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(Editor’s Note, this post originally appeared in the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and was syndicated in 42 Biz Journal publications across the country)

I’m a big Star Wars fan, so when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” descended on theaters late last year, I braved the crowds to see it — twice in the first 18 hours. And just like all the other Star Wars movies, “Rogue One” stoked our geeky imaginations with all the technological possibilities of a galaxy far, far away, like holographic displays and all sorts of strange devices.

And did you notice the Imperial server farm? Of course, advanced artificial intelligence (AI) was well-represented too: Like C-3P0, R2-D2 and BB-8 in earlier movies, Rogue One’s K-2SO displayed uncanny humanness.

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The futuristic Star Wars-esque world is still mostly the stuff of Hollywood movies, but technology visionaries are hard at work bringing us ever closer. AI, or “ intelligence exhibited by machines,” is one area that is evolving into reality, and there are some subcategories under AI with practical applications that we use today. Natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning are two of them, and their potential for the future is exciting, especially for B2B technologies like customer relationship management (CRM).

The ultimate destination of AI for the business world is to make people’s jobs easier. Just like K-2SO in Rogue One, AI will become our intelligent personal assistant that saves the day and makes life easier. However, you may have noticed that no one has a droid at the office yet. So, let’s look at what technologies are real right now and what is coming farther down the road.

What’s real: Natural language processing and machine learning

NLP technology is quite adept at decomposing language into parts, understanding the baseline intent of that language, and representing it in both spoken and written word. Perhaps the best-known application of NLP today is Apple’s “Siri.” Ask Siri any number of things — “What time is it in Berlin?” or “When is my next meeting?” — and it can tell you.

NLP has also found a foothold in CRM. Intelligent CRM tools strive to improve customer relationships, and use NLP to mine for topics of interest from customer conversations in email and CRM. What better way to connect than to personalize customer communications? Many agree, and subsequently, NLP has benefited from a lot of investment lately.

Another subcategory of AI that is much more real than ever before is machine learning. Its recent success is due to the availability of huge volumes of discrete data points, and with this deluge of data at the ready — including digital data like social data, data from public records, and IOT data — patterns begin to emerge once analyzed.

Machine learning uses algorithms to understand patterns in data sets, and then applies some logic to the patterns. (“If ‘A’ looks like ‘B,’ and ‘B’ looks like ‘C,’ then ‘A’ also looks like ‘C.’”) Machine learning algorithms are also self-learning and have been designed to take feedback, which means that their “intelligence” grows as they analyze more patterns.

In the last few years, machine learning has made a particularly big splash in image and video recognition. Some visual recognition algorithms can analyze pictures from the Internet and understand the emotional intent behind the picture. This capability is especially valuable in commerce when a brand wants a greater understanding of its levels of customer satisfaction.

For example, one machine-learning technology trawls different social networks, looks for its customers’ brands in photos, and discerns the mood of the people in the picture with the brands. Is the person holding a can of Coke in the picture smiling or frowning? To be clear, the algorithms don’t understand the emotions of sad or happy, but they understand the difference between a mouth that is turned down versus one that is turned up in a smile.

While this latest advance is certainly impressive, machine learning’s greatest strides are yet to be made, and CRM in particular stands to benefit significantly.

What’s not real… yet

In 2013, the world watched as IBM Watson leveled its human opponents on Jeopardy. The idea that a computer powered by NLP and machine learning algorithms could spit out correct answers to so many varied questions was a curiosity. Be fair, though: Watson had a huge data set — the Library of Congress — at its — er — fingertips.

Keep in mind that machine learning’s success practically applied has only come about relatively recently, thanks to the advent and use of SaaS and cloud platforms, which can cost-effectively collect massive amounts of data. It’s also taken awhile to collect, publish and aggregate enough discrete data points in which to find and analyze meaningful patterns.

Organizations in many industries have already found a way to use machine learning to their advantage. In the coming years, CRM, too, will be primed to truly take full advantage of machine learning. Companies have by now collected trillions of rows of customer data to find patterns, and are beginning to train algorithms around how customers act. These algorithms are learning about what customers are most likely to do next based on their behavior patterns.

Tomorrow’s CRM system will be more than just a database. It will capitalize on machine learning to become the ultimate personal assistant. It will not only make a user more efficient and effective at getting the job done, but will also reveal something the user didn’t already know about his customers. This is where machine learning comes in, mining massive amounts of social and other data to uncover unknown details about a customer that will deepen the customer relationship. Tomorrow’s CRM system will also apply AI to supplement declarative rules based on workflow systems that will make predictions as to what a user should be doing next.

