Machine Learning And Predictive Analytics In B2B

Kevin Carlson

A little over three years ago, I wrote a series of posts about the pressures online retail was placing on traditional brick-and-mortar stores. From behemoths of the past, like Borders, to those at risk today such as Sears, companies that failed to react to broad changes in consumer expectations have closed their doors or are struggling to keep them open.

Let’s be fair, though. Physical retail isn’t doomed. It’s a piece of the puzzle in the omnichannel world. It’s just not the centerpiece anymore. Companies that are succeeding are paying close attention to customer data, learning or predicting what their customers’ actions will be and driving customer experience to an entirely new level. A level that is the new baseline for how to compete and succeed in retail.

And if you’re in the B2B space, I hope you’re paying attention.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve helped many companies implement both B2C and B2B sites. The challenges are different in some ways, but the expectations of those interacting with a site have been converging for years. And as companies like Amazon continue to expand in the B2B world, you can be sure that the demand for a “smarter” experience will grow.

Most companies in the B2B space are using Web analytics to track the basics: page views, visitors, bounce rate, and similar metrics. Today, that is the low bar.

The true value that can be extracted from the way in which customers interact with a site isn’t lurking in an obscure Google Analytics report. It’s buried in the wealth of data that can be collected from customer interactions. For companies both small and large, the world of data science can be intimidating, and knowing where to start can leave one’s head spinning.

But ignore this at your own peril.

OK, so a full discussion of data science is beyond what’s possible in a blog, but here are some key points that all in the B2B space should know:

  • Being able to respond quickly and accurately to changes in customer behavior is critical. The days of taking a week or longer to peruse reports and figure out what your customers want are long gone.
  • Predictive analytics and machine learning are here to stay, and companies that employ these techniques will outmaneuver those that don’t.
  • Your commerce platform may or may not be able to gather all the data you need. It’s a piece of the puzzle and there are other sources to consider.

So how can B2B companies use predictive analytics and machine learning? Here are a few use cases that I’ve seen.

Customer classification

Understanding behavioral tendencies of customers and grouping them with similar customers can be an effective way to focus marketing and merchandising efforts. One classification that most have seen is the “VIP customer,” but too often, B2B companies simply decide, using a single metric, what constitutes a VIP. One implementation I’ve seen simply classifies as a VIP any customer that purchases more than $100; a little badge is placed on the customer’s online profile. That’s not really classification; it’s closer to gamification, which gives the customer some sort of sense of achievement and hopefully boosts their loyalty.

Real classification is based on a set of data features measured across all recent customer activity. In other words, whether someone is a real VIP customer or not is going to change when compared to the behavior of the entire customer base.

Knowing customer classification and being able to use a classification model to predict a group to which a new customer is likely to belong can help greatly in determining which promotions to show a customer while they’re on the site or via email. In a recent machine learning implementation for a B2B firm, we grouped customers into several segments by using data from a recent time period:

  • VIP shopper: The highest tier of customers based on value and number of conversions.
  • Engaged shopper: A large number of visits, an active cart, numerous product views, and at least one conversion.
  • Window shopper: Several visits, numerous product views

This information was not shared with the customer – it’s not a public distinction, rather it’s an internal indication of how to interact with a customer. Having this information allows marketers to display targeted promotions onsite during a visit. For example, if a customer falls into the “Engaged Shopper” classification and has an active cart that is above the average order value (AOV), a coupon for free shipping or a discount could be displayed to move this shopper toward conversion.

It’s also important to note that models aren’t static. They must be recalculated frequently. In the B2B firm’s implementation, the models recalculate every few hours to ensure they are as current and accurate as possible.

Prescriptive product and content placement

There are many reasons buying behavior may change. Seasonality is one such reason. Other reasons that may drive short-term behavioral changes are weather, news, shortages, and manufacturer promotions. Using models to detect conditions that are “outside of expectations,” and adjusting site merchandising to respond to time-sensitive anomalies, are becoming more common. This technique can be used to alter search results, homepage item placement, and category item placement, and guide users to product information when a search for a competitive product is conducted.

Does a given product perform better when visible at the top of the homepage? Some do, some don’t. Detecting optimal placement for products, given a recent history of activity such as conversions and cart additions, can be accomplished through machine learning. When introducing a new product, similar models can be used to predict best placement for optimal performance based on product attributes.

Improving personalization

Personalization on most B2C sites has a long way to go. And on B2B sites, it’s still in its infancy. While it’s possible to group shoppers into a cohort and show them similar items, machine learning makes it possible to make these cohorts smaller, approaching a more unique experience for your B2B customer. This can be especially impactful when there are multiple B2B buyers from a single customer.

