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The Future of Customer Data Platforms – Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series
by Daniel Newman | April 7, 2020

On this special edition of The Futurum Tech Podcast – Interview Series host Daniel Newman welcomes Satish Thomas, Director of Product Management for Microsoft Dynamics 365 to discuss data, marketing technology, and customer insights in our current situation.

Data Is Everything

Our world is undergoing a fundamental change. Data is coming out of everything and everywhere. When customers call your company, use your product, interact with your social media posts, visit your website, they are creating a data profile about themselves. A customer Data Platform (CDP) takes all this previously siloed data and combines it to create a 360-degree view of the customer. When done well, it can be used to fuel personalized experiences across sales and marketing departments.

Four Key Pillars of a Customer Data Platform

CDPs are gaining popularity as companies realize the value that they bring. Satish and the team at Microsoft have identified four key pillars of a CDP that make it effective. First, it is critical to have a vendor-agnostic view. You should be able to bring in data from every source regardless of vendor and schematize it. Then once you have all of the data collected and you’ve created this unified view of the customer, the second pillar is to be able to enrich the data from other sources. This involves giving the data context which is crucial for the third and fourth pillars.

The third pillar brings in AI. It’s one thing to bring all the data together, it’s another thing to be able to identify the next best step. AI allows you to make decisions based on the data. The final pillar is how can you drive actions with these decisions. How can you power your business processes with this data.

The Myths and Misconceptions Surrounding CDP

As CDPs grow in popularity, Microsoft has found several myths and misconceptions that customers have regarding the technology. These range from the simple to the more complex. It’s Satish’s goal to eliminate these misconceptions and educate business decision-makers on how a CDP can impact their business. These are a few that he sees regularly:

  • Vendor Lock-in. Many people assume that having a CDP from one vendor means you can only collect data from that vendor’s sources. Microsoft Dynamics 365 runs on a vendor-agnostic view meaning data from any source and any vendor can be collected.
  • Just for Marketing. While CDPs started out as a piece of marketing technology, today Microsoft sees use cases across the enterprise in sales, marketing, and service.
  • It Takes a Long Time. Microsoft has worked to eliminate the misconception that it takes a long time to get a CDP up and running. The Microsoft Dynamics 365 is a SaaS application that can launch within a few months if they have a refined process or plan in place.
  • Have to Rip and Replace. Most customers assume that when you start working with a CDP that you have to rip out and replace existing processes and other applications. That is not the case with Microsoft. Dynamics 365 works with other applications and can be built on existing processes.

Vision for the Future

If you look at CDPs today, getting that 360-degree of the customer is great, but there’s more that can be done. The fact that you have a unified data view of the customer makes it easier to leverage AI. Satish believes that AI and ML will be the next frontier with CDPs. There’s power in putting your data to work. There’s power in having your data take shape in a system and then being able to make decisions and create actions from that data.

This is an interesting time in the world and companies have an unprecedented opportunity to hit the pause button and refocus their efforts on digitally transforming. If you’re interested in learning more about the Microsoft Dynamics 365 customer insights platform be sure to check out their website and listen to the full podcast here. While you’re at it be sure to hit subscribe to make sure you never miss an episode.

Transcript:

Daniel Newman: Welcome to the Futurum Tech Podcast, the Interview Series. I’m Daniel Newman, your host today, Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. And I’m really excited about this special edition of the Futurum Tech Podcast. It’s the Interview Series where we talk to some of the world’s greatest companies about the technology and in some cases, current events and different things that are going on in the world. And in this particular episode we’re excited to have Microsoft with us, Satish Thomas, who’s the Director of Product Management for Dynamics 365, Satish, welcome to the show.

Satish Thomas: Thank you so much Daniel, for having me.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, it’s great to have you here on the show, Satish. And for everyone out there. Before I dive in and have Satish formally introduce himself and talk a little bit more about what he does at Microsoft. I do want to point out we are on the 27th day of March, 2020. And for all of you that subscribe to the podcast, you’re probably getting this somewhat in real time, but because podcasts are living things that people download over courses of weeks, months and years, we’ve found afterwards. Remember March, 2020 has been one of the most interesting and I guess you would say unprecedented times in our history. We’re in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic and it’s really changed a lot. It’s changed the way we work here. We are, Satish, you and I probably would have had a few different opportunities to have met in real life at different Microsoft events that I would typically attend and you would be at.

