Vision Critical’s IT exec: Get off the ‘renewal hamster wheel’ with your customers

Diraj Goel has an exercise for CIOs who want to be able to spend more time on innovation. Take a pad and pen, and make two columns. Put down all the high-value work you do on the left, and the low-value work you do on the right. It should already be obvious what you should do about that right-hand column.

“It’s actually very simple,” the vice-president of business technology at Vision Critical said recently during a conversation at Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2014 conference in San Francisco. “If you run an Exchange server, you better be the best Exchange server administrator and architect and operational specialist. And if you can’t do that, and there’s no value in the business to that, don’t do it.”

Goel admits that may be easier said than done, but he also argues that technology is making it imperative more CIOs rethink their priorities.

“That shift alone in outsourcing, all the low-value work — which is really all the enablement that the cloud provides — means leaders can start focusing on what’s truly valuable for the business and change the makeup of their teams from pure engineers to business engineers,” he said.

Read on for more about the high-value work Goel is doing and how he sees it changing the way companies approach their customers. This interview has been edited and condensed.

CanadianCIO: Your company talks about “collective wisdom” on its site. How is that different than the kind of traditional market research many firms do today and how is it making use of products from companies like Salesforce?

Diraj Goel: We’re in the customer intelligence business. We evolved from traditional market research methodology and took that practice into the true intelligence space around customers. Salesforce interacts with them through all the various transactions, and you can have conversations through Salesforce Communities. What we provide is a longitudinal view and more of that sentiment analysis, understanding the individual customer as well as the aggregate. Being able to look at across the spectrum of that kind of customer we can quantify the individual, see their reference relationships and then quantify those relationships as that individual and that group matures. So it’s the engagement interactions that we have, which breed authenticity in that conversation, which then provides that much more value with the data that comes from Salesforce or to Salesforce, or any other interactions that individual may have.

CIO: As analytics becomes more sophisticated, to what extent do you see things like sentiment analysis coexisting with those more traditional forms of market research?

DG: There’s the process of capturing of information — that’s part of the methodology. Then there’s the analytics you can put from machine learning/ data learning, predictive analytics. You can go the slew of data science that analytics provides and you can automate a lot of those functions to a large degree you can say ‘Well, what’s the human element I need for further insight?’ Well one, it’s getting the right information and being able to ask the right questions. Not from the surface level of, ‘How many customers in this region liked this product?’ but with the understanding that, because they’ve liked this product and we’ve received them trending into these other areas, where’s the opportunity in this new business? This isn’t like some Yelp review system where the customers are just talking about what’s on the menu and whether they liked the food, but why did they come to the restaurant in the first place? Why did they order this type of food compared to this other type of food, and where would they have gone if they hadn’t come to your restaurant? It’s all those different types of pieces where the methodology is still relevant. You can automate that, but you still need that human element or that capability at the market researcher level to bring in that methodology and ask the right questions in the right away, and to get the authentic response that you can feed into the transactions.

CIO: There’s obviously a great deal of benefit for what you’re talking about to marketing organizations, but as this percolates throughout other parts of the business, what other stakeholders do you see emerging?

DG: It’s any type of community. We’ve got two traditional groups, the voice of the customer and the voice of the market. It’s everybody else and the loyalists, in some respect. But that customer now, those voices are no longer just the customers who buy your product. It’s internal customers as well, like employees, partners, your suppliers. It’s any community of a magnitude that you need to service in any regard. That becomes a healthy proposition to any decision maker in terms of where to drive their strategy. Managing a community of 10 people? Easy. You can interact with them, you can understand them. With 100, it gets a bit difficult. Once it gets to 100,000 people — those may not all be direct relationships, but if you have a partner group and sales execs of those partners, that’s a significant community. And if you can understand the challenges that sales execs of your partners are having to market, that’s an interesting proposition for the person leading the partner group. That’s one example, but think of any community of extended community that gives you the various other use cases in the enterprises, customer intelligence becomes important.

CIO: What are you seeing as the metrics for people that do this really well — customer satisfaction? Increased sales?

DG: A lot of these leaders are focused on one KPI or another. It may not be sales, it may be driven by product features or uptake. If you have a certain kind of community around your product and you’re driving features and functions and trying to understand why a certain feature hasn’t had uptake, for example, that’s one KPI. For a sales manager it may be revenue. For a partnership manager it may be leads and conversions or contra value.

CIO: Today, consumers may think companies have no idea how they feel. As the use of this kind of technology increases, how will that change their expectations around customer intelligence across the board?

DG: As an enterprise approver or purchaser, I work with some companies where the account management team really understands how to engage with the customer, really knows that there’s that need for strategic understanding as well as a type of conversation that needs to occur. Even before we get to licences and purchases and so on. Then there’s ones that are very focused on what I call the renewal hamster wheel:   “I will talk to you at the start, we’ll go in a circle and I’ll talk to you again.’ Those are brands that don’t really understand the customer. From my personal experience that’s changed. I can see where brands have truly getting a deeper understanding of how to interact with their customer. They’re not necessarily following a sales model, but they’re following a customer-centric model. If you look at some of the metrics that are coming out from marketing teams and research teams, the customer is second-largest influencer of business decisions. The first is the CEO. When it comes to customers, they can be individuals on the street, or customers like myself.

CIO: How much of your time is focused on internal enablement of some of these things vs. more of a CTO that’s developing solutions for your end customers?

DG: We do have a CTO function, and he’s focused on our product, everything external-facing on our product. Up until earlier this year, I was focused on delivering the back end for SaaS for our organization in terms of Webs scale and such. I’ve shifted my focus more to internal enablement and also the integrated experience. I call it an all-cloud enterprise and the acronym internally for us is ACE, and we’re focused on an ACE-level capability and integration. What that means is we’re ignoring the product. SaaS companies are technology companies, they deliver workflow, the data and the intelligence on top of it. I don’t care what SaaS company you are, that’s essentially what you’re providing: automation at some level. But the automation only goes so far. If a bank was able to show how your business is doing compared to other businesses in the same area, in the same demographic and vertical. That type of information is processed by the enterprise in the back end, but the customer never gets the value of that. It’s insights that we can expose back to our clients. It’s not just enterprise-as-a-service, but enterprise as part of the product as well.

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