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Member Q&A: Symantec's Allen Lee on Being the Only Programmer in the Marketing Department

By Emily Cowan posted 02-28-2019 12:00 AM


We like to talk about “wearing a lot of hats,” but let’s face it: Some “hats” are so different in style and function that they’re rarely worn by the same person within an organization. That can be a missed opportunity, according to community member Allen Lee, Senior Director at Symantec. In this interview, we asked Allen about his dual background in software engineering and marketing, and how that unusual combination has led to an exciting career at the intersection between artificial intelligence and customer experience.


Execs In The Know: How did you first become interested in artificial intelligence technology?

Allen Lee: I have a software engineering degree, and my first job was as a database analyst at a marketing consulting firm. For the first two years I was writing a lot of the code for the database. Over time, though, I started to realize that I actually enjoyed the marketing side more than the technical side.

I switched to the marketing team as one of their consultants to help clients build marketing campaigns using the technology that was available. That set the foundation for my career of the next 15 years. I realized that there are a lot of ways we can leverage new technologies to create more efficient campaigns and initiatives. You just need to understand both the marketing and technology sides. 

EITK: Usually people who gravitate toward tech have a much different way of thinking compared to those who pursue careers in marketing. What was that like, making the switch from one department to the other?

Allen: I see it as the essential difference between left brain and right brain - science and art - and a lot of it goes back to how we train our workforce. When I was a software engineering student, all we talked about was logic and how we could rationalize everything we did to build new technologies in a logical way. But we never talked about the creative side. Of course, most of us lean in one direction or the other. But if we only train one side of the brain, those initial leanings become reinforced and can be very hard to break out of.

My personal observation over the past ten years is that more people with a strong left brain are joining the marketing side now that digital has changed the marketing landscape. It’s usually easier for a person with a really strong technical side to pick up the creative side rather than the other way around. As we continue to develop new digital technologies, we’ll need to find the right balance between the two. 

EITK: So much of customer experience involves the emotional connection between customer and brand. How do you find that balance?

Allen: If you look at how marketers used to run campaigns, it was all about emotion. The creative director’s job was to decide whether a piece of creative was good or bad depending on how well it engaged on an emotional level. With the digital transformation, everything has changed. Marketers still deal with emotional response, but they’ve been able to better measure that response and its impact on the business’s KPIs. 

In the CX organization it should work exactly the same way. How do you measure the business benefits of the emotions that inform our decision-making - customer loyalty, the willingness to recommend or repurchase? With access to tremendous amounts of data on our customers’ behavior we can now use big-data analytics technology to measure those things more specifically and accurately than ever before.

For example, a customer with 100% satisfaction will obviously spend more money with a brand than a customer with 0% satisfaction. But what about a customer with 86% satisfaction versus a customer with 85% satisfaction? At what point does an increase in our CX efforts begin to show a diminishing return?

Measuring customer satisfaction is the easy part - we’ve been doing that for ages. The challenge is, how do we find the exact correlation between customer satisfaction and business outcomes? That’s the key.

EITK: Can you give a specific example of how you’re tackling these calculations?

Allen: One thing we’re working on at Symantec is finding a clear correlation between customer satisfaction and retention rate. We know that higher customer satisfaction increases retention rate, but we don’t know by exactly how much, or when the business benefits of our CX investment begin to decline. If we correlate every single satisfaction survey with the customer’s retention rate, we should be able to plot a graph showing the drop-off, at which point it makes sense to redirect our resources elsewhere.

EITK: When I think of AI in customer experience I typically think of chatbots or virtual assistants. This sounds quite a bit different.

Allen: This is probably the most confusing part when people start talking about AI - the difference in function between conversational AI and machine learning. Conversational AI tools such as chatbots or virtual assistants can help increase operational efficiency and cut costs. Machine learning tools - data analysis and predictive modeling - can be used to improve our backend processes. I teach my team to look at them separately.

If we’re going to achieve a balance between the right and left brain within an organization we need to find a common language. We can’t have our data scientists and product managers and business stakeholders and software engineers each talking about AI technology in a different way. 

EITK: What advice do you have for CX leaders seeking to leverage new AI technologies?

Allen: For companies to be successful in this area, they need to bring in people who have the knowledge on both sides of the house - business and technical. Product managers in a software development role are already expected to speak both languages, but the incorporation of AI adds an extra layer to an already complicated mix. It’s my experience that you probably won’t be able to leverage your existing employees to take on this new challenge - it’s just a completely different skill set

That’s the biggest challenge for CX leaders right now - recruiting team members who can get those cross-functional teams to understand each other and work together to achieve real business impact.

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