But because of this ongoing pandemic, we’ve basically found ourselves working from home, working remote. And the tech industry, myself and many of the companies in the industry are all working hard to communicate, to share information, to push science forward, to help the world get back to normal. But until then, we are definitely in this different place, this different world. But like I said, Satish Thomas, I’m excited today to have you on the show to have this conversation. Because I think business continuity is important too, and business resiliency and companies using this time as an opportunity to learn is going to be something that I’m hoping a lot of enterprises and small and medium businesses are all able to get out of this event. So Satish, again, welcome. Let’s just jump in and say, tell everybody a little bit about your work. Satish at Microsoft, what you do.

Satish Thomas: Before I get into it, just to acknowledge, obviously we have a lot on our minds these days. It’s obviously an unprecedented and anxious times for sure. And obviously my top concern is the safety of our team members and obviously being able to help our customers wherever we can. So just for myself, I’m Satish Thomas, I run product for Microsoft Dynamics 365. Specifically responsible for our customer data platform, CDP product and services that come together to build a 360 view of the customer.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, it’s a very important product. Especially now as data proliferates as people are on their devices more and more. As we’re creating more data, we’re engaging more. It feels like right now 24 by seven by the way. It’s great to hear that you are doing well and Satish, everyone in your life healthy right now?

Satish Thomas: Yes. Thank you. Actually I have two little ones at home as well, so it’s been a lot of fun working from home.

Daniel Newman: That’s the interesting thing. I’ve got 18, 14, and three and so try to bring my little guy to work. He’s a three year old once in a while. And I’m actually trying to bring my older ones to work a little bit every once in a while because they could use to see work. They’re supposed to be doing the school at home thing, but I would say it seems like a lot of at home, but not a lot of school. At least that’s the way I’m witnessing it right now. But-

Satish Thomas: There you go. My eight year old basically told me she finally gets to see what I do for work. So that was a pretty special moment for me.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. My kids are always like, “What do you do? It looks like you just play on your computer all day, what’s with the microphone?” But this is work. It’s a very fortunate situation in life to be able to have these great conversations. So customer experience, let’s start off talking about that. You kind of leading the customer data platform, you see customer experience as sort of a new differentiator and being able to unite customer data as being critical. So let’s talk about the topic of CDPs. What is it and why do organizations need them?

Satish Thomas: So CDP is obviously a very hot topic and category right now. And fundamentally, there’s a fundamental change happening in the world. And data’s coming out of everything and everywhere. And to be able to harness all of that data. So essentially when a customer calls into your call center, visits your website uses your product.

All of this is creating observational data. And just data in general, which went harness and analyzed, allows a 360 view of the customer to be created across all of these previously siloed data sources. And when done well, it can be used to fuel personalized experiences across sales, service and marketing. So it really helps our customers transform how they engage with their customers to move their business forward and couldn’t be more important in a time like today.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more CDPs, it’s been sort of an interesting phenomenon as an analyst that sort of watches the industry, I’ve seen it sort of come in vogue. I’ve seen certain companies use the terminology, certain companies have refrained from using the terminology. So just to expound upon that a little bit though. It’s definitely back in vogue. It’s an important topic, and companies really need to be thinking about this.

Now that I think the market’s agreed, it’s time to put the throttle down and start to invest in CDP. What are the top capabilities and considerations that CDP buyers should be keeping in mind?

Satish Thomas: In my mind that there’s this four key pillars, right? So I think the first thing is when you think about customer data, like I mentioned, it could come from anywhere, right? So really being able to bring in data from all of those places. Having a vendor agnostic view to be able to bring in customer data from everywhere, I believe is a critical piece of a valuable CDP. And the other thing is when you bring in all of this data, being able to schematize it.

So if you’re able to schematize it with something like the Microsoft common data model, being able to light up business processes on top of it more easily becomes a very important piece of it. The second piece, I think, one of the things that we’re learning as well is the ability, once you have that unified view of the customer, being able to enrich that data with high value signals, either from another source or from, for example, depending on which industry you’re in, there are third party signals that are high value to be able to enrich those profiles.