To begin moving toward a more unique experience, machine learning models can be developed starting at a high level, then progressing to more granular levels that deliver unique insights into a customer.

For example, beginning with geolocation as a factor, a B2B seller of industrial HVAC equipment should feature different products for customers in Minnesota vs. those in Florida. The buying seasons are not only different, but events in Florida, such as an impending hurricane, may influence buying behavior in the short term. A properly designed model can help spot these changes and alert the B2B marketer to changes that may require a change in site merchandising for a geographical region.

To add on, a company could develop models that can predict the optimal sort order for search results for a customer, the ideal products and categories to feature for them, along with suggested promotions based on their recent behavior.

In summary

It’s a fascinating time to be working in commerce and with data in particular. The convergence of low-cost cloud-based computing and the abundance of data available from a wealth of sources (not the least of which is a company’s B2B site) provide a lot of actionable intelligence with a lower investment – by orders of magnitude – than a decade ago. That not only puts this technology within reach, it positions it to become a core part of how you relate to your customers and how you operate your business.

Those that ignore the call today may become tomorrow’s Borders.

For more on setting your business up to better compete, see Why Machine Learning and Why Now?

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How Big Data Can Tell You Which Book To Read Next

JP George

If you enjoy reading, but still haven’t foundyour next book to cozy up with, your smartphone might be able to suggest one. Artificial intelligence (AI) is now able to rank literature to predict the next bestseller – a kind of recommendation system, not based on metadata, but on the patterns and themes found in books.

Publishers around the globe are mining all kinds of data, including what’s in the books themselves, in search of the magic formula for evaluating a book’s market potential. With more informed marketing, publishers hope to better target their customers.

Recommending the popular novel

So, how does AI determine what we want to read? It turns out that certain emotional patterns keep us engaged and interested while reading a novel. Kurt Vonnegut first described the curves of emotional plotlines in 1995. Now, with the help of AI sentiment and emotion analysis, such plotlines can be extracted quantitatively. By combining these plotline curves, researchers from the Stanford Literary Lab claim to be able to detect the next blockbuster novel.

Machines think from data

Under the hood of such an AI sits Big Data and machine learning (ML). The concept of Big Data doesn’t just mean lots of data, but also that the data comes from many different data sources and types (e.g., audio, video, images, text, etc.) that are often unstructured (unlike traditional databases with well-defined fields). ML involves statistical algorithms that utilize sets of multi-type, unstructured data to predict class membership. This is possible by either knowing ahead of time which classes exist and training the ML algorithm by example (supervised learning) or letting the algorithm discover the underlying patterns (unsupervised learning).

ML methods include embedded vector space techniques (principal component analysis, K-nearest neighbor, and support vector machine), decision-tree based techniques (classification and regression tree, random forest), gradient and Bayesian-based methods, artificial neural networks (ANN), and others. Many tutorials on machine learning methods can be found here.

ANNs were among the first algorithms to be applied to solve problems in AI, beginning as long ago as the 1940s. For many reasons, their use has waxed and waned over the years, yet interest has recently resurged along with the unprecedented advance of deep learning. This growth in deep learning has lead to what the New York Times calls the great awakening, given Google’s ability to translate text into more than 100 languages.

How AI uncovers sentiment and emotions from text

Imagine automatically extracting the sentiment or emotional impact of a literary work. For a computer to understand a text, what is called natural language processing (NLP), AI algorithms first find a mathematical representation that a machine can understand and that contains maximal information about the text. A simple representation called “bag-of-words” (as the name implies) is a collection of words that appear together, but with no other particular nexus, from which the frequency of word groups could be ascertained. This may provide enough information for classifying themes, but would fail miserably at understanding sentences if word order is important.

Two representations that can quantify information associated with sentence word order are Word2Vec and GloVe. More about NLP representations can be learned from this tutorial, while a tutorial from TensorFlow on Word2vec is found here.

Once sentences are converted to a meaningful representation, a language model is needed that discerns positive emotions from negative emotions. One method would be to use a supervised learning procedure with deep neural networks, as has been done to understand movie reviews. Another way is to allow the deep neural network to discover the emotional patterns by itself. This is the true power behind deep learning: its ability to teach itself, and with more Big Data, to learn more.

Through this process, the ML can understand at text’s major themes (from the word groupings) and emotion. These factors are the fundamental ingredients for an AI application that will recommend a novel.

From creating Animal Farm summaries to discovering who will be the next Danielle Steel, AI is revolutionizing what and how we will read in the future.

