The day before Microsoft sent its Seattle workforce home to work in early March, more people than usual were running web searches for the term ‘Outlook’. The day after, many more people started searching for ‘Teams’. Those searches kept increasing for the first half of March and then jumped even higher in the next week as schools, restaurants and other public places closed and lockdowns began, eclipsing popular Microsoft-related search terms like ‘edge browser’, ‘updates’, ‘office online’ and ‘rewards dashboard’. Searches for ‘Microsoft Zoom’ spiked by 20% in one day — either because people were confused about who owns what video conferencing tool, or because zoombombing hit the headlines that day and they were researching alternatives.

A month later, in late April, searches for Teams are still going up significantly (83% higher than the already increased searches in March), but so are searches for a Microsoft patent for a cryptocurrency that uses human activity as a random seed — and has a patent number that appeals to conspiracy theorists.

All of those insights landed in my inbox, because I set up ‘Microsoft’ as a topic of interest on the Dynamics 365 Market Insights preview. That preview has now ended, but the option to track brands and social demographic insights are still in the Dynamics 365 Customer Insights service, where you can use them to make the data you gather about your own customers more useful by bolstering it with third-party data, including what Microsoft learns from its own services like Bing.

Customer Insights is part of Microsoft’s Customer Data Platform where organisations can pull together data about their customers from multiple systems, Satish Thomas, head of product for the customer data platform, told TechRepublic.

“Every single organisation, be it UNICEF or Chipotle or Microsoft, has customer data that is sitting in a myriad of sources — ecommerce, social, survey, transactional data. What Customer Insights does is, wherever your data is sitting, Dynamics or SurveyMonkey for surveys or Salesforce or SAP or Adobe, between transactional observational and behavioural, we’re able to bring all of that data together to help build a 360-degree view of the customer and use that to power personalised experiences.”

Without that, you get the frustrating experience of calling a company you’ve spent a lot of money with over many years, only to find they have no idea what you’ve bought, what problems you’ve called about before or what you’re likely to want.

Unifying different data sources would be easy if there was a single key to tie all the data together, but most organisations can’t even link their customer loyalty database to their support centre. “What I call myself during a survey versus when I swipe my credit card versus when I send a social comment might be different,” Thomas pointed out. Customer Insights has a friendly UI for connecting those rather than leaving you to write custom code to handle it. Thomas calls the process “map, match and merge”; you map fields in each data source to the canonical customer record fields in the Microsoft Common Data Model, and the system is smart enough to know that William Gates III and Bill Gates are the same person, and that 25 South Kensington Street matches 25 S Kensington St.

Tie those together the way Chipotle does with Customer Insights (unifying seven different sources of customers’ data) and you can speed up ‘click and collect’ orders that customers are now making on a mobile device by showing their usual order and suggesting their usual extras, plus giving staff an app (built with PowerApps in just a couple of weeks) that prompts them to offer loyal customers a discount. Because people don’t want to hand over a loyalty card to be scanned, Chipotle generates a barcode on the app you use to order that staff can scan with their own app, so they know who you are, what you’ve ordered, whether to offer you your usual extras and if you should be getting a special offer.

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That ‘next best action’ is driven by machine-learning models and uses all the different sources of data an organisation has about customers.

The features that come from the Market Insights preview are about ‘enriching’ the data you have with public and third-party data from partners like Leadspace and Experian, plus the data in the Microsoft Graph that comes from things like anonymised web searches on Bing, and the graph of entities Bing has that knows what industry different businesses and brands are in.

Rather than being generic insights about what people are searching for more than usual, these insights are now geared towards delivering more personalised experiences, because that’s what organisations who tried the preview service asked for. As one Dynamics customer told Thomas recently, “reducing churn is the new growth,” so they want to make sure the offers they send are really relevant.

“In a time where labour is getting more and more expensive, for UNICEF to decide whether to send you an email, or whether they want to send you a snail mail or whether they want to knock on your door is dependent on your customer profiles,.” Thomas said. “They want to better personalise the donor experiences, so if there’s a cause that you are very passionate about, they’re able to connect you to that versus sending you very generic communications.”

To do that with the Microsoft Graph information, you can either tell Dynamics what industry you’re in and get relevant insights, or you can pick specific brands and interests that you believe are relevant to a segment of your customers. “You can say for people in this group who live in this zip code, these are the relevant brand affinities and interests and I want to send an offer to that set of people,” said Thomas.

Microsoft doesn’t have extra information about what individual customers want, but it does have aggregate information about people like those customers. Customer Insights can identify what’s trending among people like your customers, because it’s likely to be interesting to that segment of your customers. “You’re still able to get some of that trending knowledge [from Market Insights], but in the context of these things versus generic insights,” Thomas said.

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Customers want to feel a company is treating them as an individual, Thomas added. “When a brand talks to me or deals with me, I want to feel like I’m a segment of one; I don’t want to be part of a broader segment.” And companies want to target offers just to relevant customers.

One company using Customer Insights discovered that sales were going up significantly, but only in one region, Thomas said. “It was a weather incident in the area, a hurricane, that was leading to sales spikes that someone sitting in HQ did not have full visibility into. If you want to offer a discount for that situation, you don’t want to target all of your customers; you want to really target folks who have been impacted and that means being able to deliver these personalised experiences.”

The way Customer Insights uses brand and demographic data for this is much more granular and more tied to customer data than Market Insights. If what you want is a much broader view, Bing industry updates will create a custom daily newsletter based on your industry. There’s less likely to be a quirky story there, but both approaches are likely more useful to businesses than the fascinating nuggets of information from Market Insights.