Businesses need to lean into things that have never been done before: SapientRazorfish

Sheldon Monteiro, SVP and CTO, SapientRazorfish
Sheldon Monteiro, SVP and CTO, SapientRazorfish

Taking the customer experience to a new level is the fundamental goal of digital transformation. Over the past few years, differentiating the customer experience has basically become differentiating business itself by building new products and services leveraging variety of relevant technologies. It demands training of people against the current state of technology that helps marketing and business be different but that’s not the all an enterprise needs to be ahead of market. In an interview with Mohd UjaleySheldon Monteiro, SVP and CTO, SapientRazorfish says that it’s not just sufficient to know all of technologies. According to him, in this world of differentiation, businesses need to lean into things that have never been done before. “You’ve got to have some of your best people really focused not on the things that have been done 100 times before and making them slightly better, but getting into brand new territories where you’re looking at applications of technology that have not been undertaken before.”

What are your views on digital transformation and what role SapientRazorfish is playing in the journey of modern day businesses?  

The role of technology and information technology over the years have changed considerably. If you go back to 20-30 years, information technology was fundamentally about making business more efficient and effective. It was about the internal operations and business efficiency. How do I automate? How do I inform and formulate? However, the last decade was primarily powered by acceleration of mobility with the launch of the iPhone. Since then, mobile technology has moved from back office function to being the primary medium of dialogue with customers. From being the commodity that fuels back office to now being the medium in which brands talk to their customers– there has been a significant shift in the way technology is consumed. Businesses have started looking at technology in a completely different way where it is not just about commoditisation which is what drives efficiency but it is about differentiation. How can I use technology to make my business more relevant to customers? How can I be different from the competition? How can I be ahead of where customer expectations are at, so I can be more relevant to them? That’s the back drop against which we set out to say how we are equipping our people to navigate this shift. This is particularly relevant in India.

Based on my personal experience, I feel the Indian educational system really trains people to be masters of subject matter. But when it comes to ideas and creativity and thinking outside the box, that’s a learning skill. That is something that we’ve got to inculcate in people. So as we sort out to say what is this new breed of technology professionals that we would need to navigate this shift in the role of technology, we said we’d need to actually grow these people. We need to create a new breed of professionals that is capable of speaking to the CMO and the CEO with equal comfort to the conversations they have with the CIO and the technology department. In order to do that we need to do some fundamental analysis of what skills are required. And it’s not just about hard skills. It is about attitude, behaviour and understanding the culture. Because CMOs and CIOs have vastly different cultures and understanding of the business. There is a need to create people that understand what is really driving business today.

Also, there are a lot of innovations happening in the enterprise technology space, leading up to the rise of micro-services, dev-ops, among others. In the experience layer, there is so much that is going on from augmented reality and virtual reality to adoption of machine learning, cognitive communication, artificial intelligence and block chain technology. When you think about differentiating the customer experience, it basically means differentiating business itself by building new products and services leveraging variety of relevant technologies. It demands training of people against the current state of technology that helps marketing and business be different. But it’s not just sufficient to know all of those technologies. In this world of differentiation, businesses need to lean into things that have never been done before. You’ve got to have some of your best people really focused not on the things that have been done 100 times before and making them slightly better, but getting into brand new territories where you’re looking at applications of technology that have not been undertaken before.

In this light, we are creating professionals which actually lean into that differentiated future. Additionally, these technologists have got to be influential as well, so we work towards teaching them storytelling skills and the ability to influence. This combination of business and marketing culture and knowledge; the breadth and the depth in the marketing and business technology space; the attitude and behaviour to lean into things that are new and different and pioneering the future, and communication and influential skills are all put together into an intense year long program that SapientRazorfish is promoting as the CMTO Program. We go through a competitive admission process every year and select 20 of our best 10 brightest technologists from around the globe.  The applicant have to go through a cohort based learning journey where they acquire new repertoire of skills and behavioural changes alongside their daily jobs. What we are doing in India is really a part of the fourth intensive. Part of the way in which we bring the good class together four times a year over weekends and roughly about 4-5 day intensives. And this intensive we actually throw our own conference which is a pretty awesome event where the class talks to roughly about 500 people on the topics that they have been studying in-depth as part of their thesis work. So each of them is required to pick an area of technology that is disrupting business. And explain that in simple and influential terms to the audience and what to do about it and how to use it.

Are the participants mostly people in the leadership role or do you also have young technologist?

We have a good mix of people including our senior technologists whom we work with, along with a plus one or in some cases a plus two scheme where they can invite juniors of their choice. We also get a number of really bright and enthusiastic people who are at an earlier stage in their career attending the session. And then we also invite people who we are either looking to recruit or who are already slated to join and we want them to experience what Sapient Razorfish is all about.

How do you look at emerging technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence etc., and where does SapientRazorfish fits within the purview of these new-age technologies?

