June 11, 2024

Small Bets to Big Results: Michael Cingari's Vision for AI-Fueled Impact at Verizon Business

Jessica Denny
Small Bets to Big Results: Michael Cingari's Vision for AI-Fueled Impact at Verizon Business

Born and raised in New Jersey, Michael Cingari’s roots in the Garden State run deep—including his 27-year career at Verizon, located in the nearby town of Basking Ridge. 

Staying close to home has been a major priority for this self-proclaimed family man who finds immeasurable joy in cooking Sunday Italian dinners for his wife and two daughters, from grilling juicy steaks and sausages to whipping up extraordinary pasta dishes. As a bona fide Italian who clearly stays true to his roots, Michael looks for any excuse to be in the kitchen, regardless of the day, and loves spending time with his family around the dinner table. This explains why he considers the picture of his family adorning his desk the most cherished piece of office decor.

Typically equipped with an extra large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (heavy on the cream) in hand, Verizon’s SVP of Customer Experience, Marketing Operations, and Strategy admits seeing the telecom giant undergo major transformations over the course of his tenure. But it's Verizon's latest embrace of artificial intelligence (AI) that stands out as the most significant shift.

"Verizon is a tech company at its core," Michael underscored. "We've used AI in the network to manage our traffic for years. We know the power of it. We know with the scale of it. But we also know what it can drive from an efficiency perspective."

Throughout his time at Verizon, Michael has faced new challenges every two to three years—each new opportunity getting him one step closer to being at the forefront of Verizon's AI evolution. In his last role, what he calls the “longest role he’s ever had at Verizon,” he built the company's Marketing Science organization from the ground up, growing it from a small team of 18 to over 170 employees over five years. 

The team’s rapid growth is a testament of Michael’s determination to fuel Verizon’s digital, data, and AI transformation, even at a time when the company’s approach to new technologies was still rather risk-averse. When building something new, it’s all about “picking the use cases that can deliver quick wins, as that’s the key to building a foundation for the longer term play.” 

A civil engineer-turned-finance guy by trade, Michael has never been afraid of embracing data and numbers. However, he knew his professional journey involved a lot more than pure number-crunching. “I’m a bit of an extrovert,” said Michael. “I knew there had to be a way to apply my math and science skills at scale without being stuck in a cubicle. I wanted to have some sort of human interaction. Marketing science turned out to be the perfect fit.”

Legacy companies leading the AI charge

While large, established companies have historically been slow to adopt cutting-edge technologies, Michael sees them now as spearheading the most tech-forwards and AI-centric strategies today. For Verizon, he believes this shift is driven by a few key factors. "Our sheer size, scale, and scope of transactions—on the Verizon Business side, we do over seven million calls a year and have millions of visits to our website," he noted. "We need to make sure we use AI and data to automate those transactions and customer issues at scale. We can't do it the way we did in the past. Large companies need to get smarter and faster. Leveraging new technologies, data, and AI is the only way forward.”

Verizon's highly integrated tech stack has been a critical enabler of its AI success. But it wasn’t always that way. To drive efficiencies, Michael’s team had to not only organize the company's data in a centralized lake but also ingest and clean up information from eight disparate databases covering both landline and wireless customer information. This was the only way to rationalize the company’s end-to-end marketing, sales, and digital tech ecosystem and build a cohesive roadmap for future innovation. No easy task for a legacy company, but as Michael put it, “an essential step to ensure we weren’t simply doing point solutions.”

Breaking down the silos between marketing, sales, and digital in this way helped unlock the full potential of Verizon's data. "The relationship between our business units, sales, and marketing teams became even more critical," he explained. "We had to get close to the customer to understand how we start looking at all this data and delivering insights to the front line."

"The relationship between our business units, sales, and marketing teams became even more critical. We had to get close to the customer to understand how we start looking at all this data and delivering insights to the front line."

Those insights now flow seamlessly across Verizon's tech ecosystem, informing everything from a sales rep’s follow-up tactics to the personalized offers and digital journeys created for actual customers by the marketing team. Aligning tech stacks has been a game changer—not only in terms of the customer experience but also in driving business-wide efficiencies. “If your revenue is under pressure,” continued Michael, “you've got to drive those costs out to make sure you've got the right cash flow to the bottom line.”