For more on using ML to upend the competition, see Why Machine Learning and Why Now?

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About JP George

JP George grew up in a small town in Washington. After receiving a Master's degree in Public Relations, JP has worked in a variety of positions, from agencies to corporations all across the globe. Experience has made JP an expert in topics relating to leadership, talent management, and organizational business.

Could Governments Run By Artificial Intelligence Be A Good Thing?

Glen Sawyer

Put Skynet from The Terminator movies to the back of your mind for a minute, and stay with me on this one.

Certain political leaders are reminding us of their fragile humanity with increasing frequency these days. Prone to wild acts of emotion and unable to resist the urge to push their personal agenda at the expense of the greater good, it’s enough to make the concept of an AI-controlled government sound utopian by comparison.

I’m not quite naïve enough to think we’re already at a point where our human leaders could be replaced by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-doing machine, but artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming ever more tantalizing in their potential to simplify, accelerate, and improve many aspects of society and our lives.

Keeping reality in check

Governments are beginning to realize this. We’re already seeing small crumbs of evidence that they understand how AI can make public services more efficient and citizen-friendly. But these are very early days in discussing and figuring out how such technology could help us enforce laws, organize labor and welfare, and so on, in ways most people would be comfortable with.

And if the Facebook AI story is anything to go by, we’re still pretty spooked by the idea of an intelligence that can “think,” communicate, and potentially make decisions using methods we might not always understand, so a future in which we’re willingly ruled by a digital overlord remains very distant.

What’s more likely – dare I say, inevitable – is that governments will find ways to take advantage of AI in smaller increments, and this will eventually compound to form a political system in which machines are doing most of the “thinking” work.

Keeping humanity in check

Unless you believe the singularity is possible, that “thinking” will remain under the control of a far more streamlined government made up of regular, everyday humans. Our greatest hope is that the AI-run aspects of governance are powerful and transparent enough that those humans can’t get away with the deceit, selfishness, and emotion-based political decisions that plague us today.

That said, it would likely be a very different group of people to today running an AI government. If governments do come to rely heavily on technology, it could be a few technologists at the top of the tree – the ones who understand how it all works – who find themselves wielding immense power. With the likes of Mark Zuckerberg already accruing vast political influence to do with as they please, that’s a worrying prospect.

Keeping AI programmers in check

Thankfully, it won’t happen in the way some are fearing it might. Government decision-making is so complex, with so many interlinked aspects, that no one or small group of technological minds could comprehend and control it entirely. I also don’t believe people generally hold the Silicon Valley view that technology alone can solve everything. What I’m saying is, let’s embrace AI safe in the knowledge that collectively we’ll be able to keep it and its programmers in check.

If we do, we’re opening a whole new world of possibilities in efficient, logical, and honest governance. It’s essential we don’t let the same thing happen with a tech-run government that we’re letting happen with the internet – where power is consolidating into too few hands. That will take a combination of remembering the democratic principles that got us to this point and educating enough people to understand the technology overseeing us. I, for one, am optimistic we can get there. Please tell me I’m not alone.

This story originally appeared on the SAP Community.

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Glen Sawyer

About Glen Sawyer

Glen Sawyer is National Director of IoT Digital Transformation at SAP. 

The Future Will Be Co-Created

Dan Wellers and Timo Elliott

 

Just 3% of companies have completed enterprise digital transformation projects.
92% of those companies have significantly improved or transformed customer engagement.
81% of business executives say platforms will reshape industries into interconnected ecosystems.
More than half of large enterprises (80% of the Global 500) will join industry platforms by 2018.

Link to Sources


Redefining Customer Experience

Many business leaders think of the customer journey or experience as the interaction an individual or business has with their firm.

But the business value of the future will exist in the much broader, end-to-end experiences of a customer—the experience of travel, for example, or healthcare management or mobility. Individual companies alone, even with their existing supplier networks, lack the capacity to transform these comprehensive experiences.


A Network Effect

Rather than go it alone, companies will develop deep collaborative relationships across industries—even with their customers—to create powerful ecosystems that multiply the breadth and depth of the products, services, and experiences they can deliver. Digital native companies like Baidu and Uber have embraced ecosystem thinking from their early days. But forward-looking legacy companies are beginning to take the approach.

Solutions could include:

  • Packaging provider Weig has integrated partners into production with customers co-inventing custom materials.
  • China’s Ping An insurance company is aggressively expanding beyond its sector with a digital platform to help customers manage their healthcare experience.
  • British roadside assistance provider RAC is delivering a predictive breakdown service for drivers by acquiring and partnering with high-tech companies.