We at SapientRazorfish are committed towards helping our clients reimagine their own business in a world in which customers are in control and we do that through a philosophy of customer obsessions. We are obsessed about creating what delights the customers, and creating experiences which are highly differentiated and add a tremendous amount of value in the customers’ lives. Some of these are created through experience technology and that’s where augmented reality and virtual reality fit in. We’ve helped a number of clients in creating AR and VR experiences that fit into all kinds of scenarios from commerce to just experiential. For a real estate developer this is a classic application of virtual reality, where the property is not yet ready but you can create a VR experience for the buyer giving them a complete experience of what it would be like to walk around in that space. We’ve created other experiences and augmented reality where you can walk into a store and you actually overlay reviews and ratings on top of physical goods in that store.

In another example for one of our clients showrooming was a big problem. Showrooming is where customer feels like they are walking in to a physical store, while looking up the price and ordering the product from somewhere else. We managed to achieve the same through a technique called instrumented intelligence. Through our research, we realised that the number one application being used on mobile phones in the store is not showrooming but mothers giving phones to their children to keep them busy while they complete their shopping trip. Leveraging this behaviour, we created an augmented reality experience, in partnership with Universal Studios, where kids could go around the store looking for minions and when they found the minions they just happened to be sponsored by the Chiquita Bananas. This is a perfect example of AR that is connected with a very real business scenario being used to drive commerce. With the ability to take customers down certain paths in the store where they just happen to see other things, it is also prompting growth in sales of all those products. This clearly indicates that brands are and will continue to tap into emerging technologies to add real value to business and to find applications that are truly transformational – this is exactly what we aim to achieve.

Working at the experience layer gives you all sorts of interesting possibilities and a lot of the action is happening behind that. For instance with cognitive computing and data sciences, the amount of innovation that we can drive into business is significant. It is beyond just propensity modelling and predictive analytics to know what customers are buying next. We’ve been able to look at search data and look at behaviour on an automobile manufacturer’s website to then actually predicting where the company should be deploy its inventory. It’s very expensive for an automobile manufacturer to maintain inventory on car lots. But if they can look at search trends and behaviours of existing customers and do some look alike modelling, they have the ability to impact where to stock inventory based on the customers are looking for in different regions of the country. This can add a tremendous amount of value to the bottom line in unexpected areas that are leveraging some fairly straightforward techniques and data sciences.

How has your experience been with Indian enterprises? How excited are they about the emerging technology? Do you see something tangible in Indian market?

We have seen a shift towards customer obsession among Indian enterprises as well. We recently worked with the Taj Hotel Group to reimagine what digital meant to them and how to go from a place where you’ve got a tremendous fragmentation in your digital experience’s to bring them together in a way that really represents the Taj brand and what it stands for, both from the elements of the features of the brand which is about luxury. But also from the perspective of convenience. How quickly can you go through the booking process flow so that you reduce the friction between a customer exploring staying at a Taj property to actually closing that sale and closing the booking? And the results you will be able to get them to him. But they’ve been really impressive in terms of what’s been achieved from a before and after standpoint.

How is your work different from companies like Genesys and Oracle, they bet a lot on customer experiences (CX)?

All the providers you mentioned are technology providers. But today companies are looking for differentiation and SapientRazorfish offers its capabilities in customer obsession. This means understanding that customers go through a journey which isn’t linear. They can bounce in and out of the experiences and have many touch points with the brand along their path to purchase and then in their post purchase relationship as well.

There are multiple techniques to address this. One of them is engagement economics. It models the customer journey in a way that we’re able to quantify what value a particular interaction with a customer gives to both the customer and the brand. Now we want to focus on solutions that are highly valuable to both and by using engagement economics we are able to figure out which pieces of a customer journey to really focus on and then figure out how to innovate that particular engagement touch point. For instance when a customer is shopping for a home mortgage, we need to understand the steps that are involved in that home mortgage purchase journey all the way.

The customer will start with learning about the home. Then they would need finance wherein they would be looking at a range of options all the way from potentially borrowing from their relatives to financial institutions. We need to understand all those different aspects where the customer is looking for information and counsel, and then learning how we can intervene and be relevant in this journey. And then starting to say in the places where there are high moments of influence how can we insert digital touchpoints in there that are going to attract the customer to engage. We have all of the skills from strategy to creative to data science to technology in order to innovate that experience. So for us it’s really about the connected thinking in service of customer obsession.

To improve the customer experience, enterprises need to have responsive and agile back-end and front-end but big firms are still stuck with legacy systems, what suggestions would you give to them?

Let’s consider our work for one of the largest banking institutions. The way we approach the problem is look at the perspective of customer journeys. Looking at different customer journeys end-to-end what does it take to change the entire experience in order to improve those customer journeys in terms of value to the customer and value to the bank? And this goes across from the experience system – the website, the bank branches, etc. all the way into the back-end system. But it’s not just about the systems. It’s also about regulations and compliance. For instance, if you are originating commercial mortgages and there are certain steps that are involved in that commercial mortgage process including things like evaluation of the collateral on which the mortgage is going to be based, certainly the regulators have long-standing rules as to what has to happen in order for that mortgage to be perfect. Some of those rules were generated many decades ago which might not be relevant today. So this is not just about changing the systems but also questioning the business processes and questioning whether some of these regulations can be changed.

