Learning as we go with artificial intelligence

NRF 2024: Salesforce Chair and CEO Marc Benioff on AI’s potential for true customer-centricity
Peter Johnston
NRF Contributor

One of the more thought-provoking conversations at NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show took place between John Furner, CEO of Walmart U.S., and Salesforce Chair and CEO Marc Benioff, concerning one of today’s hot topics: artificial intelligence.

Noting the ubiquitousness of the technology — Benioff asked by a show of hands how many in the room had used ChatGPT — he said, “Isn’t that kind of unbelievable, that we’re all using AI?” We already were using it, he noted, “or it was using us, one of the two,” but the idea of a more usable version with generative AI is exciting for everyone.

NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show

Browse photos, blog posts, videos and more from NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show.

Hype vs. reality

“They can see, ‘oh, wow, I can do things that I couldn’t do before, that it’s improving my life in a way.’ I think that’s very exciting,” Benioff said. “These are all technologies that a year ago we would not have had. The speed that it’s moving is pretty awesome.”

That speed is part of the hype, which Furner pointed out can be part of the cycle of technology. “There’s hype and then there’s reality. This one feels a bit different,” he said. “Where are we in the cycle? What’s going to happen in the next couple of years?”

We’ve had machine intelligence, machine learning and predictive capabilities for decades, Benioff said. But now, “we are in a new moment in AI.” Salesforce’s generative AI Einstein technology is embedded throughout its products — commerce, sales, marketing, etc. — without looking at customer data. “We have the ultimate trust for you, your company and your data. Your data is not our product.”

That’s not the case for many companies, Benioff said, but Salesforce realized it wanted to do AI really well, “in a whole new way, and make sure trust is built in from the beginning. We’re going to make sure we will always have the trust with the customer.”

Maintaining customer trust

The question is, how does a company do that without turning the data into product? Salesforce, as Benioff acknowledged, is a data company. “Salesforce was born in the cloud 25 years ago,” he said, and has since grown into a company with more than 70,000 employees. “It’s very exciting in terms of the size and scale of the company,” he said, “but we’ve done it in a unique way that’s all about trust. Nothing’s more important than the trust we have with our customers.”

That’s a familiar theme at Walmart, Benioff noted, and Furner agreed, along with customer success and other core values like innovation, equality and sustainability. “This is why Salesforce and Walmart have had such a great partnership and we come together so well,” Benioff said.

AI as augmenter

We’re moving into the next generation of artificial intelligence, Benioff said, telling a story about purchasing a Loro Piana jacket recently at a New York City store. “They knew me. They knew everything about me,” he said. “They saw me on their website, they saw me in their store here on Madison Avenue.”

“And they also knew that I was in Tokyo two weeks ago and I bought this sweater from them. And then I walked into this store on Madison Avenue — I think they knew I was going to buy this jacket before I bought it.”

Gucci is another luxury brand embracing generative AI; the company has a call center of some 300 agents, Benioff said, which just started using generative AI to augment the agents’ abilities to connect with and assist customers, which resulted in an increase in revenue of almost 30%.

“All of a sudden, they had a lot more knowledge about all the products when customers were talking to them about product issues they’re having,” he said. “Bam, the system was able to augment those agents and make them better.”

If artificial intelligence isn’t making us better, Benioff said, “we’ve lost the plot. Yes, we’re going to get more productive. Yes, we’re going to get better customer relationships. Yes, we’re going to get higher margins. All of those things are very important to us.

“But if it’s not improving us or improving the state of the world, we’re losing the plot of what AI can really ultimately do for us.”

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