Reflections on my time at GDS

May 30, 2024

I’m now about 10 days out from a jam packed experience at the GDS summit for Customer Experience (CX) in Dallas. It was a really positive event in a number of ways and thought I’d capture some of my observations and thoughts for posterity and future reference.

It was my first time

I’ve never been to a GDS event and had only an inkling of what to expect. While my colleague and I went with the primary objective of meeting folks who might become prospective clients, I had not put a ton of stock into the content programming beyond the couple of round tables I was hosting. I was pleasantly surprised! From the great keynotes by Tracie Gildea and Athan Stephanopoulos to some of the panel discussions, I thought the dialogue and engagement were authentic and insightful.

Observation #1: Where should we start???

People aren’t panicking, but there does seem to be a palpable sense of confusion about where to start in our new AI-powered context. I was a bit surprised by the sheer volume of attendees identifying and asking about AI’s impacts on their particular domain, although I appreciate that it’s all we tend to speak about now.

Now, this was CX, so the attendees trended towards call centres and customer support, internal help desks, with more than a couple of attendees with Voice of the Customer (VoC) mandates. And given the general understanding of where AI can generate immediate value, it’s in the work that many enterprises use an army of human resources to deliver (i.e call centres and customer support in general). So it does make sense that these folks are curious about the application of this tech on their particular domain. It was also clear that a number of them were there because their bosses said “Go find out something” and thus learning about what’s possible became a priority for many.

In total I’d estimate about 95% of the room was looking for insights on AI, and of those I’d suggest about 4 out of 5 people were struggling to understand where to start.

Observation #2: Where’s the consideration for brand?

Many conversations revolved around the technology, its capabilities, examples of it in practice, and how it can drive efficiency. But given that this was a CX conference, I was more taken by how little people talked about how this technology was going to impact the brand experience.

I may be biased (and that’s sarcasm for folks in the back), but every customer touch point is a brand experience. I don’t care if it’s an interaction with a call centre, a chatbot, a text message, a digital help desk, or a retail experience. Every, and I mean EVERY, touch point is a brand experience. Perhaps it was a natural bias of the technology-dominant mindset of the room, but it feels like the brand experience lens was notably absent from most (but not all) presentations and panels from the stage.

Let’s Address the Elephant in the Room

In the context of CX, our collective fascination with AI is about a piece of technology that can “trick” us into believing that we’re interacting with a human. Or at least an acceptable approximation of human-like interactions—we crave a conversational interface. The extrapolation of this very quickly goes to the “well then AI will take jobs” argument. To be clear — it will. It 100%, absolutely, no question about it, will displace jobs. Low-wage jobs. It will displace jobs that no one ever aspired to do but do because they need to pay the bills. I believe this is a foregone conclusion, as guaranteed as the invention of the washing machine replaced the labour required to do washing by hand (we just didn’t talk about those economic impacts because this was mostly unpaid domestic labour).

The displacement will be followed by a demand for people who use greater critical thinking skills and higher executive function and who can think strategically about how to wield these tools in new and effective ways. Those who maintain an accurate mental model of these tools’ capabilities will be poised to supercharge their own abilities and career prospects.

Where to start? AKA: How do you eat an elephant?

I’ve been around long enough to witness all three waves of change that digital technology has affected since the late 1990’s. Just like the previous two, this moment is frenetic, with people concerned about the impacts and struggling to understand how to move forward.

As I shared with the folks in the two round table discussions I hosted at GDS, you must start with the problem definition. AI (like ANY technology) is a tool, not much different than a hammer. Take a pile of wood and a hammer, and a carpenter can build you a table, a chair, a desk, a bookcase or even a whole house. But someone needs to decide what to build. To put it another way, what problem do you want to solve? Only then can you start to understand where this hammer is best applied (and perhaps a better metaphor in the case of AI is that it’s a toolbox with an evolving set of tools that will be used in increasingly niche applications).

Problem Finding (Elephant hunting?)

As a brand strategist who comes from both a design thinking and a technology background, I love problem finding. The process to accomplish this is probably the most human of all—a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis, direct observation, active listening and asking obvious questions to find less-than-obvious answers. This last point—the asking of obvious (I call them “stupid”) questions—is critical in times of change. Why? Because that which was self-evident is typically a product of context, and if the context or environment you’re operating in is changing, then maybe the obvious (or stupid) question reveals an underlying or nascent truth that can lead to a problem definition.

How do you win?

The good news is that for those of us experienced in discovery, customer journey mapping and service design, this process is old hat. What’s new (and very exciting) are the opportunities that these new technologies afford to build a better and more compelling brand experience. Because as my colleague Kendra Schumacher astutely noted last week: if everyone has the power of AI at their disposal, what IS the point of difference for the customer? The answer, my experience-focused friends, is brand.

—Spencer Saunders, President

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