Opting for Human Engagement Above AI with CABs

After reading David’s blog post Preserving Humanity in Customer Marketing, I was struck by the parallels in my own work. As a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) consultant, I’ve spent the past two years interviewing customers, executives, and VPs of Product and Product Management about vendor and customer relationships and communication. They had a lot to say about the magic of human connection. David kindly asked me to share my thoughts.

Full disclosure, back in the early 2000s, I was a Point of Reference (PoR) customer. Early on, we saw David and team were solving labor-intensive issues. PoR helped me manage my time at Riverbed, and I had the opportunity to create a global reference team, thanks to the addition of three full-time contractors. 

AI Everywhere

The business world is turning to generative AI and all its possibilities. David’s blog summary will be created in ChatGPT and will be added to CRMs and messaging systems. Startups are popping up and implementing CRM and Messaging APIs to offer a solution for faster growth and scale. These systems of workflows and chatbots will send messages to customers after combing through the data. The issue is AI isn’t that sophisticated yet; it won’t understand the context or nuances of the data. Plus, it’s still not easy to capture true data from humans, even with drop down or multi-pick list fields in CRMs.

For all companies, getting sales reps to document discovery calls and purchase reasons is a constant challenge. But this is the core data we need to do our jobs. Sales operations leaders now make purchase reason fields mandatory so a rep can log their opportunity in a CRM. Even with this standard, sales provides bare minimum data because they need to focus on engaging and closing deals with real humans. Sadly, the data is only good if there is more of it or you’re putting tens of thousands of hours into AI machine learning. 

While writing my book, I interviewed a Senior Engineering Manager in fintech, and she shared that her company was zealous over data. They effectively used the data sets to make user interface decisions. “In our app, we saw areas of abandonment,” she shared. “We took additional data from our NPS surveys and support tickets and came up with a new design and feature to reduce abandonment. Sadly the product manager didn’t interview customers or even run a focus group. Engineering built the new feature to reduce abandonment and voila, it flopped. They just took the data and realized there wasn’t enough context,” she confided. “The surveys provided only a few sentences of feedback.” She wished that her engineering team would have talked to customers before they spent weekends and nights pushing out the new design and feature. 

She approached me for a “bare bones CAB.” Her goal was for her team to talk to customers, ideally before putting in long hours to build a useless feature that didn’t decrease their abandonment rates. It was a refreshing change that an engineering manager wanted to connect with customers, not just resort to a product requirement document. We came up with what I call a “bootstrap CAB” for her to engage with her customers. 

Human Connection + Reciprocity

David’s blog knocked the nail on the head when he said, “customer marketing done well is relationship-intensive.” That’s different from labor-intensive, which can be largely solved by practical, intelligent automation. The question in relationship-intensive fields is: How do we deepen, expand, and elevate relationships? Many responses came to mind, but it simply comes down to number one: human connection, and number two: reciprocity. 

The one positive of the pandemic was that it was easier to ask a customer to hop on a video conference meeting. Being able to read expressions and gauge if a customer would be open to more than reference activities is impactful. But video conference solutions don’t bring us closer, it’s a vehicle. It’s not how we humans naturally connect. 

As customer marketers, before we call a customer reference prospect, we’ll do a Google search and read their latest press release. Next, we will study their LinkedIn profile and check YouTube to see if they’ve done any videos for vendors. This helps us build background and rapport with a customer. We’ll recall that their youngest is off to college in September and ask how they are doing. We show we care and a connection is created. 

We then dive deeper. We listen to their deployment stories and offer them a way to be heard, to be seen as technologists, not just represented by Jimmy Fallon’s IT skits from Saturday Night Live. We become protective of our customers, it’s reciprocation in action. We have become their advocate, we want to promote them as thought leaders. The customer begins to understand our role now and wants to reciprocate as well by taking more reference calls or being happy to be listed as a reference for the yearly analyst reports. 

Potential Risk & Reward

As a customer marketer, we’re just as protective as account reps are when it comes to our top customers. We’re wedged in the middle; protecting, asking customers last minute to take a call to help win a big deal. This can’t be done with a “chatbot” or AI. I mean you could, but your company’s brand would get a bad rep and customers will feel badly taken care of, and even used. Soon the company’s brand will create the impression that they’re only interested in growing their profits. Their measurements of Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) will have the opposite hockey stick effect; they’ll experience churn, and negative G2 reviews from customers will start to pop up. Remember 10+ years ago when NationWide Telco had so many angry customers? It’s not a coincidence that they decided to add a chatbot a few years ago. 

Don’t get me wrong, automation is great and needed. I welcome automation for our workflows, prompting us to set up follow-up calls or emails to thank customers, with alerts to remind us to to copy the account rep, customer success manager, and the executive. Automated reports are also helpful and efficient tools. Automation for high touch in general is what we need for customer marketing to scale. It’s what gives us time back to focus on our annual or semi-annual user conferences and Customer Advisory Boards. 

AI for our community, when used in the right way, would give us time to focus on the two keys to deepening relationships: connecting in person with more customers and reciprocating. These tools can help us focus on the customer and provide alerts or updates to other teams: the account team, their rep, SE, PS and CSM on how we are in communication with a customer on a video or speaking engagement. That’s when technology works, when we are all on the same page, respecting our customer’s time and keeping the communication going internally about the customer relationship.

Human connection is our mantra, it’s the business of relationships and reciprocity. With the advent of AI, we now have the opportunity to invest more time in human connection. This will open the door for more innovation, more partnerships and more possibilities for mutual reciprocation.

Guest Blogger Bio

Irene Yam

Irene Yam has 24 years in product and customer marketing. Her experience includes leading CABs for Riverbed, Joyent, EMC, and RingCentral, and consulting for companies of all sizes. She won three awards for customer advocacy: the EMC excellence gold award, RingCentral marketing MVP, and strategic alliance MVP. Customer Advisory Boards, Build Deeper Relationships and Validate Strategies, is her first CAB book. Irene graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a B.A. in Asian American Studies, and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Strategic Marketing Management and Digital Marketing executive program. She also has a Culinary Arts degree from the French Culinary Institute and was winner of the 2001 Grand Marnier culinary competition.