Collecting data is just the start

Verizon's troves of proprietary customer data, collected over decades, give the company a major advantage when it comes to AI optimization. But he cautions that data collection alone isn't enough to drive AI-fueled digital transformation.

"It's one thing to make sure you have the right governance and frameworks in place around your data retention, security, and controls," he emphasized. "But how you use that data is another responsibility that we take very seriously here.” For Verizon, it’s essential that their use of AI improves the customer experience via proactive and predictive—not creepy—solutions.

Striking that balance requires both sophisticated AI capabilities and a customer-centric mindset. Michael offered just one of many examples: "If a customer is really frustrated because they've had a couple of service tickets in the last 30 days, we want to use that data intelligently to make sure we get them to a skilled rep who can take care of their issue once and for all.” 

Tying investment directly to value creation

Once Verizon’s tech stack got a serious clean-up—which led to significant cost savings—it was time to look towards the future and begin building a series of business cases for investing in AI and data platforms to extract greater value out of the company’s vast data sources. Michael’s approach for getting executive buy-in was nothing short of bold. "I said, listen, I'm not going to ask for a penny more in the first year—let us show you the benefit first." He decided to prove that making small bets in smart data optimization can drive a huge impact.

One initial recommendation involved using AI models to improve customer retention. The company wanted to understand why customers were leaving and saw AI as a way to earn their trust back. By leveraging the right insights, offers, and tools in real-time, "we were better able to get relevant, personalized offers in front of customers—which not only kept them from abandoning transactions but also got them to buy more.”

Another tactic was using propensity models to target existing customers with the right upsell offers via the right channels. The results speak for themselves. Under Michael’s leadership, Verizon’s “add a line” upsell program grew from 20,000 to over 1.7 million annually. "This is transformation at its best," he said. "We're being more relevant. We’re being more targeted. We’re being deliberate about making it easier and more frictionless for customers to transact.”

The AI-powered future is now

For companies still on the fence about going all-in on AI, Michael offers a stark warning: "You will be left behind if you don't embrace AI."

Having the right data governance and tech stack in place is table stakes. From there, it's about weaving AI into the fabric of the business in a way that balances innovation with pragmatism.

It’s a matter of being deliberate about which tech, data, and other solutions a company uses—just as much as how they put them into use—as that kind of mindfulness enables organizations to take a more theoretical or strategic approach to deploying AI at scale. Michael added, "AI and generative AI will allow you to create a multiplier effect that drives exponentially more actions and results. It’s all about scalability and big impact.”

And while many people fear that AI will make peoples’ jobs irrelevant, Michael disagrees. “AI can automate low-level tactical work, empowering employees at all levels to be more strategic so they can battle test theoretical assumptions in real time.”

This is why it’s important to tie AI initiatives to clear business outcomes. "Pick the use cases where you can really deliver and secure some quick wins, all while building the foundation for the longer-term play," he advised. "You're going to lose if you don't show the benefit." The companies best positioned to thrive in an AI-driven world are those that stay ahead of the curve. "Just because we've done something one way doesn't mean we should keep doing it that way forever," he added. "You've got no choice but to keep innovating and changing."

"You will be left behind if you don't embrace AI."

AI transformation requires persistence

There’s a direct link between Michael’s AI innovation journey and the guidance he’s received over the years about the importance of being coachable, taking feedback without getting defensive, and staying true to yourself. Michael admitted, "You're going to have good days, you're going to have bad days. Whatever the case may be, you need to remain resilient." 

He constantly sees this level of resiliency and determination in the innovative work his team does for customers each and every day. "What energizes me is talking with the team about what we're working on and what the results are," Cingari shared. By staying focused on the people behind the AI revolution—both the companies driving it and the customers benefiting from it—he is confident that Verizon will remain at the forefront of the AI frontier. All it takes is measuring incremental success, one small bet at a time.

“Large companies need to get smarter and faster. Leveraging new technologies, data, and AI is the only way forward.”

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