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Using collaboration tools to reach customers

Collaboration tools help deliver critical information in the moment to create a fulfilling customer experience. But how close are enterprises to delivering successful micromoments?

You’re getting ready to cook for a potluck dinner. But, with the demands of your job, you haven’t figured out your contribution. As you arrive at a grocery store and check your smartphone, you access a menu-planning app that you share with the other cooks. With one tap, you discover that you have been assigned the side dishes.

The next steps are easy. The mobile app automatically recommends multiple recipes, personalized to your culinary tastes. It accounts for everyone’s dietary needs, and matches ideas to the main courses. Once you select your three favorite recipes, the app immediately produces your shopping list, calculates the right quantities and sorts the items by store aisle. The app can pinpoint the freshest vegetables or hard-to-find condiments; it identifies your location and helps you to navigate by voice response.

Finally, the shopping cart records your purchases so you don’t need to wait in a checkout line. Pay via smartphone, bag your items and you are on your way.

Capturing customer experience in the micromoment

Is this a futuristic picture? Yes, but it’s entirely plausible within a few years, enabled by ever more insightful applications as well as by the widening mesh of smart sensors that enhance experiences.

Notice how shopping for your potluck becomes a series of collaborative, interactive moments.

The digital environment already knows a good deal about you and your friends, and it seamlessly augments your immediate tasks. Once you make your selections, your mobile app identifies the location of items in a store. Sensors in your shopping cart recognize your purchases. Paying is simple – your digital wallet, an app on your smartphone, completes the transaction. You emerge with the ingredients for your potluck while the grocery store reinforces its commitment to an easy, fulfilling digital experience. And that ease has much to do with your access to information—at the ready without searching, excessive tapping or even voice commands.

Google dubs these ephemeral moments of interaction among users, devices and digital environments as “micromoments.” They are glimmers of opportunity to deliver quickly consumable information to reach customers and audiences in the moment.

“Consumers have become more empowered than ever to get what they want, when they want it,” writes Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior vice president of ads and commerce at Google, in a piece on micromoments. With mobile devices and collaboration tools, enterprises can reach customers—by combining capabilities, including intelligent search, artificial intelligence (AI), user suggestions, mobility, location and digital payment – to turn these digital moments into opportunities that solidify customer experiences and personalize results.

With mobile devices and collaboration tools, enterprises can reach customers by combining capabilities.

Micromoments are also contextual. They detect where you are and adapt to your needs as you focus first on one task and then another over the course of the day – whether it’s shopping for a potluck dinner with friends or planning an upcoming business trip. Through repeated use, micromoments foster engagement and collaboration. Collaborative tools, in turn, best reach customers by delivering micromoments for engaging experiences.

Solidifying customer experience

Let’s focus on five interrelated factors where digital experiences, delivered in the moment, influence engagement. And this starts to give contour to how to use collaboration tools to reach customers.

1. Micromoments capture your customer’s attention. Recognize that customers are navigating in the moment to solve problems. They gravitate to the tools and apps that help them to find, to go, to do and to buy what they need in the moment – without wasting time. Asking the right questions, sensing the context and recommending the next best steps, seamlessly and rapidly, are essential to successful moments.

2. Success is more than just completing one task after another. There must be an underlying plan. Consider how a set of tasks can be combined into a useful activity. Similarly with micromoments, at least two or three events are usually chained together sequentially to deliver a valuable moment. Identify the links in the chain and the connection points between them. To create these connections, it’s essential to overcome the business barriers and information stovepipes that disrupt experiences.

3. Collaboration counts. Micromoments are inherently collaborative. Empowered users make relevant connections with one another as needed, and they seamlessly exchange information while proceeding toward shared objectives. Individuals collaborate across time and space, enabled by collaboration technologies. In some cases, accomplishing a task entails real-time interactions, such as screen sharing so all members of a meeting can view presentation slides, or live chat to annotate a meeting in real time. In other cases, completing a task is collaborative but depends on time-shifted events, such as viewing a videoconference recording.

