Francesco Graziano, Enterprise Strategy Leader at BICS: “If you’re thinking about AI integration, you have to put on your client-centric hat”

Francesco Graziano, Enterprise Strategy Leader at BICS, isn’t just talking about AI: he’s putting it to work. So it should be no surprise that our conversation, around the future of customer experience (CX), is dominated by artificial intelligence.

Many of Francesco’s views chime with others in our CX Today series of interviews with leaders in the industry. That the need for human interaction remains key. That we need to address ethical questions head on. But we were intrigued when Francesco started talking about KPIs for AI.

“The worst thing you can do is get sucked up in the AI hype and assume its value is self-evident,” he said. “It’s not; as with anything in life, you should want to qualify it. To do that, you need to define some very clear key performance indicators so you can track and measure the success of any AI initiatives you put in place.”

Francesco also raises the prospect of augmented reality’s comeback – but doesn’t mention the “m” word, Mr Zuckerberg will be disappointed to note – and much more besides. Read on to discover what may happen next…

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Could you please introduce yourself to our audience? What motivated you to pursue a career in customer experience, and how did you embark on your journey in this field?

Like most people, I’ve experienced both positive and negative customer service interactions in my daily life. These encounters sparked a curiosity within me: just what is it that makes some companies excel in this area while others fall so short? This curiosity, coupled with my lifelong love for both marketing and technology, led me down the path of customer experience.

Ever since childhood, I have been captivated by commercials and the creative storytelling within them. Later, my fascination for technology blossomed with the Commodore 64, igniting a passion for how tech shapes our world. Now, witnessing the powerful intersection of marketing and technology in CX truly excites me. It’s incredible to see how these advancements empower companies to not only reach customers but truly understand and cater to their needs on a deeper level. 

What was once accessible only to large enterprises with vast resources is now within reach for everyone. We have new communication channels, powerful data analytics tools, and personalised marketing strategies at our fingertips. This democratisation of CX possibilities unlocks an incredible potential for creativity and innovation. It’s this potent combination of possibilities and my innate desire to create positive experiences that truly motivates me in this field.

What are your thoughts on the escalating integration of AI in customer experience and its potential influence on the future of customer service at large?

The burgeoning integration of AI in customer service is indeed thrilling, offering vast potential for businesses. While we’re still in the early stages of this “dawn of a new era”, AI is already proving to be a powerful companion, automating tasks, personalising interactions, and even potentially delivering complete experiences. 

I expect AI’s capabilities will undoubtedly become even more impressive, speeding up and improving various business processes, but with that said, establishing proper regulations to ensure responsible and ethical use will become paramount. Above all, the human touch in customer interactions will take on a new significance like we’ve never seen before, especially in urgent or serious situations. The ability to empathise and adapt is one of the cornerstones of human interaction – I just don’t see that going away in the generations to come. 

I do, however, envision a future where humans and AI work in synergy – each leveraging their strengths. AI can handle repetitive tasks and provide real-time insights, while humans can focus on complex issues and build authentic connections. This symbiotic relationship holds the key to unlocking truly exceptional customer experiences in the future.

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How do you ready yourself for an AI-driven landscape as a customer experience leader? What new skills do you need?

If you’re thinking about AI integration, you have to put on your client-centric hat. That means carefully identifying the areas where AI can genuinely enhance the customer experience by adding tangible value. At the same time, you need to acknowledge potential friction that can arise at points where human touch remains crucial. The initial analysis you do upfront here should form the foundation for developing a strategic AI implementation plan.

The worst thing you can do is get sucked up in the AI hype and assume its value is self-evident. It’s not; as with anything in life, you should want to qualify it. To do that, you need to define some very clear key performance indicators (KPIs) so you can track and measure the success of any AI initiatives you put in place. Track the KPI metrics and you can objectively determine if AI is truly generating real value for customers. 

Ultimately, though, defining the right AI strategy is just the first critical step to harnessing this technology wisely. There are several key skills beyond that which are essential for navigating the AI landscape. For example, you need a general understanding of AI’s capabilities and limitations. That means recognising where AI excels in areas like automation tasks and data analysis, and where it falls short in complex problem-solving and emotional intelligence. 

Data analysis and interpretation are also key. You have to be able to effectively translate AI-generated insights into actionable recommendations for clients.

On the softer skills side, change management is pretty important. By that, I mean that you will inevitably have to guide clients through the transition to AI-powered solutions while addressing potential resistance (there will almost certainly be resistance from some people at the least). Along the way, you have to have an eye for strategic thinking, identifying the customer’s pain points and where AI will offer genuine solutions, not just hype. 

Do you anticipate any significant disruptions in customer experience technology for 2024? If so, what are those disruptions and why?

I firmly believe 2024 will be a year teeming with disruptive innovations in customer experience technology. Buckle up, because two specific areas hold immense potential to transform how we interact with brands:

Firstly, I think 2024 will be the year conversational AI truly leaves its mark. Generative AI – and more specifically, powerful Large Language Models (LLMs) – will power a complete paradigm shift in user interface and user experience (UI/UX). Imagine chatbots not just responding but proactively engaging in open-ended conversations, understanding context, and even generating personalised creative content on the fly. This is going to be key to commerce reaching unprecedented levels of seamlessness and engagement. Forget clunky menus and frustrating interactions: Generative AI could usher in an era of truly intuitive and delightful user experiences.

Secondly, I expect Augmented Reality (AR) will finally step out of the shadows. AR has long held promise, but that promise has so far been mostly confined to gaming and entertainment. 2024 may well be the year it breaks free from that confinement. Expect to see a surge of AR use cases seamlessly integrated into customer experiences. Imagine trying on clothes virtually, visualising furniture in your living room before buying, or receiving interactive repair instructions overlaid on your physical equipment. The possibilities are endless, and AR’s ability to blur the lines between the physical and digital holds immense potential to revolutionise how we interact with products and services.

These are just two prominent examples. Obviously, I’d be remiss not to mention advancements that are happening in fields like hyper-personalisation powered by AI and big data, the continued rise of voice assistants, and the growing importance of ethical considerations and responsible AI implementation in customer experience strategies.

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What piece of advice would you offer to fellow customer experience professionals that has been particularly beneficial to you personally?

I think some of the best advice I’ve learned along the way is applicable to a lot of business, really: the advantage you had yesterday will be replaced by the trends of tomorrow. Just because you’ve not done anything wrong doesn’t mean that you’re doing everything right. This is a big reason why I believe it’s going to be so important to tap into the power of AI, but other technologies as well like AR. If you want your customers to see you for the cool brand you aspire to be, you can’t let yourself be forced by competitors to change. 

There’s always going to be a portion of companies who were slow to the punch and lost out to competitors who caught the wave early and did it right. But if those same companies refuse to learn and improve from that experience, they will become redundant and irrelevant to the industry. And that’s a very hard and expensive way to learn that lesson. 

What customer experience technology has your company recently embraced and what difference has it made to your business?

We recently launched a chatbot in collaboration with the conversational AI platform Cognigy. It assists our customers in China via WeChat and basically lets the ‘AI Agent’ instantly translate the interactions from Chinese to English (and vice versa) for the BICS support team and backend systems. We already had English-based bots on WhatsApp in various regions, but this is a really exciting next step that breaks linguistic barriers in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. 

It hints at what might be possible for real-time seamless translation in the future. It’s a tremendous enhancement to the user experience for our Chinese customers, not just because it tailors our chatbot services to them but also meets our customers where they are, using their preferred platform. This is just one of the many great advancements made possible by Generative AI. 

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.