What Color Is Your Ecosystem?

Abandoning long-held notions of business value creation in favor of an ecosystem approach requires new tactics and strategies. Companies can:

1.  Dispassionately map the end-to-end customer experience, including those pieces outside company control.

2.  Employ future planning tactics, such as scenario planning, to examine how that experience might evolve.

3.  Identify organizations in that experience ecosystem with whom you might co-innovate.

4.  Embrace technologies that foster secure collaboration and joint innovation around delivery of experiences, such as cloud computing, APIs, and micro-services.

5.  Hire, train for, and reward creativity, innovation, and customer-centricity.


Evolve or Be Commoditized

Some companies will remain in their traditional industry boxes, churning out products and services in isolation. But they will be commodity players reaping commensurate returns. Companies that want to remain competitive will seek out their new ecosystem or get left out in the cold.


Download the executive brief The Future Will be Co-Created.


Read the full article The Future Belongs to Industry-Busting Ecosystems.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business.  Learn how.

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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

About Timo Elliott

Timo Elliott is an Innovation Evangelist for SAP and a passionate advocate of innovation, digital business, analytics, and artificial intelligence. He was the eighth employee of BusinessObjects and for the last 25 years he has worked closely with SAP customers around the world on new technology directions and their impact on real-world organizations. His articles have appeared in articles such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, ZDNet, The Guardian, and Digitalist Magazine. He has worked in the UK, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Silicon Valley, and currently lives in Paris, France. He has a degree in Econometrics and a patent in mobile analytics. 

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Blockchain: Much Ado About Nothing? How Very Wrong!

Juergen Roehricht

Let me start with a quote from McKinsey, that in my view hits the nail right on the head:

“No matter what the context, there’s a strong possibility that blockchain will affect your business. The very big question is when.”

Now, in the industries that I cover in my role as general manager and innovation lead for travel and transportation/cargo, engineering, construction and operations, professional services, and media, I engage with many different digital leaders on a regular basis. We are having visionary conversations about the impact of digital technologies and digital transformation on business models and business processes and the way companies address them. Many topics are at different stages of the hype cycle, but the one that definitely stands out is blockchain as a new enabling technology in the enterprise space.

Just a few weeks ago, a customer said to me: “My board is all about blockchain, but I don’t get what the excitement is about – isn’t this just about Bitcoin and a cryptocurrency?”

I can totally understand his confusion. I’ve been talking to many blockchain experts who know that it will have a big impact on many industries and the related business communities. But even they are uncertain about the where, how, and when, and about the strategy on how to deal with it. The reason is that we often look at it from a technology point of view. This is a common mistake, as the starting point should be the business problem and the business issue or process that you want to solve or create.

In my many interactions with Torsten Zube, vice president and blockchain lead at the SAP Innovation Center Network (ICN) in Potsdam, Germany, he has made it very clear that it’s mandatory to “start by identifying the real business problem and then … figure out how blockchain can add value.” This is the right approach.

What we really need to do is provide guidance for our customers to enable them to bring this into the context of their business in order to understand and define valuable use cases for blockchain. We need to use design thinking or other creative strategies to identify the relevant fields for a particular company. We must work with our customers and review their processes and business models to determine which key blockchain aspects, such as provenance and trust, are crucial elements in their industry. This way, we can identify use cases in which blockchain will benefit their business and make their company more successful.

My highly regarded colleague Ulrich Scholl, who is responsible for externalizing the latest industry innovations, especially blockchain, in our SAP Industries organization, recently said: “These kinds of use cases are often not evident, as blockchain capabilities sometimes provide minor but crucial elements when used in combination with other enabling technologies such as IoT and machine learning.” In one recent and very interesting customer case from the autonomous province of South Tyrol, Italy, blockchain was one of various cloud platform services required to make this scenario happen.

How to identify “blockchainable” processes and business topics (value drivers)

To understand the true value and impact of blockchain, we need to keep in mind that a verified transaction can involve any kind of digital asset such as cryptocurrency, contracts, and records (for instance, assets can be tangible equipment or digital media). While blockchain can be used for many different scenarios, some don’t need blockchain technology because they could be handled by a simple ledger, managed and owned by the company, or have such a large volume of data that a distributed ledger cannot support it. Blockchain would not the right solution for these scenarios.

