Vala Afshar, Salesforce Chief Digital Evangelist, presenting at Smart City Connect in Austin, TX

You don’t have to “sell” something to have customers or care about the customer experience

My conversation with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist, about his take on all things customer.

By Kevin Paschuck | @kpaschuck

My team attended the recent Smart City Connect event in Austin, Texas, which gave me a fresh perspective on what might be the most interesting component to the digital dilemma: the customer.
 
Customers are near and dear to our hearts here at Salesforce. We are proud of our customer-centric platform that enables everything from tools to process to people, to connect in a way that puts the customer at the center of operations. For example, our Einstein Analytics tool can initiate cases directly from its dashboards. Let’s say a data analyst builds a report that measures what type of healthcare services are requested by her state’s veteran community, county by county. Let’s also say she notices more urgent care services being requested in a county known for having fewer-than-average physicians per square mile. So she opens a case to recommend the state prioritize its hiring resources there. The next steps are driven, quite literally, by the customer experience.
 
As near and dear as customers are to me and my team, the term “customer experience” is still a bit foreign across the public sector on which we focus. I’ve lost count of the number times I’ve heard “we don’t have customers, per se” or “we don’t sell, so why are you calling?” when we take an introductory meeting.
 
These assumptions couldn’t be further from reality, so I found some time to really explore the concept of a customer with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist, host of CXO Talk and a regular blogger on Huffington Post. His ongoing touchpoints with customers from all industries, including government and aerospace, served as a great backdrop for his speaking session at Smart City Connect — from which I was interested to hear his thoughts and takeaways in light of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt we see day in and day out across the public sector space. What follows is our exchange:

Paschuck: 
What were 2–3 takeaways you found especially unique from Smart City Connect?

 
Afshar:
(1) Government has customers too. In his opening comments at the [Smart City] event, Austin’s Mayor Steve Adler said, “At its very core, a smart city is a city that has been able to look inside and identify what its challenges are — what its people and residents need to have the quality of life they want to have — and to craft unique solutions that enable the city and the community to deal with those challenges.” Mayor Adler recognizes that citizens and community members are his customers, and, thus, meeting their needs is critical to the success and sustainability of his community.

(2) Cities and communities are shifting their focus away from infrastructure in favor of prioritizing relationships. This includes relationships between government and citizen, government and the local business community, government and partners in the mission (such as nonprofits, waste management companies, and so on). Each of these groups plays an important role in the well-being of a community ecosystem.

(3) Connecting everyone and everything is paramount. The focus on infrastructure comes into play when it can be positioned to enhance relationships. A community’s infrastructure, which includes resources like buildings, roads, busses, bus drivers, county clerks — anyone or anything providing a service — can be reoriented to focus on strengthening the relationship with the customer at the heart of the mission.

Technology is the link between these resources: “just-in-time” service models (like Lyft, Hotel Tonight, or mobile 311 services) that start with the customer, and use real-time data to engage resources accordingly. Technology connects community groups to infrastructure with new levels of speed and context.

This helps employees reduce their chances of making decisions in silos as digital, connected services unlock more data from more people and more processes — not just those who make the time to attend a city hall meeting.

Paschuck: 
You have quite a bit of experience from a broad range of customer-facing roles — marketing, customer service and support, and prior to Salesforce, Chief Customer Officer at Enterasys Networks. How do your takeaways from Smart City Connect compare and contrast to broader customer expectations?

 
Afshar: 
While customers as a whole are becoming less traditional and more connected, what’s really interesting is that no matter how connected customers are, there will always be some scenarios where they accept or tolerate a more traditional experience.

Traditional customer:
- Relies on paper forms and physical locations
- Expects 9–5 service models
- Navigates a disconnected experience
Connected customer:
- Is online forms-, apps-, and smartphone-ready
- Expects 24 x 7 availability
- Expects a seamless, self-service experience

For example, think about the DMV experience. Everyone knows that a trip to the DMV (with or without an appointment) means long lines, lots of forms, and a chance that you’ll have to come back. If you were to poll everyone in line at the DMV tomorrow morning, chances are they would love to step outside this very traditional box and take advantage of a more modern engagement.
 
Now compare that to many leading healthcare companies today. They are working with their customers to test new services like remote healthcare, mobile apps, and even on-demand healthcare. This is the same customers from the DMV example — they could have even been chatting with their doctor through their mobile app while waiting in line at the DMV — who are willing to step outside the box of traditional, familiar, comfortable healthcare services because they see the benefits, scalability, and impact on quality of life.
 
