Wilson Raj of SAS: Customer Data Privacy is the New Experience Differentiator

COVID-19 forced many of us to shelter-in-place, and caused us to do things like shop for groceries digitally. And while it took a pandemic for many of us to do that, now that we have  done it, many will continue grocery shopping online long after the pandemic is over.  Just as people who went into an office to work before COVID might never do that again now that working from home has been great for many folks who never imagined doing it before COVID-19.

The pandemic has sped up the move to a digital-first economy.  But there is more needed to be done before you can successfully transform your organizations to thrive in post-COVID era. And earlier this week I talked about this during a LinkedIn Live conversation with Wilson Raj, Global Director of Customer Intelligence for analytics platform provider SAS.

Interview with Wilson Raj of SAS on Customer Data Privacy

Below is an edited transcript from a portion of our conversation.  To hear the full interview click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.

Small Business Trends: What impact has the pandemic had on your business customers so far?

Wilson Raj: Oh, absolutely. I think what has happened with this pandemic is it forces organizations of all sizes, whether you’re a midsize or a Fortune 500 to really go digital-first. That’s the mentality. I think for SAS going digital-first means being data-first. That’s where it all starts. It’s not so much of the digitalization of channels, it is using the data that’s coming from digital, that’s coming from within the organization.  Digital-first means being data-first, which means we have to have analytics at the core to unlock all that. So in terms of responding to the pandemic, every key aspect in terms of dealing with recovery, whether it is optimizing hospital beds, whether it’s doing contact tracing, it’s all data-first.

And it’s fast. It is automated, is aggregated, and is actionable. We’re seeing that in use cases, not just in the pharma or the healthcare space, but in optimizing supply chains, looking at inventory supply, how do you optimize that, looking at pricing, how do you optimize that and predict in lieu of what’s happening now, how the organization can take advantage and start to thrive. So in all these areas of recovery, whether it’s supply chain, merchandising, pricing, financial stability, healthcare, we were able to bring that whole notion of data-first powered by analytics very quickly. What was really cool was that these solutions were brought in sometimes within weeks, sometimes within days to the marketplace. That was really a huge testament to the agility of the platform, the automation that’s built into it. I think the third thing I would say is the very rich knowledge set that we had from an analytical perspective in manufacturing, in retail, in utilities, and in healthcare, that really galvanized, and we were able to do to help our customers that way.

Small Business Trends: You say part of being digital-first means data-first. When you look at what’s been happening with the pandemic … We’ve talked about digital transformation for a number of years, but has the talk of digital transformation changed in some ways because of COVID-19? And if so, how do you see COVID-19 changing the definition and the approach to digital transformation?

Wilson Raj: I think the COVID-19 clarified the definition of digital transformation. It really did, because it showed how using data at the core, the companies that were effective were able to start to recover and reimagine three areas of the business. One is obviously, the way they were relating with customers, going digital-first, having digital channels to be able to identify needs, and service the customers. The second area of that transformation was in operational management. We talked about processes being digitized, being accelerated, efficiencies being squeezed out within minutes. And the last one is around innovation. That’s another aspect of digital transformation using data. For me, innovation is just coming up with the new way of doing the first two things, right? It’s a new way of connecting with your prospect and a new business model, right?

And so that to me, those three areas around customer experience, around process improvements, around new business models, all were expressed, and you can see this Brent in the last three months across all sectors. It doesn’t matter, we saw elements of all those things. I think now the question becomes, do brands now go back to normal, or are they going to sustain the advances that they have gained during this period?

Small Business Trends: What impact will Google going away from using cookies have on SMBs?

Wilson Raj: Yeah, Brent, I think this balance… We’ve chatted about this several times, around this balance between personalization and privacy, right? Where’s the line? What’s creepy? What’s relevant? I think today with everything going digital-first where the physical aspect is completely non-existent, at least for now or in the near term, there might be some elements of that coming up maybe, I don’t know, in the near mid-future, but for the most part, it is screen interaction, or using apps.