So enrichment is another key piece of the CDP space in my mind. So the third thing I think, is being… And this is obviously a big investment for us as well, is AI. Now it’s one thing to be able to bring all this data together, but being able to leverage this unified view for you to be able to do AI on top of it. Be able to detect the most valuable churn, next best action, et cetera. I think that’s another key piece for what a CDP should enable. And I think the last thing, which probably is the most important thing is now that you have all of this unified view of the customer, how can you drive actions out of it, right? How can you take that data and use it as ingredients to power your business processes wherever that user might be, I think is a key piece. So those are kind of the four things. The data piece, the enrichments, AI, and then finally being able to power your business processes with all of this data.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, that’s a great summation. Bring it together in a really simple to digest way. Four specific steps. And I heard a theme you’ve mentioned in a few of your first answers Satish, and that’s really been around the vendor agnostic standpoint. A lot of companies are marketing CDPs and it’s kind of like in a walled garden or an enclosed environment. And Microsoft you would say, has really focused with whether it’s been, like you said, the common data models, open data initiatives, ODI. The company’s really focused on creating schema and creating ways that companies can look at the fact that many softwares and many tools are going to be used in an organization. And the more you limit that, the more you sort of take value out of the potential of a CDP.

Satish Thomas: We’ve been in market for a few months now. I think that has been one of the biggest learnings and a feedback that we get for customers that take a bet on us. The fact that it’s a vendor agnostic view, like we discussed. High value customer data sitting in a lot of places and not all in one vendor system. So the fact that you can bring it all from that, all those sources I think is a key part of why we believe we’re getting a lot of momentum in market. And I think, just to be fully transparent in our name when people hear Dynamics 365 custom insights, sometimes they think it’s just dynamics data. But that is very, very far from the truth and what our customers are using it for today. So once we get through that hump, it’s off to the races.

Daniel Newman: Like I said, as an industry analyst, I’ve been watching closely what Microsoft’s been doing and I’ve been very impressed with the fact that there’s a lot of reasons the company could try to create more of what you suggested. A dynamics only or a Microsoft only or an Azure only type of experience. But there’s been a lot of work partnerships with other companies, other companies that in some ways are competitors, to build more streamlined approach to schema and data so that it can be used to truly help customers. Because I do believe when you create value, when you create value and you create returns, you will create loyalty and you will improve everything from your net promoter score to the amount a customer is spending with you. So it is really good to hear that. I’d like to kind of keep this though Satish, and hit on the flip side of this.

So CDPs, as I said earlier at times have sort of come and gone. They’ve, been out of vogue and now they’re back in vogue. And that’s been a little bit to do with I think the fact that can you really get 360 data? Can you really see the whole customer? So there’s a lot of misconceptions and myths around CDP. Talk about some of them, the myths and misconceptions that you hear and how you rebuke those.

Satish Thomas: Obviously there’s a lot out there. I think a few of these that kind of are top of mind for me that I’ve seen and what we’ve heard from customers, et cetera, are the first thing is the vendor lock-in view. When they hear a company building a CDP. In a lot of cases, it only allows you to unify data from that vendor. So obviously that really is not a 360 view. So I think that’s one of the misconceptions. And I think what we are, fundamentally with our approach, we’re basically taking a view where you can bring in your data from anywhere. Right? And I think that’s a big deal. The second piece I would say is the fact that a lot of folks assume that this is just for marketing use cases. If you look at where the CDP term and category formed, it was primarily, it started a lot with marketing use cases.

