It was a hectic week at Dreamforce, as all things Salesforce and cloud computing take over the city of San Francisco in annual tradition.  The main theme this year— “Bringing Companies and Customers Together” — can be translated to putting conversations at the center of everything businesses do. At an event like Dreamforce, it’s easy to focus on the technology, but this year it’s apparent that human connections are the new gravitational force.

The power of conversation was unexpectedly driven home shortly after Marc Benioff took the stage for the main keynote. After being interrupted by a protester, the Salesforce CEO offered the individual 30 seconds to speak to the entire Dreamforce audience — instead of ignoring the disruption and waiting for him to be whisked away by security. Marc then emphasized that “voices are important—all voices.”

This was more than a handy segue into all the new Einstein-powered voice skills — it was a clear indication that Salesforce and other  leaders in the technology industry view conversations as central to customer-business relationships, and I see five key trends emerging as a result.

Communication is Now a Foundational Component of Software

For both enterprise and consumer software, embedded communication is now a core element of technology products. Companies like Twilio and Bandwidth have been built on this trend. For a consumer example, consider how ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft provide easy, one tap options to text or call as part of their mobile applications. And at Dreamforce, Salesforce is putting conversations at the center of its universe with Service Cloud Voice, which integrates telephony inside Salesforce and unifies phone, digital channels, and CRM data in real time.

During my time at Salesforce, we built social collaboration capabilities — a product called Chatter — into the entire Salesforce portfolio. Our point of view was that user profiles, activity feeds, and notifications would become ubiquitous in consumer and enterprise products — a reality we all experience today. Now I see the same evolution happening as communications and conversation are embedded directly into software applications, rather than being treated as standalone tools.

Advancements in Conversational AI Are Enabling “Smarter” Communications as Well

The second important trend is the rise of conversational AI and its application to these embedded communications capabilities. Industry-leading software products don’t just embed communications features, they take advantage of advancements in natural language processing (NLP) and AI to do more work on behalf of the user. This week, Salesforce announced AI-powered call coaching, which will better prepare sales reps and service agents to handle customer conversations, and integration with the Amazon Connect contact center platform. A keynote demo showed how Salesforce could suggest, in real-time, answers to a State Farm agent as a consumer asked questions about their insurance policy and risks from natural disasters.

Other industry examples include the Cisco acquisition of Voicea — a technology that takes meeting notes and tracks next steps for web conferencing sessions — and how companies like Zoom are introducing AI features like automated call transcription. Our company, Invoca, offers products like Signal Discovery to give marketers new insights from conversations with their customers. These examples demonstrate how technology leaders aren’t just embedding communications as part of their products; they are using AI to make the process of distilling insights from conversations easier than ever.

Combining Digital and Conversational Context is Critical

While conversational interactions are important, it would be foolish to ignore the reality that consumers love the power of digital self-service. In fact, many customers today are “digital-first” — checking a website, logging into a mobile app, or searching a knowledge base — before escalating to a live conversation. But when problems are especially tricky, or buying decisions are complex, consumers still want a live conversation with a human expert – a phenomenon that Salesforce calls “The Age of Human Centric Service.” This is why it’s critical to tie the digital journey to the human conversation seamlessly. 

For example, in Salesforce, you can see that a consumer has been asking a question on Twitter before they ever get on the phone looking for help. Understanding that context, even before a word is spoken, can be the difference between an antagonistic, time-consuming request for help and a beautifully handled escalation that turns a frustrated customer into a raving brand advocate. These conversations are big opportunities for businesses to exceed expectations. 

In the Future, Multiple AI Services Will Mine the Same Conversation for Unique Insight

Human conversations are an incredibly powerful form of consumer-brand interactions, but different teams at a company will look for their own unique set of insights in any conversation. Sales and service managers want to understand how well the agents that handle conversations are performing, so they can provide coaching and feedback. Voice of the customer analysts seek to identify and address underlying issues in the customer experience and emerging competitive trends. Marketing teams need granular feedback loops on what Google and Facebook advertising campaigns are driving the most high quality sales conversations. 

Rather than having one set of general algorithms seeking to detect all of these events, I expect different AI services to extract unique insights from a common set of conversational data. When a customer is buying a complex product over the phone, for instance, Invoca can help determine what keywords and campaigns in Google drove the most purchases and sales. Meanwhile, Salesforce technology might be providing recommendations to help sales and support agents be more effective (e.g., finding the right pieces of collateral and automating call outcomes). And platforms like Medallia or Qualtrics would listen for customer experience issues — all based off the same underlying audio stream. It will be like having different teams of experts, working from a single data set, to optimize all elements of the customer experience.

Consumer Privacy Will Remain Paramount

A final overarching theme at Dreamforce was trust and the paramount importance of consumer privacy. While consumers want the convenience of seamless digital and conversational interactions, and benefit when technology can do the “grunt work” so human experts can build better connections — you cannot sacrifice privacy and trust to make this happen. At the most basic level, that means informing consumers that conversations may be recorded, but it also translates to safeguarding their data.

The most advanced conversational AI services can glean mission critical insights while redacting key pieces of information, like Social Security numbers or credit card data. That ensures that any given contact center agent can look up a consumer’s private information and use it for personal gain. At Invoca, we’ve even developed technology that can distill these advanced insights without storing a call recording, minimizing the risk of a data breach that would expose personal data to malicious actors. At the end of the day, we as technologists must deliver great customer experiences that respect privacy and consumer trust.

Every year, I come away from Dreamforce feeling inspired about the power of technology to drive positive change within organizations, which ultimately impacts the way we work, live, and interact with each other. However, after attending Dreamforce for the past 15 years, the content presented this week has been the most exciting for me, since for the first time, it’s obvious that Salesforce is thinking about conversations as core to how we do business, and it’s guiding how the company is innovating its entire product suite.

Gregg Johnson

Posted by Gregg Johnson

Gregg is a seasoned digital marketing and SaaS leader, with over fifteen years of extensive experience bringing products to market in emerging categories, leading large teams, and working with the world’s best enterprise brands. Most recently, Gregg led Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s social marketing product line, where he integrated $1 billion of M&A investments into the Salesforce product portfolio. Prior to that he drove product strategy and development for Salesforce Chatter, helping define the nascent category of enterprise social networking and rolling out one of Salesforce's most successful products. Earlier in his career, Gregg was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group and worked in sales, marketing and product roles at several startups. He graduated from Stanford University and holds a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.