Connect The Dots Between Experience And Procurement: Q&A With AI Authority Oliver Christie

Ursula Ringham

Part 4 of the series, “Transforming Your Enterprise for the Experience Economy

Reducing costs. Expanding profits. Mitigating risk. Improving the customer experience.

One of these things is not like the others. 

Traditionally, procurement and network and spend management aren’t seen as critical links in the customer experience chain. With climate change, political uncertainty, trade restrictions, and now a growing imperative to positively impact the customer experience, procurement leaders are facing incredible challenges in today’s business landscape. But there are also incredible opportunities.

According to artificial intelligence (AI) authority Oliver Christie, AI technology and new, connected data streams hold the key to overcoming common procurement challenges. To help you elevate your approach to procurement and connect it to the customer experience, we asked Oliver to share his AI recommendations for procurement leaders. Here’s what he had to say.

Q&A with Oliver Christie: How to connect experience and procurement

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and your career. How did AI become your passion?

A: I started in artificial intelligence over 20 years ago with a math background—back when it was called machine learning. It was a time of low compute power and limited data, but even then, the idea of understanding the world in new ways through machine learning and AI was very appealing. 

I am most interested in how we can work with computers and how they can augment the best of humanity inside and outside of work. We are now at an exciting moment in time where AI is having a significant impact on the world, where this new technology will fundamentally change entire industries. 

Q: What questions can AI help answer for procurement leaders? 

A: I feel there are three big questions AI can help answer for any procurement leader:  

1. How can my company better respond to rapid external changes in an unpredictable landscape?

The procurement leader of today is operating in the most challenging business landscape of modern times. Political uncertainty, Brexit, and other upheavals worldwide have made the supply chain extremely unstable. Rapidly changing trade restrictions and tariffs make future planning incredibly hard. 

Climate change compounds the effect as unpredictable weather directly affects transportation, agriculture, and global demand. 

These situations, taken together, produce a challenge that is hard to tackle using existing technology. This new situation demands a new approach—one that is data-driven, AI-centric, and responds to constant unpredictability. As constant change becomes the new norm, only companies that have an adaptable supply chain will succeed.

2. How can my company stick to its ethical and environmental goals with a complex supply chain?

Companies of the future will separate into three groups:

  • Those that are deliberately unethical and environmentally damaging thanks to their business practices
  • Those that will end up in the same position thanks to passive inaction
  • Those that take a stand and make a positive impact on the world

Any company that wants to be truly ethical, environmentally conscious, and sustainable, can now accomplish those goals more easily thanks to new, connected data. It is possible to reduce slavery, it is possible to reduce a company’s carbon footprint, and it is possible to become sustainable. The tools are available. The real question is whether this is a priority or not. Tomorrow’s procurement leaders will have an outsize effect not just on their own company, but also those they do business with.

3. How can my company plan for a future that is both more personalized and more demanding?

The products and services of the future will become hyper-personal, fitting individual needs and wants. A one-size-fits-all approach, where the price is the only defining factor, no longer makes sense. This changing landscape will require fresh thinking as to how the supply chain will function. Again, new data and tools will aid in this transformation. 

At the same time, the relationship between the vendor and the customer will change towards one that is more collaborative, where information and insights are shared, and where market and product prediction aid all parties, moving beyond simple metrics or price. Every customer will be looking for a better solution (through a product or service) and will be happy to share information with a supplier to make this happen.

Q: Only one-third of procurement leaders are using technology like predictive analytics, AI, or collaboration networks. How can procurement leaders “start small” with these technologies? 

A: The first thing to realize is that these technologies are simply a set of tools aimed to improve the supply chain. AI can provide new insights into risk, supply performance, spend analysis, and more. 

Starting small depends on what a company is doing and what the situation is. One size or solution does not fit all. Every company will have a different starting point. I suggest starting with a pilot program chosen internally by several people who know the company supply chain and some of the issues involved there. 

There are three things to consider before starting an AI pilot. The first is the access and richness of data available, as data is always needed to produce insight. The second is picking from the range of AI tools available. This requires both an understanding of current options and some creativity. The third is to consider the business question you are trying to solve and its impact on the supply chain. It does not need to be something big to demonstrate an outcome. A balanced combination of these three things will lead to the best result. 

Q: How can procurement powered by AI help organizations deliver superior customer experiences?

A: AI can help procurement look beyond price points and delivery schedules to really understand what each customer will find most useful. There are a few areas where this can make an impact. 

The first is to understand that any customer is unique with a particular set of requirements. The more we can understand these requirements, the better. Personalization takes many forms and is challenging to implement, but the outcome can be incredibly impactful. Personalization in a business context is really not so different from a consumer context. 

The second way to deliver a superior customer experience is through better prediction of what any customer might need or want next. Done well, it is as if the company really “knows” its customers. Poorly done, this can be clumsy, creepy, or feel like an invasion of privacy. 

The third is how a company reacts to unexpected situations or errors. We have become used to a fast response 24/7 in the format of our choosing. Communication needs to both fit the situation and be reactive. AI is at the beginning of significantly impacting this space, but with new approaches arriving weekly.

The challenge is one of adaptability and prediction. AI should be used to understand everyone and every situation on a personal level—but at scale. And your AI approach should come second to the desired outcome. 

Q: Tell us about a memorable experience you had with a brand as a customer. What made the experience so special? 

A: The best experiences for me come from boutique or small-scale interactions—where service is exceptional because it is central to the experience. 

In the West Village in New York is a small triangular magazine store, Casa Magazines. They stock every title you could imagine from floor to ceiling. The real experience is not in the choice, but rather your interaction with the owners. They know every title they stock, what you bought last time, and what else you might like, all in a friendly tone. 

There is a restaurant I ate at recently in Barcelona where I let the manager chose the food and drinks for the evening. A discussion on taste and flavor led to an unforgettable experience thanks to his “local” knowledge. After much communication and collaboration, I gave up control and trusted the manager, leading to a much richer dining experience. 

Back in New York, down in SoHo, there is a perfume store, D.S. & DURGA. It is a small store, with a limited selection, but where the choice you make ends up defining you. As smell is highly personal and hard to describe, getting help from the staff becomes central to the experience. The conversation is less about scent and more about an individual’s place in the world. 

In each example, service made the experience an exceptional one. Whether it was their attention to detail, understanding of the product, or understanding of their customers, they went above and beyond. AI and data can help larger brands and enterprises get to this point, but only when the customer use or setting is fully considered. 

Challenge the status quo

The traditional procurement role isn’t customer-facing. But it does have an impact on their experience with your brand. To succeed in today’s experience economy, you need to leave the traditional approach in the past. 

Take Oliver’s advice:

“Traditional approaches to the supply chain are no longer relevant. Once you consider the vast amount of data and the insights AI brings, it is crucial to discover what could be disrupted. It is time to challenge the status quo and come up with a new way of doing business—if not AI-centric, then certainly customer-centric.”

To help you create exceptional experiences with procurement and across the enterprise, we asked 25 futurists, technologists, and experts to share their top technologies and strategies. See what they had to say:

About Ursula Ringham

Ursula Ringham is the Head of Global Influencer Marketing at SAP. She manages social media and digital marketing strategy for the small and midsize business community. She was recently recognized as one of 15 Women Who Rock Social Media at Top Tech Companies. Prior to SAP, Ursula worked at Adobe and Apple in their Developer Relations organizations. She managed strategic accounts, developer programs, edited a technical journal, managed content for an entire website, and wrote and taught course curriculum. In her spare time, Ursula writes thriller novels about the insidious side of Silicon Valley.