It’s less about which box the customer falls into, and more about when and why they are willing to step outside of that box. Are you in an environment where you’re working with your customers to test the right engagement channels, service options, and so on, or are you expecting your customers to be tolerant? If the latter, how long do you think that will last?

Paschuck
On the public sector side, we often see influence from the private sector drive the transition from traditional to connected customer. For example, when the BYOD [bring your own device] phenomenon hit tech companies, retailers, and more, federal employees used their success to build a case for enabling smartphones. When media and comms companies proved that social platforms like Twitter could serve as excellent customer service channels, departments and agencies began to warm up to it as a two-way citizen engagement platform. What initiates these shifts on the private sector side?
 
Afshar: 
As timely, targeted, smartphone-ready business strategies have become the new norm, they have done more than reset our expectations — they have demonstrated how much data can be both generated and harnessed from our day-to-day interactions, whether that’s as customers, employees, volunteers, citizens, or partners in the mission.
 
Many private sector companies have turned these strategies into financial success, capturing data in a way that not only informs service today, but also sets up the company for success tomorrow. Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics are increasingly prevalent in the most cutting edge of markets, and they both rely on the kind of statistical significance that only comes from large datasets. As this next technological wave continues to take shape, digital, data-driving processes are going to be the next big competitive differentiator.

Learn more about the ways government is redefining the customer experience. Join us at Dreamforce, November 6–9 in San Francisco. Our annual user conference hosts thought leaders from all industries, government included, as they share tips, tricks, and success stories. Register now.

Paschuck: 
Where do you see government on this journey? How about Aerospace?

 
Afshar: 
Data is the new currency of any major organization, and government is no exception. From the citizen perspective, government services starting to recognize this with a more modern look and feel.
 
San Francisco’s 311 app (SF311) available on smartphones, can be used to log a graffiti cleanup, reserve a picnic table at a park, and more. Many cities across the country have a mobile-ready channel like San Francisco’s, giving leaders a digital, searchable archive that can be used to identify service hot spots, better inform future budget allocations, and predict resource demands. Federal agencies, like the VA or USCIS, are starting to offer more personal service engagements: MyVA is an enterprise-wide customer experience-based transformation program. MyUSCIS is a mobile-ready, self service interface complete with a chat avatar, all designed to help customers find answers in a self-service model — cutting down on phone call time if not eliminating the need altogether.
 
All three of these examples would not be possible if the department or agency had not found a way to capture, analyze, and act on data, unlocking its potential with respect to the customer experience.
 
I look at aerospace companies the same way I would look at any large, B2B enterprise. They are equally impacted by the significance of data, especially those in highly regulated industries selling to customers with meticulous, extensive procurement processes and timelines.
 
Meticulous buying processes and long timelines mean sellers need a strategy for both pinpointing the right deals early on (time equals money, after all) and maintaining engagement over that period of time (such identifying areas to further educate customers so they can get more familiar with the brand’s most pertinent elements). Both scenarios require a healthy amount of data-driven information and insight, as being able to capture and engage with data is the key to delivering personalized service. Our own research team here at Salesforce found that 82% of B2B buyers say personalized care influences their sense of brand loyalty. That’s 13% higher than in B2C, believe it or not. (State of Service, page 7)
 
Paschuck
What are some of the biggest considerations or best practices public sector leaders should take into account when applying examples set by the private sector?
 
Afshar: 
Don’t underestimate the importance of scope. After Austin, I had a chance to sit down with Miguel Gamino Jr., Chief Technology Officer for New York City. One of his many initiatives promises to provide every New Yorker access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband service by 2025. For a city with 1.1 million students in the public school system alone — a public student population larger than the entirety of San Francisco — this is no small fete. City and county leaders need to find fast, agile, scalable solutions in order to meet the needs of everyone in their communities.
 
My other big takeaway: The customer experience is the product. Today, any product or service provider is differentiating on the customer experience. The more that government recognizes this, the stronger their communities will be and the more relevant their missions will remain.
 
I’ve seen this ideology pop up more and more around the country; publications like U.S. News and World Report rank the best places to live across the country. It’s no surprise to find metro areas like Austin or Denver, known for thinking of citizens as traditional customers and servicing them as such, at the top of the list year after year. And thus, it’s probably no coincidence that these metro areas are growing at an unprecedented pace. Denver, for example, is the fastest growing city in the United States, welcoming 1,000 new community members each month. You better believe that this group brings more jobs, more innovators, and more thriving potential. Talk about harnessing a competitive advantage.
 
Paschuck
As always, it’s a pleasure, Vala. Thank you for your time.

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