Back to Watson. IBM Watson provides a model for CRM to even go beyond the “ultimate personal assistant” with its personality profiler service. The service needs only an email address to scan all content that can be attributed to the person behind the address — every blog article, every tweet, every Facebook post — and then determine the personality characteristics of that person. What would that capability mean for CRM — for the sales engagement process?

The type of personality-rich and amusingly expressive cognitive intelligence displayed by K-2SO is a long way off. But the AI revolution promises new and exciting use cases in the very near future, and holds great possibilities for CRM in particular. With this in mind, in 2017 and beyond, organizations must begin to view their CRM systems as much more than just a database; rather, it must be seen an intelligent tool that has the potential to transform customer relationships.

Naming products is both an art and a science. Marketers work hard to come up with names that resonate with their target customers, maybe evoke a specific emotion, maybe tell you what the product does. Sometimes its a hit, sometimes its a miss. Heck, we named our company Sugar and then decided SugarCRM was closer to home. Either way, the name “Sugar” was stepping outside the bounds of normal back in 2004 and it’s been a hit for us.

It’s certainly fun to watch all of the companies out there name their new AI services. From IBM with Watson (that’s their founder’s last name, not Sherlock’s sidekick) to Microsoft with Cortana (which cracks me up as a Halo fan) to SugarCRM with Candace (Candace…candy…sugar…get it?), we are seeing a whole new set of opportunities for marketers to make their impact with compelling names and creating compelling identities. It was exciting to announce Candace back in June 2016 and describe the future of CRM and AI together.

Our friends at Salesforce joined the fun a couple weeks ago and announced their approach to CRM and AI. They chose to name their AI service “Einstein.” But I’m going to pause on the obvious for a moment. Einstein? Really?!

Personally, I think Marc Benioff and his marketing team have let their hubris finally get to them in a big, big way. To try and steal the “Einstein” identity away from Albert Einstein, one of the greatest legends of modern history, is absolutely ridiculous. It is simply yet another illustration of how Salesforce continues to lose touch with their customers and believe the hype they spout about themselves everyday.

My fellow marketers at Salesforce, this is beneath you. Here’s a wag of the finger at the Salesforce marketing department.

Maybe this experience is familiar to you: You want to grow your business, but don’t have confidence in your growth machine. Your current sales organization performs adequately, but ramping up new reps is hit or miss, some are total flops.  It’s clear the growth formula just isn’t there. Making it harder, marketing keeps handing over leads that are barely qualified and rarely pan out.  And, the constant pressure to grow, grow, grow, is weighing on the team.  

How to solve this when you have too little consistency in how your sales reps engage with your prospects? And customer hand-offs from department to department also seem to be a constant challenge. After all the hard work of signing up a new customer, it frustrates your sales team to no end when new customers have less than an ideal experience with the rest of your company.

On top of all that, your budget is finite, and you aren’t exactly sure increasing your sales and marketing spend is the answer (yet) to dramatically increasing growth anyway.

If this sounds familiar, I have a suggestion that will help close more deals and keep more customers, all without blowing the budget…take a close look at your CRM implementation.

Here’s why: a new, fresh approach to your CRM can change the way your organization interacts with customers, qualifies leads, manages the sales cycle, and helps you differentiate yourself from the competition. In many cases, this self-analysis will lead you to evaluating a new CRM solution for your company.

It’s simple really: Legacy CRM is primarily all about reporting numbers to management with little, to no, focus on helping your people deliver an awesome customer experience. This is amazing to me given that, with a few exceptions, different companies in the same industry usually offer just a variation of the same services or products. And every one of those competitors are just a simple Google search away from each other.  How you win customers is now based on how you treat customers as much, or more than, as what you sell.

That means the need for an exceptional, and unique, customer experience is more critical than ever before.  Think about it, I’ve stayed in many business class hotels all over the world. There are some minor differences, but they all offer a comfy king-sized bed and a bathroom. The list goes on: airlines, rental cars, even Uber vs Lyft. How do you differentiate yourself when you offer similar goods or services as your direct competitors?

The answer is your customer experience. The companies that win in this era of empowered and intelligent customers win because they create better relationships with their customers. That makes sense, but a natural follow up question (and the key question to this whole blog post) is: How can you create a better customer experience when you are using the same, uninspired CRM system as your competitors?

