The next industrial revolution was a recurring theme at this year’s Dreamforce, customer relationship management (CRM) software developer Salesforce.com Inc.’s annual conference – one frequently accompanied by the statistic that 60 per cent of today’s businesses aren’t prepared, the company’s digital evangelist says.

Salesforce digital evangelist Vala Afshar believes too few companies are ready for the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” – but can advise them how to prepare.

“Six out of 10 companies are not prepared for the next industrial revolution, and we’re seeing that across multiple verticals, whether it’s retail, or media, or higher ed,” Vala Afshar tells ITBusiness.ca. “There’s a tremendous amount of potential for disruption. And so companies need to proactively, aggressively rethink their culture.”

The so-called “fourth industrial revolution” refers to a second digital revolution (following the iron, textile, and steam-powered first industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries; the electricity, telephone, and internal combustion engine-driven second revolution before World War I; and the digital revolution that began in the 1980s), driven by robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles.

And if consumer-facing businesses want to be ready for it, they must prepare for at least three investments, Afshar says.

Invest in artificial intelligence

AI is key to unlocking the advantages of the next industrial revolution, Afshar says – but for a very specific reason.

“The state of SMB also points to the impact of mobile and artificial intelligence. Every time I talk about personalization, it’s really that machine learning capability that’s driving the mass personalization at scale, and that impacts CRM.”

“When I say invest in AI, I mean invest in AI for mass personalization at scale,” he says. “That’s the ultimate goal – to build from the descriptive use of analytics, to the diagnostic use of analytics, to the predictive use of analytics, and then ultimately to the prescriptive use of analytics.”

“If you’re a Canadian brick and mortar and customer walks into your store and has checked into the Wi-Fi, and you have their identity and location available to you, you should be able to call up their prior purchase history and create engagement based on their preferences,” he continues.

Afshar, for example, says that when he enters a store he likes retailers to know that he’d rather be shown blue and black items than red or green, and an XL or double XL rather than other sizes. Viewing a selection based on his preferences makes him more likely to buy – and less likely to complain.

“Thirty per cent of product returns on commerce transactions are based on the wrong fit,” he says. “But companies that invest in AI immediately gain a better understanding of their customers’ fit… that type of personalization, not to mention efficiency, speed, and optimization, is all powered by AI.”

Build an omni-channel experience

Recent sales data on Nov. 24 and 27, 2017 – Black Friday and Cyber Monday – that combined insights from Salesforce’s Commerce Cloud and Marketing Cloud platforms revealed what many retailers know, but too few act on: More people than ever are using their mobile devices to shop online.

Yet bricks and mortar remains a crucial component of the retail experience, Afshar says – the key is building an experience that incorporates both.

“Whether it’s e-commerce or in-store, your goal should be delivering a seamless experience,” he says. “One of the key findings in our recent shopping index report was consumers want employees to be able to look at a store’s inventory on a mobile device – at Lululemon, for example, if a customer doesn’t find inventory in the store, they can immediately find it online and have it shipped to them in 24 hours.”

Of course, harnessing that sort of capability, he notes, requires investing in a cutting-edge CRM.

Train your employees to delight customers

Last but not least, “companies need to develop their talent as a priority,” Afshar says. “Investments in AI, mobility, and a seamless in-store and online experience are useless unless you’re empowering and training your employees to delight customers.”

For example, if your company is using chatbots for online shoppers, retail workers should be equally knowledgable, he says.

Or your company can strive to offer an experience that can’t be replicated online, Afshar says – the Roots store at Toronto’s Yorkdale mall, for example, allows customers to design their own leather jacket, indicating where they want patches and potentially adding their name.

The most successful business leaders create what Afshar calls a “learning culture” – “the most important skill in the 21st century digital economy is your rooms stay teachable,” he says.

That, not, incidentally, is why Salesforce itself has invested so heavily in its own Trailhead platform – because it recognizes the best way to empower its employees, customers, and partners alike is to educate and inspire them.

“As a business owner, you should ask yourself if you have the right talent to compete in the digital economy,” Afshar says. “And if the answer is no, you need to find a strategic technology partner that can not only provide you better solutions so that you can delight your customers, but at the same time delight your staff as well.”

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