Our work looked across front stage and back stage and all of the interventions that would be required and then start to improve that entire value chain, the entire customer journey in doing all of its dependent systems to focus on that journey. It’s a way of segmenting the complexity to be able to identify the parts and pieces that need to be modernised that are relevant for a particular customer journey that add value to the bank and to the customer. After completing that entire set of journeys with agility and experimentation and the culture of customer centricity and dev-ops and all of the other tools and techniques, we replicated this across the entire application portfolio, entire IT department of the bank. We’ve been going through really classifying the systems into various architects or patterns and designing a set of interventions that would move those applications, groups and those systems into new ways of working. Some of those are process changers. Some of those are technology changers in the form of introducing dev-ops tooling and continuous integration and continuous delivery tolls and techniques like that. You get a set of requirements from the business, you go and implement it, you have a QA cycle acceptance and then deliver it. That needs to change where delivery is more agile but more importantly the technologists are actually informing what’s in the requirements. They are not just order takers anymore. We are packaging all those interventions and going stage by stage through the bank systems.

What is the business opportunity for this kind of work in India?

Any organisation that has a tremendous legacy and a way of working that is not customer obsessed is going to need to incorporate these or have the risk of being disrupted by companies and start-ups that have implemented it. In the financial services space India has no shortage of fintechs. Most of the banks and financial institutions today are either worried about their competition acquiring some of these Fintechs or some of these Fintechs acquiring partnerships with other institutions. Similarly, retail has been completely disrupted.

If you’re a legacy you would absolutely need to focus on these. This is as true in India as it is anywhere else in the world. There are a number of different statistics, depending on the kind of analyst be it IDC or others. Essentially every business is looking at not just skin deep innovation in digital but how does digital  go beyond automation to fundamentally changing the business to take advantage of technologies, to improve customer experience and to improve internal operations and service of that customer experience.

What are your plans for India? How do you want to span out your journey in India?

Unfortunately, the Indian market is not yet mature because digital transformation is something which is happening more and more in western India. But there are a lot of organisations that are focusing a lot on customer experience, which is just the aspect of the overall transformation. So those are the areas we are seeing different industries and different clients coming on board because most of them are seeking help in transforming the customer experience.

Some of the works that you do is similar to what companies like Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG among others do in India, so how SapientRazorfish is different from them?

The way I would look at us is that our point of view on transformation is fundamentally driven by a need for customer focus. It’s not just about building a system. It is certainly a part of what you need to do in the end, but when you need to innovate an entire customer experience you need to bring together a really talented group of multi-disciplinary people who are able to figure out what is it that customers want and need. They need to be able to figure out what’s at the intersection of what they need and what can add value to the business; how to create experiences that are engaging and truly immersive; how to build those systems to create those experiences; and then how to continuously optimise them in a way that treats them as a living experience that is going to evolve over time.

Companies like Amazon or Facebook literally push thousands of changes into production, into their live customer experiences every day. Companies that are still issuing RFPs to build one time systems and putting them into bucks and seeds lights on maintenance mode which is  the India model of IT. If you look at how most of the Indian integrators have grown up, it’s around segmenting development work from maintenance work. A very large portion of the portfolio of most of the Indian SIs is about that maintenance work. But the maintenance work has not been focused on innovation. Some have been focused on improving customer experience and it’s just been focused on keeping the lights on.

SapientRazorfish’s philosophy is that IT systems that touches a customer experience are products that need continuous evolution. Our processes, our people, our culture, our systems are designed to help companies do that. We have done some amazing work with clients that have bought into that philosophy and understand that continuous innovation is really the name of the game. That’s the value proposition that we typically get engaged with.

Also, more often than not the consulting firms usually are heavy on counselling and minimal usage of technology and they usually fail to understand the brand or creative. Similarly the SIs are very in-depth in technology but lack consulting creative. On the other hand, most agencies are very brand oriented and don’t have required technology skill sets. The amalgamation of those three coming together has always been our strength and remains to be our point of differentiation.

Some of these firms have creatives and separate agencies, but it is not just about buying an agency and keeping them separate from the technologists. They need to merge their culture and ways of working in a way that those different groups are working as part of integrated teams. This is something that we have been doing for decades now, back since when Sapient made its first creative acquisition by acquiring Studio Archetype in 1996 or 1997.

The founder of Studio Archetype – Clement Mok was one of the original designers of the Apple user interface – Mac. He was one of the foremost thinkers of experience design and he once said – “experience is the brand”, which is what we strongly believe in. The experience that a brand provides to its customers is really the brand which they will remember. For instance, the difference between flying in a Vistara and a low class carrier is the experience they create for their flyers. That’s what creates their brand. Think about this in the context of digital – a seamless digital experience that goes all the way from a fantastic ordering experience all the way to the arrival of the package at the guaranteed time. This is all part of the experience which requires systems to make all of that happen. SapientRazorfish brings together the skills that allow that to happen and integrate. We don’t just solve the systems problem, we solve the end-to-end ideation from what we used to change; how does it need to change; what does it look and feel like; and what are the systems behind it.

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