot of work into going through, what are all the steps? It was an insurance company, right? They’re like, “What are all the things that happen? When you’re 30 days before renewal period, one of these four things needs to happen, right?”
I think they felt in that conversation, when I started talking about using AI, next best action, they were thinking, “So, you’re invalidating all of this work that I’ve done to understand my customers. I’m not cool with that. That’s not empathetic.”
What we’ve had to do, is a nut that we had to crack with customer journeys, which was really giving the marketer the place where they express that understanding of the different situations their customers can be in.
Then coming up with not just one thing you might say 10 days before renewal, but let the creativity run free, come up with 50 different ways to approach that situation. Let the AI experiment on which of those things is most likely to get the person to renew. You know what I mean? But pick from those 50 things in that situation, because that’s what makes sense in that situation.
AI and Marketing Creativity
Brent Leary: It’s almost like marketers already feel they’re creative, but maybe they’ve got to start looking at creativity in a different way, in an expanded way, to take advantage of what AI is bringing them, and freeing them to do.
Shoel Perelman: Exactly. Freeing is the key thing. We want to unleash their creativity in thinking of all the different ways you could word something, and all the different ways you could appeal to somebody, but we don’t want them to have to write database SQL queries looking for this specific person to send this specific message to. The AI can do that part, you know?
Brent Leary: Absolutely. How do you think that changes marketing, or how should it change the marketing industry going forward?
Shoel Perelman: I think of it as feeding the brain, right? You need a constant, fresh stream of content. I’ll use the example I was using before, about when we got a few months into the pandemic, the types of messages that we expected to see, some of them were jarring and some of them showed us, “Oh, they really understand what world I’m living in right now.”
We started seeing these ads about, “Oh, you’re working at home and your kids are screaming, right?” You could relate to that. We really want marketers to be able to read the moment, and spend their time generating that content, that human content that appeals to people. Get that into the system, and let the AI start warming up and trying it out. That’s what I think the biggest change is, but the other thing that I see is there’re still measurements. We were talking about the numbers don’t lie.
Brent Leary: Right.
Shoel Perelman: You might be a marketer who’s accountable for generating 5,000 refinance leads. Right? You’re still held accountable for that. So I think there still is a part of it about making it easy to measure, that they’re still able to meet their goals that they’re held to. Sometimes those might conflict with, what is this particular customer most interested in? I think it’s embracing that tension and having a way of being able to serve both needs, the measurement, while still being empathetic.
New Generation of Marketers Embracing Needed Changes
Brent Leary: That’s awesome. I feel like it’s also maybe, partially, going to be solved by a newer generation of marketers who are going to be coming in with these inherent traits and skillsets to do what you’re talking about.
Shoel Perelman: I think that it’s definitely… I won’t sugar-coat it. I’ll say it’s still a hard transformation, because we’re dealing with an industry that has been working a certain way for 30, 40 years, even going back to direct marketing, right? Sending out postcards-
Brent Leary: Yeah.
Shoel Perelman: We still get those. For those, you really do have to address it to a certain person. There are ways of using AI for that as well, but it’s obvious you don’t get the same click right away that you do through digital channels, or the same feedback loop. It’s that feedback loop that I think is very possible right now. We’re getting that stream of data.
Another thing that I think is taking off is listening… There’s a lot of talk in the industry about privacy, and we get skeeved out when… It even happens to me. I’m having a conversation with my wife, then I see an ad for something, right? We think, “How could that have happened? You know, what iPads in the room are listening to my conversation?” Right? I’m always paranoid about that.
That’s a little weird, but I think there’s a whole lot that we share with brands when we’re talking to them, that they can use, just interacting with a website, clicking on things. Those clicks, that’s gold right there. What, where, how people navigate through your site; there’s a rush now to listen to that data and make use of it in decision-making.
I think that’s what the crop of marketers who are growing up right now, I think they get that, and they get that it’s a difficult technical challenge, but we definitely have the technology now to do it.
Voice Tech’s Role in Future of Customer Engagement
Brent Leary: What is customer engagement going to be looking like over the next few years? Maybe just give us a couple of ideas, how it may be different than it is today.
Shoel Perelman: I think it’s going to be much more in the moment. It’s not going to be intruding on you, but it’s going to be really listening to what your needs are, anticipating your needs, and getting in front of that. We’re still living through the days of what things used to be like with marketing, we still get tons of junk. I think that’s pretty much all going to go away over the next three to five years.
There’s also going to be a lot more of voice technology, so making use of our intonations and our sentiment. Right now, we’ve been on calls and if you get at angry, you get transferred to a different person, right? But I think technology that is able to listen to those conversations, even assist people…. Like when you say something, you don’t have to spell it out, it will just assist the customer service person to take what you’ve said and weave it into the discussion. I think there’ll be a lot of voice-assisted AI, that’s going to become commonplace.
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.