Last month, at SugarCon 2016, we heard many great stories from SugarCRM customers who started out by looking for a different approach to CRM. We heard over and over again that they didn’t want to look like their competitors. They realized that they needed a different kind of CRM to build a different kind of customer experience.  These folks were all mavericks, disruptors, mobilizers of change. They were tired of adequate, average, and the status quo. They saw Sugar as a chance to find a better way. And, their research and investment paid off:

  • Jaime Morillo of Marathon Sports said his organization has seen a 225% increase in customer purchases during monthly promotions and increased customer retention from 47% to 57% since implementing Sugar
  • Naomi Ward of CitySprint in the UK talked about how Sugar is powering their logistics and delivery company’s fight against major disruption from the likes of Amazon and Uber, while driving sales growth.
  • Rober Amber of Unifin, a financial services company in Mexico, said his organization was able to reduce credit application processing time by 60% and grow sales revenue by 300%

These organizations, and many others, understood they had options when it came to CRM. They felt playing it safe was not really all that safe. They realized a modern CRM could help them sell more, increase revenue and build their brand without having to increase budgets.

I challenge you, don’t be a follower. Separate yourself from the CRM pack. If you follow your competition’s tools, you’ll follow everything else.

Besides, the view from the front is much better.

(Editor’s note: this post was originally published on CMSWire.com)

Have you been Ubered? Has technology reshuffled the deck in your industry? Are you about to become obsolete as some new (or renewed) competitor steals all of your hard-won, seemingly loyal customers?

Digital disruption is the new buzzword in the business transformation consulting circles, and for good reason. We are watching business model after business model being disrupted by ridiculously fast evolution in mobile tech, new marketplaces are popping up all over the place and faster and faster communication keeps connecting buyers and sellers in new ways. Technology has truly punched the accelerator on business digital transformation in industry after industry.

But what’s the one immutable fact through all of this? Customers are king. Today’s customer expects immediate answers and instant gratification. You may have a fantastic product or service, but if you don’t put an outstanding customer experience at the center of all your business planning, you will lose. This means the most impactful digital transformation strategy for your business must be around transforming your customers’ experience with your company. In short: Make it easy. Make it awesome.

That’s where modern CRM comes in. With a thoughtful investment in CRM technology, you can impress your customers by putting all the answers and insights they could ever need, right at their fingertips. Regardless of the channel, from classic retail (like your nearest mall) to modern mobile marketplaces (like Uber), CRM technology puts immediate, relevant answers in front of your customer. Sounds like lots of moving parts though, right?

Taking a step back for a moment, it is worth reflecting upon the fantastic evolution that CRM technology has gone through. Thirty years ago, Customer Relationship Management software meant call center software for tracking trouble tickets. With the advent of laptops in the early 90’s, sales force automation became the hot new CRM topic for helping companies accurately forecast their sales pipelines. And then in the late 90’s, outbound emailing became Marketing Automation software. But what truly transformed the CRM software industry was when companies stopped looking to CRM software just as a way to gain efficiencies from their employees. Instead, when companies began looking to CRM software to orchestrate a set of interactions between the company and their customers, that’s when CRM transformed from a cost reduction investment to a growth acceleration investment.

However, many organizations are often stuck in their old habits, using their legacy CRM technology to support separate, siloed business functions. By looking forward, the opportunity exists to use modern CRM as the backbone of a digital, customer-first strategy. Here are your four steps to CRM transformation:

  1. Transform Initiatives – Align your business initiatives with customer needs. If a customer-first strategy is at the center of your business, it makes sense, then, that your CRM must follow suit. An organization evolving to meet the new demands of the customer — in fact, building infrastructure around the sole purpose of serving them — recognizes the customer’s power, and will ultimately succeed.
  1. Transform Individuals – Empower individual employees. Your CRM platform must be designed with the individual employee and the customer in mind. As CRM has evolved to meet customer demands, organizations must remember that helping their own people get their job done is equally important. The right CRM helps salespeople sell and helps customer service agents deliver an extraordinary customer experience by providing the right information to the right person at the right time — even before they ask.
  1. Transform Interactions – Orchestrate customer interactions across the customer journey. Doing so brings a customer focus to everything and orchestrates consistent and informed interactions throughout the entire customer journey and at each human and digital touch point across departments, processes and systems.
  1. Transform Information – Deliver insight with a single view of customer information. Today’s customer is more informed, thanks to smart phones, social media and the rise of the digital economy. A Modern CRM gathers and organizes information about the customer across all internal and external data sources.