Here are some common factors that can help identify potential blockchain use cases:

  • Multiparty collaboration: Are many different parties, and not just one, involved in the process or scenario, but one party dominates everything? For example, a company with many parties in the ecosystem that are all connected to it but not in a network or more decentralized structure.
  • Process optimization: Will blockchain massively improve a process that today is performed manually, involves multiple parties, needs to be digitized, and is very cumbersome to manage or be part of?
  • Transparency and auditability: Is it important to offer each party transparency (e.g., on the origin, delivery, geolocation, and hand-overs) and auditable steps? (e.g., How can I be sure that the wine in my bottle really is from Bordeaux?)
  • Risk and fraud minimization: Does it help (or is there a need) to minimize risk and fraud for each party, or at least for most of them in the chain? (e.g., A company might want to know if its goods have suffered any shocks in transit or whether the predefined route was not followed.)

Connecting blockchain with the Internet of Things

This is where blockchain’s value can be increased and automated. Just think about a blockchain that is not just maintained or simply added by a human, but automatically acquires different signals from sensors, such as geolocation, temperature, shock, usage hours, alerts, etc. One that knows when a payment or any kind of money transfer has been made, a delivery has been received or arrived at its destination, or a digital asset has been downloaded from the Internet. The relevant automated actions or signals are then recorded in the distributed ledger/blockchain.

Of course, given the massive amount of data that is created by those sensors, automated signals, and data streams, it is imperative that only the very few pieces of data coming from a signal that are relevant for a specific business process or transaction be stored in a blockchain. By recording non-relevant data in a blockchain, we would soon hit data size and performance issues.

Ideas to ignite thinking in specific industries

  • The digital, “blockchained” physical asset (asset lifecycle management): No matter whether you build, use, or maintain an asset, such as a machine, a piece of equipment, a turbine, or a whole aircraft, a blockchain transaction (genesis block) can be created when the asset is created. The blockchain will contain all the contracts and information for the asset as a whole and its parts. In this scenario, an entry is made in the blockchain every time an asset is: sold; maintained by the producer or owner’s maintenance team; audited by a third-party auditor; has malfunctioning parts; sends or receives information from sensors; meets specific thresholds; has spare parts built in; requires a change to the purpose or the capability of the assets due to age or usage duration; receives (or doesn’t receive) payments; etc.
  • The delivery chain, bill of lading: In today’s world, shipping freight from A to B involves lots of manual steps. For example, a carrier receives a booking from a shipper or forwarder, confirms it, and, before the document cut-off time, receives the shipping instructions describing the content and how the master bill of lading should be created. The carrier creates the original bill of lading and hands it over to the ordering party (the current owner of the cargo). Today, that original paper-based bill of lading is required for the freight (the container) to be picked up at the destination (the port of discharge). Imagine if we could do this as a blockchain transaction and by forwarding a PDF by email. There would be one transaction at the beginning, when the shipping carrier creates the bill of lading. Then there would be look-ups, e.g., by the import and release processing clerk of the shipper at the port of discharge and the new owner of the cargo at the destination. Then another transaction could document that the container had been handed over.

The future

I personally believe in the massive transformative power of blockchain, even though we are just at the very beginning. This transformation will be achieved by looking at larger networks with many participants that all have a nearly equal part in a process. Today, many blockchain ideas still have a more centralistic approach, in which one company has a more prominent role than the (many) others and often is “managing” this blockchain/distributed ledger-supported process/approach.

But think about the delivery scenario today, where goods are shipped from one door or company to another door or company, across many parties in the delivery chain: from the shipper/producer via the third-party logistics service provider and/or freight forwarder; to the companies doing the actual transport, like vessels, trucks, aircraft, trains, cars, ferries, and so on; to the final destination/receiver. And all of this happens across many countries, many borders, many handovers, customs, etc., and involves a lot of paperwork, across all constituents.

“Blockchaining” this will be truly transformational. But it will need all constituents in the process or network to participate, even if they have different interests, and to agree on basic principles and an approach.

As Torsten Zube put it, I am not a “blockchain extremist” nor a denier that believes this is just a hype, but a realist open to embracing a new technology in order to change our processes for our collective benefit.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business. Learn how.

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Juergen Roehricht

About Juergen Roehricht

Juergen Roehricht is General Manager of Services Industries and Innovation Lead of the Middle and Eastern Europe region for SAP. The industries he covers include travel and transportation; professional services; media; and engineering, construction and operations. Besides managing the business in those segments, Juergen is focused on supporting innovation and digital transformation strategies of SAP customers. With more than 20 years of experience in IT, he stays up to date on the leading edge of innovation, pioneering and bringing new technologies to market and providing thought leadership. He has published several articles and books, including Collaborative Business and The Multi-Channel Company.