But today what we see with our customers are truly use cases that span across sales, service and marketing. Right. Just to pick a few examples, Tivoli, one of our customers, which is the second oldest amusement park in the world. Using this 360 view of the customer to be able to empower the people serving you at the amusement park to give you a better experience. UNICEF, which is responsible for providing humanitarian and development aid to children worldwide using this 360 view of the customer to deliver marketing. And then AP Energy, which is a residential power natural gas provider, using this for more sales scenarios. So we are really seeing the CDP use cases spent beyond just marketing and definitely across sales service and marketing. So that’s been one of the key things that we’ve been able to see it with real customer use cases as well.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. So you mentioned a few real customer use cases. Kind of just want you to elaborate on that because obviously you’re pivoting off these myths and misconceptions. You’re turning nonbelievers into believers or you’re turning customers that are coming to you and you’re showing them with the Dynamics 365 customer insights. That it is possible to really embrace and get a return on a customer data platform. How has been the process of sort of converting customers, converting them into believers? How quick are they able to get up and running? We’re in the era of cloud where instant gratification is everything. Are customers able to turn this on quickly and effectively and bring in all their data sources and start to realize results? And sort of what’s the timeline someone should expect for that?

Satish Thomas: That’s actually a great point actually. It goes a little bit into, one of the other myths that I see there, which is, the fact that it takes a long time. So in a lot of cases when we talk to customers, we always encourage them to start with a simple, but powerful use case and then iterate from there. And one of the things we’ve done with customer insights is what we like to call the five by five experience. Where you can actually go to our website, get started in under five minutes with sample data, be able to see what the product is capable of, and see what it could potentially do for your business. So the fact that it’s a SaaS application that allows you to get started quickly and get going. And then we always encourage customers to say, hey, start with one powerful use case. And then it becomes easier to add more data sources, add more AI models, add more segments, et cetera.

But in a couple of weeks, customers are able to get going with POCs. And depending on how broad the rollout is, in a very short few weeks or months, customers are able to go live. So this has been one area that we’ve spent a lot of time on, which is the time to value. How quickly can a customer get started, get going, and then roll this into production. So a lot of our product investments also revolve around that important point.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, and given what’s going on in the world right now and kind of how we started this show, I’ve said this is sort of a unique time for companies to really dial in on their digital transformation efforts. To refine processes that maybe kind of the world been moving a little bit too quickly. And it sounds like this isn’t a massive lift for companies, companies that have put part of this infrastructure in place and part of a customer data, customer insights platform together. This could be a time that this could be refined and put into motion. Because as I keep saying, Satish, as we come out of the back end of this and there will be a backend, we don’t know if it’s going to be four weeks, 12 weeks, 24 weeks, but companies are going to want to be able to get back in motion as quickly as possible.

And having this type of platform in place is going to be optimal. Digital transformation and achieving those digital transformation objectives is going to be more critical than ever. Is going to be something I fundamentally believe we are going to realize coming out of the back of this.

Satish Thomas: Absolutely and I think you hit that, the nail on the head, which is the fact that you don’t need to rip and replace your existing systems. We meet you where you are and you can bring in data from all of those sources into our CDP. And one interesting data point is more than 50% of our customers today are actually experiencing dynamics for the first time. That means they are an existing user of another business application and they’re using our CDP and customer insights to build that unified view of the customer. That exactly is also another reason for a lot of the momentum that we’re getting. The fact that no need to rip and replace. Get started, get going, and it doesn’t matter where your data is sitting, you can still get that 360 view of that customer.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. For everyone out there that’s checking out this podcast, in the show notes, I’m going to put a link out there that you can check out and learn more about Microsoft Dynamics 365 customer insights and CDP. We’re here to educate and inform, but you can make your own decisions. Definitely worth checking out, learning more about one of the greatest companies in the world. I fundamentally believe it. You’ll… Can read a lot of what I say. Microsoft’s doing a lot of great things and this is an area that the company is doing a lot of great things. So Satish, I want to kind of take this into a future looking vision here. Talk a little bit about what is going to be next for CDP. Microsoft isn’t just going to stop here at customer insights.

Satish Thomas: Absolutely. So I think one of the things is if you look at CDPs today getting that 360 view of the customer is great. But I think there’s a lot more, and I strongly believe the next frontier is going to do a lot with AI. So if you look at the data and that unified view that a CDP produces, it becomes a foundational piece for AI. In fact when customers ask me, one of the biggest value props I mention is the fact that customer insights or a CDP is able to shape your data in a way that it makes it easy for you to do AI on top of it. So typically you have data scientists doing a lot of data munching, but the fact that you have this unified view of the customer, that makes it much easier for you to be able to build and leverage some of our out of the box models to, such as for churn, next best action, and customer lifetime value. Because of this unified data in this schematized form.