4. Learning matters. Engaged customers rely on the moments that augment important activities. It is essential to capture an experience and then learn from it. Not all tasks are automatically programmable. Innovative algorithms based on machine learning and other AI techniques are increasingly applicable to match queries with results, and to personalize content delivery. Customers expect digital experiences that continuously improve in terms of efficiency, functionality and ease of use.

5. Collaboration tools entrench relationship. There is a virtuous cycle between collaboration and engagement. When companies produce engaging experiences, customers return to be reengaged and discover additional experiences. Satisfied consumers will spread the word and encourage others to join, reinforcing the business network. Over time, these network effects generate value-added services that increase revenue, reduce costs and enhance companies’ competitiveness in the digital age.

Using collaboration to reach and empower customers

Companies need to produce micromoments that engage customers and encourage repeat experiences. For companies, these are seamless, flexible processes that are cost-effective and revenue-generating. For customers, these are in-the-moment, useful experiences that yield precise information and essential insights.

Customers expect digital experiences that continuously improve in terms of efficiency, functionality and ease of use.

Companies for example, are increasingly using chatbots and voice-response bots, which rapidly respond to customer queries and suggest next-best actions. Customers may ask imprecise questions in real time; companies respond with an automated, voice-driven experience based on a customer-support app, which intelligently reacts to customer queries or redirect inquiries to human customer support representatives (CSRs).

Chatbots give customers an efficient collaboration tool to address their needs in the moment. Moreover, the information acquired from customer interactions can fuel repeat customer experiences. If these interactions are plugged back into a larger customer-experience strategy, such as logging a live chat conversation in a company's customer relationship management (CRM) system, they can provide fodder for follow-up interactions, using additional tools, such as analytics and sentiment analysis, for example.

Creating relationships through collaboration tools

The promise of micromoments combines next-generation digital technologies with insights about innovative ways to connect companies with their customers. Digital conversations yield results when companies have done their homework to ensure that their content assets – data, metadata and algorithms – are in order.

But this is where things get tricky, particularly when organizations want to get mileage from existing investments in enterprise applications. Companies need to consider their existing application portfolio and determine where additions will enable the evolution of a collaborative conversational ecosystem. Otherwise, organizations simply create a patchwork of disparate collaborative tools that conflict with one another, fail to capture users’ attention and become detractors for getting real work done. If collaboration tools are added for novelty sake, companies may create more application fatigue than productivity enhancements.

Micromoments rely on four key areas to power this collaborative conversational ecosystem.

1. Devices. Certainly companies must manage the range of devices they support. They have to think about PCs, tablets and smartphones and also consider smart speakers, kiosks, augmented reality (AR) frameworks and displays, Internet of things (IoT)-connected devices and other technologies just being developed today.

Both form factors and display environments are steadily evolving, with compelling options for in-the-moment experiences. Mobile alerts are already useful when we are out-and-about and have ready access to our smartphones and digital watches. Soon, as autonomous cars become more mature, we won’t need to take our eyes of the road once route instructions appear as holograms within our fields of vision. Simply looking at a machine while wearing the right glasses (with an embedded AR display), you will likely learn relevant information about its operations and repair status. And, of course, voice-activated technologies such as digital assistants Siri and Alexa are becoming standard fare in business and personal realms.

2. Rich media. All types of rich media – photos, digitized objects within images, sounds, vibrations and speech – are integral parts of conversational experiences. But voice-activated interactions in particular, as digital assistants’ popularity indicates, can have greater cognitive effects than simply reading words on a screen. Ultimately, our interactions with collaborative tools will involve more speech-activated commands and queries rather than typing text.

Cooking with gooey fingers is a different experience when we can ask for step-by-step guidance from smart speakers rather than reading a recipe on our tablets. Repairing a machine becomes much clearer when we can see how to remove the parts within our fields of vision (using AR displays) rather than reading an electronic manual.

3. Multiple threads. Micromoments are multi-threaded interactions. The conversation is no longer a single stream but likely encompasses multiple factors – based on imprecise queries, disparate sensors, and various contextual signals that the back-end application environment then processes, interprets and recommends next-best steps. It is important to chart how these factors interact with the underlying content and collaboration technologies. You'll want to develop a map of the overall customer journey (see customer journeys below).