What we’re finding is that that third-party cookie has always been sort of a panacea, unfortunately, seen rightly or wrongly by companies, certainly the mid-sized enterprise as well as to be used for better targeting. Now, unfortunately, I mean, the research has shown third-party cookie tracking, and the way we do metrics and you really do attribution has been sketchy at best, right? Because when you look at the ad-tech environment in terms of how third-party cookies are measured and how digital properties are synced to that, there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of grayness in terms of how do you really map that? Are you really doing that one to one? And so with Google just recently announcing the demise or the lack of support for the cookies, the first knee-jerk reaction is like, “Yike, how am I going to track people on my website?” That’s the first thing people are screaming or, “There goes my digital identification, tracking mechanism.” But when people calm down, you could see that, you know what? There is a world beyond third-party cookies. I would call that first-party consent, not first-party data.

In fact, there would be a greater reliance on first-party data. That’s the data that the grocery store or the mid-market brand would use as the customers or prospects interact with them digitally. Correct? Absolutely. You’re tracking that stuff now. That’s behavioral. But then when you talk about first-party content, that’s the data that is provided by the consumer as a tacit invitation to say, “Hey, I want to know more.” Right? It could be as direct as texting Brent and say, “Hey, give me information.” That’s very direct. Or it could be through other kinds of behavioral footprints or sentiment that the brand can capture to say, “This person is giving me tacit approval to engage with you, to do something, to provide information.” So if you’re a bank, maybe how do you change your account number, or how do you add more services?

It could be for a transaction. “I want to pay a bill. I want to split this investment portfolio into five pieces.” Whatever that is, or it could be something from a support perspective. “I need to talk with someone to help me make some smart decisions about my investments.” You can use that same informational, transactional, and support moments of truth in any industry. In those interactions, you have what I call first-party consent. I think to do that again, you’re collecting that data, and then, how do you use that? That becomes a question, and that’s where things such as predictive analytics, things such as lookalike modeling, things such as churn analysis, or sentiment using AI can help you get that consent, and then you’re able to hopefully use that in the right way.

Small Business Trends: It’s all about trust, and if you don’t have the trust, I don’t care… If you become digitally transformed and you are digital-first, if nobody trusts you, no customers trust you, who cares?

Wilson Raj: Absolutely. Who cares, right? That trust is not… We have talked about this, and I’m glad we’re bringing this up because even more so today, trust is not a theoretical concept here. Trust is not this warm, fuzzy, cozy feeling between a brand and a consumer. It would be things such as, boy, from a data governance perspective, how are these folks managing data? How are they protecting it? How are they cleansing it? Do they have very clear-cut definitions in terms of retention dates, how they are used, when they’re used, where they’re not to be used? All of those so-called legal, data governance, boring things are absolutely critical. On the other hand, from a experiential perspective, how is the organization communicating the value of data collected? Not just in terms of being very succinct in terms of what consumers are going to get, what they’re going to experience, but also provide protocols where you and I can vet, we can audit our own data preferences through a contact or a data preference center to say, “You know what? I’m not going to say it shared this anymore. I’m not going to share this piece of data anymore. I’m going to time out on this one.”

That is now giving the power back. And so by a combination of what I call internal governance initiatives through data management and security and so on, and then through an external way of providing that flexibility and choice to customers, you can make trust a little bit more tangible, I think.

We did research late last year in terms of what the future of customer excellence looks like between an organization and the consumer. One of the themes that came up is the balance between privacy and personalization. You can see the industries that are more trustworthy; healthcare providers, food providers, and so on. And then on the other side of the spectrum those which are less trusted, because there’s a notion that these folks on the right are not necessarily communicating what they’re doing with the data, number one. Number two, they’re just using it for other financial purposes, right? Selling it to third parties or other entities without your knowledge.

Small Business Trends: Consent first, if you can build that into your corporate culture, your DNA, then you have a solid foundation to move forward and put all these other pieces into play. But if you don’t do that, you might as well not do anything at this point.

Wilson Raj: Right.

Small Business Trends: It’s that important to me, I think.

Wilson Raj: You’re right. Brent, A great customer experience is not just one P, personalized. It’s not just that. It’s the second letter P, is privacy-aware. We have to do privacy. We have to go first. We don’t want the customer to make those choices, right? We want to meet with privacy first. I think as we go through this disruption and into future state, whatever that looks like, privacy can now become the new customer experience differentiator. It is no longer the backroom topic where the lawyers and the governance folks talk about, right? It is front and center of the chief marketing officer, of the chief executive officer. It has to be that vital and visible.

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.

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.