And I believe that is going to be a huge piece of the investments that we make as we go forward. And I think this is where democratizing that ability for all of our customers to be able to do AI and making it as easy as possible, I think is a big piece of the next new investments that are going to be making in this space.

Daniel Newman: Those are some great points Satish. I think the future where AI and ML are more integrated and more seamless and simple, and this is all, comes back to platform. This is one of those areas where I do believe Microsoft having Azure and having the platform stack, obviously the infrastructure though allows companies to really centralize data, create a seamless schema for data to get in and out, and really built on modern architecture. So this is all kind of coming together really nicely and it’s going to be a really interesting for myself, to watch as the industry and as your product continues to develop and unfold. We’ve got a few minutes left.

I want to circle back to kind of where we started here. This is an interesting time in the world and as I said, I think companies need to really stay focused, continue to develop and digitally transform their businesses, continue to make the investments. But it is also a time, like you said, people are anxious, people are uncomfortable, and so it’s sort of almost like opposing forces to try to do both those things. So I’d love to talk about just Microsoft’s… What it’s doing around COVID-19 as this continues to unfold. Would you mind sharing a little bit about some of the initiatives that Microsoft is taking in the community around health care, government, retail, to try to ensure wellbeing and health for the company and all the places that it’s found, which is basically everywhere.

Satish Thomas: I’m really inspired with how what I’m seeing our teams and customers come together to support each other and really help meet use cases in these tough times. And I think there’s been numerous examples out there, just one that kind of top of mind for me is, a quick service restaurant in the US. With everything that’s going on. Really gearing up and accelerating the order ahead and pick up use cases and making sure that even in that transition that they able to still deliver personalized experiences when that customer shows up to pick up their order. And then there’s many more examples. I think in terms of helping customers build those comprehensive customer, citizen, or patient 360 view using customer insights. There’s more, pretty much across every industry. Essentially we’re seeing use cases like insurers, being able to discover new audience segments, such as high risk customers with AI driven models.

Enabling delivery of targeted messages and content and of course from a retail perspective, being able to do real time activation in customer insights, essentially retailers doubling down on digital marketing efforts in this time. And be able to better target customers with personalized offers and promotions relevant for their preferences. Right? So lots going on and we definitely have a lot of resources and blog posts out there. This is obviously an evolving situation, but again, like I said, it’s been really inspiring to see how everybody’s been coming together, supporting each other and really trying to help our customers manage through this evolving tough situation.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, and I had the chance the other day is Satish to watch your Microsoft CEO, your CEO Satya Nadella on CNBC. And I really did enjoy, very reflective, always very reflective, and he’s been a CEO, I’ve commented on this on a MarketWatch on Yahoo Finance, and different places where I’ve put my thoughts out there and I’ve always really admired his balanced approach. He’s very methodical and thoughtful. And he really did talk a lot about both the company’s desire to aid the communities but to protect the workforce, make very wise decisions, incorporating all the information, all the data. And of course the science and not being rash and not putting the economics of business ahead of the health and welfare of people. So it’s good to see. It’s good to see that folks like yourself are kind of carrying that message through, and through the different business units and organizations. And finally, Satish, I just want to say, hey, thank you so much yourself, and for Microsoft, coming on this Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series, really enjoyed this conversation.

Satish Thomas: Thank you so much for having me. Really enjoyed our discussion here and take care and stay safe.

Daniel Newman: Thanks Satish. For everyone out there that’s listening. As I said, check out the show notes. We’ll definitely click in some links. We’ll put some links in that you can learn more about Microsoft Dynamics, customer insights, Dynamics 365 Customer Insights. I’m going to keep practicing that. I’m going to get it right. I want to say thanks again to Microsoft for being a partner and coming onto this show. Hit that subscribe button, tune in, and a lot more great interviews out there and of course our weekly Futurum Tech Podcast series. I hope you follow. Hope you subscribe, hope you stay safe and well out there for everybody, Daniel Newman signing off.

This podcast is part of a special series focused around what leaders and companies are doing to help employees and customers deal with COVID-19. Be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on amazing insights.

Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.

Image Credit: Microsoft
Daniel Newman