We can ask Google to identify “restaurants near me” from our mobile phones to find places to eat. But deciding what to do and how best to organize our visit is a juggling act with many lists and queries. Information can be better organized via micromoments that know what each group member likes, that recognizes the contextual signals from our devices (such as locations and time of day), and can make relevant, context-based recommendations. Micromoments can tailor suggestions and create unique, shared experiences.

4. AI. Micromoments will depend on smart and adaptive back ends. The overall collaborative environment is not simply programmable and deterministic—database-driven applications supplemented with business rules. These next-generation back ends incorporate natural language, machine learning and deep learning capabilities, with multiple innovative algorithms and techniques captured by the AI moniker.

Consider how customer-support activities continually improve and become more intelligent, enabled by the application of AI and big data analytic techniques. While a manufacturing firm maintains extensive repair information about each of the machines it produces, transforming this content into smart solutions, suitable for AR visualization, requires scenario mapping and knowledge engineering. Descriptive metadata needs to be contextualized. Problems and solutions need to be modeled; models, in turn, describe how machine-specific content plus relevant algorithms can be aggregated to support task-specific activities. All these kinds of changes help hone information and enable collaboration tools to reach customers.

Challenges in using collaboration tools to reach customers

Of course, enterprises thrive on interactions; these communications solidify customer relationships and generate revenue. Customers have more choices than ever to communicate and collaborate with one another concerning shared tasks. But the holy grail in collaboration tools is still maturing technology-wise and thus often missing in reality: a comprehensive interactive environment that creates a seamless digital experience based on intelligent back-end capabilities. This platform uses technologies such as intelligent search and AI to produce the information users need in the moment, without wasting their time.

Customers have struggled to find a comprehensive collaborative platform. While numerous collaboration technologies are available, and many have substantial market share, these platforms don’t necessarily integrate with one another. In some cases, customers are forced to use multiple tools. This can create application fatigue and information overload. The lack of integration can also be problematic when users try to communicate via platforms that differ. They may be forced to use a different videoconferencing tool or content repository simply to perform a one-off task, encouraging a patchwork of tools in the environment.

Collaboration tools also need to be open and capable of integrating with one another, to encourage evolution and adaptation as things change. Users want options as they traverse the collaboration ecosystem and are more likely to utilize tools that work seamlessly with one another.

Furthermore, developing a collaborative conversational ecosystem carries business risk. Data privacy and security are perennial concerns, best addressed through an organization’s enterprise security architecture.

Collaboration tools can also create tone-deaf, rather than personalized customer experiences. Firms must embed trust into their digital environments, where AI-powered interactions with apps and bots mimic the quality and insights of real-time, in-the-moment conversations with experts, colleagues and friends. Companies need to commit to continuous evolution, based on principles of agile application development, where they can extend their collaborative conversational ecosystems over time.

Three keys in making micromoments

Micromoments rely on the virtuous cycle between collaboration and engagement. When customers have successful experiences, they return and engage. Companies can grow revenue and profits through investment in collaborative conversational ecosystems.

Building an ecosystem that exploits collaboration platforms to enhance customer experience should combine business expertise with technology insights. Here are three things to consider as you build customer experiences through your collaboration tools.

1. Business needs assessment

Conduct a business-needs assessment to focus efforts on how your organization can generate micromoments. Consider where these conversations are simply transactional; recognize where richer, more nuanced interactions can improve business outcomes. Identify where next-generation collaboration can create competitive advantage. Define opportunities for growing revenue, increasing profits, reducing costs and mitigating risks.

Assess the impact of time as a factor for improving collaboration and customer experiences. Determine where real-time interactions, including rapid responses to digitized queries, enhance customer engagement. Start with the low-hanging fruit, such as opportunities to reduce call-center volumes by investing in a collaborative ecosystem.