If a customer-first strategy is at the center of your business, congratulations. You’re squarely on your way to fostering a customer-first strategy. Your next goal should be to ensure your CRM supports this strategy and positions you to win in this era of digital transformation.

 

If you’re like us, you’ve spent the last several hours digesting the UK’s Brexit Leave vote. While we recognize this is an economic and political story before a tech story, here’s our take on what the vote means.

A UK exit from the EU impacts not just physical borders, but digital borders as well. Data sovereignty, the concept that data is subject to the laws of the country in which it is located, will likely require companies to change systems and processes for managing customer data.

Why? The UK is part of the EU data regime. The vote to leave the EU could create a new UK data regime where companies need to manage CRM system data crossing the new digital border between the UK and the rest of the world. Storing EU customer data in the UK will no longer satisfy EU data laws. Likewise, UK customer data stored in EU countries will have had to comply with separate UK data laws. Changing processes and systems to comply with the new legal landscape around customer data takes both time and money.

How can business protect themselves against the likely forthcoming changes in tech policy? For one, it’s vital to have flexibility in cloud options and can adapt solutions to suit the particular needs of their customers and comply with data sovereignty laws. Modern SaaS companies leverage multiple infrastructure service providers in different countries so that customer data can reside wherever legal requirements force a business to store that data. In contrast, legacy SaaS providers operate a single, vendor-specific cloud putting all of their customers’ data at risk under the umbrella of that vendor. In this next generation of SaaS, technology companies operate both their own cloud and also enable other service providers to deliver that SaaS service on their clouds, either private or public. For example, with SugarCRM, businesses have a CRM system that is ready for a world with multiple clouds and many data sovereignty regimes.

Looking further ahead, the issue of data residency is not exclusive to the EU, but is part of a global trend with similar discussions currently taking place in countries like Russia and Canada. I see this trend continuing with more and more countries moving towards security and privacy laws that require their data to be kept within national boundaries.

The recent battles between the EU and US over the “safe-harbour” legislation are an example of what a thorny issue cloud-based data storage continues to be. The problem is that there’s a fundamental contradiction between the cloud and national borders; information has no respect for lines on a map and tech companies thrive when their solutions are systems that have maximum flexibility. The more legislation that occurs, and I think that this is inevitable post Brexit, the bigger the headache for SaaS companies as they are forced to navigate different legalities in different markets.

I am certain that this debate, this tension between data storage and national security interests, will continue for many more years to come.

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on destinationCRM.com)

Cloud-based SaaS solutions offer some great benefits, but be careful. Getting trapped in a proprietary cloud solution can lead to a loss of control—of your data, your security, and maybe even your career.

The cloud is certainly having its day in the sun. Social, mobile, and now the cloud have taken turns topping IT priority lists for large enterprises. This notion was underscored when a recent Bitglass survey of 92 CIOs and IT leaders revealed that 55 percent of respondents said their companies embrace a “cloud-first” strategy. Such reverence is hardly surprising. The cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) model offers a lot of advantages for many enterprise solutions. Rapid deployment of off-the-shelf software systems can be affordable, present a low barrier to adoption, and provide an excellent way to prove new ideas quickly. This has certainly made it easy for many companies to implement new software, but there are pitfalls that must be watched for and avoided.

Most cloud solutions are available only in proprietary, multitenant, shared-infrastructure, single-cloud configurations—a big black box in the sky. There is little or no opportunity for companies to decide where they want their applications and data to reside. Public cloud of your own choice? Private cloud? Within your own country’s borders? On premises? A hybrid combination of these? In some cases, all these options are off the table. The only choice is the vendor’s proprietary cloud—a model that just doesn’t work for everyone.

Security concerns, regulatory requirements, and enterprise integration strategies should be carefully considered before deciding to “lock in” with a solution that’s limited to a single vendor’s proprietary, public, shared-infrastructure cloud.

It’s interesting to note that a recent Gartner study, Market Share Analysis: Customer Relationship Management Software, Worldwide, 2014, states that 47 percent of CRM software revenue was generated from SaaS-based CRM applications in 2014. But that means the other half of CRM revenue was generated from private cloud, managed hosted, and on-premises solutions. The more sophisticated multinational companies with intense data integration and data security needs are turning away from the public cloud and choosing the private cloud for their CRM needs.

I recently met with representatives of a large company in the financial sector about a new CRM deployment. Without hesitation, they said, “There is no way we are putting our customer data in a public cloud environment where we lose control.” This is an understandable reaction: Around the world, companies in highly regulated industries like financial services, healthcare, and the federal government must comply with strict regulations that govern the handling of personal information and sensitive data. An out-of-the-box shared infrastructure cloud CRM offering will not meet these strict regulatory requirements.