For example, consider how your CRM system can generate integrated notes about customer interactions, whether they occur online, on the phone or in the store. Determine how to combine collaboration technology with CRM tools to get a more comprehensive picture of customers. Assess how the conversation threads from chat-logging systems, customer comments online or even a customer representative’s notes from a phone or video support call can be blended into a 360-degree view of customer needs.

2. Customer journey mapping

Consider how customers interact and the kinds of problems and requests they have, focusing on tasks. Map specific dialogues that customers will have with the content they need. Identify where interactions occur in real time, and perhaps require live support from CSRs or other workers. Bridge the gap between digital and physical interactions.

Remember to describe the steps that produce an experience from the customer’s perspective. Map out the multiple steps in the customer journey (or steps customer take) based on what customers expect and need, and have them documented in your CRM system. Identify when customers should be contacted, how the contacts occur and how often. Make sure these contacts are valuable and help customers achieve their goals. Customer engagement requires focus, attention and balance. While customers will become distracted with too many alerts, they want to feel that they are in control of the information they receive.

Describe how content is organized and managed; this content informs customers and continues the steps in their journey. You may have to adapt the information architecture to engage customers by highlighting certain products, topics or customer personas. You may also have to consider how to deliver this content through newsletter, social media, key locations on your website and other channels. Mapping multiple delivery channels and how they overlap will solidify interactions.

3. Technology and network directions

Business requirements and customer expectations drive technology needs. While certainly essential, IT investments come last.

With the customer journey maps in hand, conduct a gap analysis between the existing IT environment and what is needed to develop a collaborative conversational ecosystem. Identify information sources and processes. Consider network connectivity and bandwidth requirements. Remember, customers expect near real-time responses no matter how large the data sets or file sizes. Optimize for speedy delivery and rapid throughputs.

Investigate technology options for adapting existing systems and repurposing them to accomplish new tasks. Modern application architectures based on web technologies and open standards are more flexible and extensible than legacy ones from years gone by. Determine investment priorities by identifying the missing systems and links needed to build the overall ecosystem.

Toward a collaborative ecosystem: Using collaboration tools to reach customers

In today’s digital age, we live and work in the moment. We expect seamless, smart experiences that generate meaningful information sharing, transactions and collaboration.

Making interactions with customers sticky and useful requires an understanding about the effective pathways for communications. Map the customer journey and determine how customers expect to interact with various information resources and to collaborate with one another. At the same time, develop the management capabilities for disparate delivery channels, and determine how best to sustain relationships over time.

Collaboration technology can be immensely helpful in this regard, by bringing customers closer to the information they need without friction. Collaboration tools can centralize information for customers, companies and third parties to engage with one another through a shared, secure environment. Collaboration can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

At the same time, enterprises need to use different messaging capabilities to the advantage of customers—without confusing them or creating information overload. While collaboration tools often support multiple avenues of communication, they should reinforce, rather than undermine, one another. If users have to rely on a patchwork of tools to accomplish their tasks, they may reject those tools. It is important to deliver these experiences without adding to the information overload and application fatigue that are often obstacles to successful collaborative environments. It’s also important for companies to build collaboration architecture with the possibility of integrating with other innovative technologies and platforms.

Finally, consider that these multiple collaborative channels are overlapping and changing the nature of interactions. For instance, videoconferencing and AR may create new ways to exchange information between users and customer support. These channels could enhance interactions by making them seem more immediate. At the same time, the downside is that we need to make assumptions to trust these interactions. We have to make a leap to assume the information we receive is accurate.

Despite challenges, new modes of collaboration and information sharing are rapidly becoming commonplace, and these change how we interact and experience the digital and physical worlds. Yet simple and intuitive collaborative experiences are fiendishly difficult to build. To remain competitive, it is time to get started.

For more Cisco resources:

Geoffrey Bock

Geoffrey Bock, principal of Bock & Company, focuses on strategies for content management, mobility, AI, collaboration, and digital transformation. He advises enterprises on strategies to shape customer experiences and drive revenue. Bock has authored numerous in-depth reports on the business impacts of content and collaboration technologies.