Compliance is becoming an even greater challenge outside the United States. Many countries have strict rules governing the collection and storage of customer data. This has led to an increasing drive for data localization. For example, Germany requires that data about German users must be stored within the country’s borders. Recent court rulings against the USA-EU Safe Harbor framework and the proposed “Safe Harbor 2.0” data transfer rules will lead to many companies deciding the best way to stay compliant is to keep customer data stored within the same continent and same country, if possible.Cloud Portability Image

In addition to compliance issues, data security concerns have caused many CIOs to delay shared-infrastructure, public-cloud deployments. One of the main concerns for organizations is that information stored in the public cloud is beyond its control. Imagine investing in the best security tools and having the most sophisticated authentication protocols, but still being at the mercy of your cloud vendor’s security mechanisms for managing your most precious asset, your customer data. Your top-notch information security team has no visibility into those security controls, and you have no way to move to another CRM cloud vendor if those security mechanisms are challenged or, worse, fail. It’s not a comfortable feeling. Couple the loss of control with the media’s constant reporting of embarrassing high-profile data breaches such as happened with Anthem InsuranceAT&T, and even Ashley Madison, and the unease about having customer data exposed grows—which is understandable, given the obvious consequences: compromised reputation, lost business, and fines levied for regulatory violations.

Another large multinational electronics manufacturing company I recently worked with reviewed all of the public-cloud CRM solutions available and determined that moving its large volumes of customer data across multiple public cloud vendors was not only potentially unsecure, but too costly. With tens of millions of customers around the world connecting with it across a variety of brick-and-mortar and online channels, the dollar costs of storing that data in a public cloud service and the costs of accessing its own data for reporting and integration purposes via that cloud service did not work out. Global enterprises find the very size and complexity of their customer data challenging to manage and integrate in the public cloud. All of these cost and control issues melt away when the CRM solution is managed in a private cloud, often by one of a variety of different expert-managed cloud service providers.

Organizations should have the freedom to implement the systems and architectures that best address their needs for security, regulatory compliance, and data integration. The cloud is a great option. But getting there shouldn’t force you into an environment that puts your data, your business, or your career at risk.

The Safe Harbor Framework that permits the transfer of data between the United States and Europe is in jeopardy.

Last week, the Advocate General, a legal advisor to the European Court of Justice (the European Union’s top court), released his opinion on the EU-US the Safe Harbor framework, which he said is invalid. He said the agreement does not do enough to protect EU citizens’ personal information when it reaches the United States.

The Safe Harbor agreement has been around since the year 2000. More than 4,400 companies are Safe Harbor certified. U.S. and European companies rely on the EU–US Safe Harbor framework to permit the lawful transfer of personal data from the EU to the U.S.

The ruling is not yet final, and the EU court’s judges will issue a final ruling in the coming months.  If they follow the Advocate General’s recommendation, which they often do, this will cause significant headaches for U.S. companies that serve customers in the EU.

A reflection of increased digital privacy concerns in wake of the NSA scandal and Edward Snowden leaks, the ruling has the potential to impact thousands of U.S. and European companies. It presents serious challenges for U.S. SaaS providers who have built their businesses under the framework of the Safe Harbor agreement.

Without the Safe Harbor agreement in place, data that originates in Europe may need to stay strictly in Europe. This includes everything from payroll to customer data. Some large enterprises have tried to stay ahead of the issue by investing in data centers in Europe.  However it should be noted the local data centers don’t fully solve the issue.

While this ruling does present challenges for SugarCRM, the company is better equipped than “SaaS only” solutions that lack local or on-premise deployment options. SugarCRM offers multiple deployment options and can continue to provide viable alternatives for EU customers, including:

  • Local hosting through various partners including “in country” hosting by T-Systems
  • On-site deployment options that require simple instance migration, meaning customers do not need to transfer their data to Sugar

Other SaaS/premise mix providers may be hard pressed to keep their customers, as SugarCRM is one of the only multiple deployment CRM providers offering a single code base across all deployment options.

SugarCRM has customers in more than 120 countries. We realize companies around the world are subject to many different laws and regulations. Legal requirements in one country may be inconsistent with legal requirements applicable elsewhere. Hence, we offer a multi-tenant cloud service, a private instance in the cloud, and also allow customers to deploy on their own internal clouds. A flexible deployment approach allows our customers to more easily comply with international data security and privacy laws.