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Human-centred tech: Qualtrics' head of customer, brand and research

As a companion piece to our MYC'D UP with CX Leaders podcast, we're launching MYC'D UP with Tech Leaders. In the first interview in the new series, we speak to Qualtrics' head of customer, brand and research about how technology is increasingly enabling brands to improve the human touch in customer support. 

17th Jan 2023

In the inaugural episode of MYC'D Up with Tech Leaders, we speak with Yusdi Santoso, head of customer, brand and research at Qualtrics.

As well as his current role at Qualtrics, Yusdi has also spent time with Medallia – making him something of a CX tech expert. Add to this his years of experience as a CX consultant helping companies build and deliever strategies, and Yusdi has a fascinating perspective on the customer experience industry.

Throughout the discussion, Yusdi opines on the results of a recent Qualtrics survey that revealed customers were craving human connection with their customer service interactions, as well as discussing where brands go wrong with their tech deployment, and championing the need to invest in and support frontline staff more heavily.

I don't believe we as a business community invested enough or well enough into our frontline staff - they are often the face of our business and the ones best placed to treat customers as human.

MYC'D UP with tech leaders


MYCUSTOMER: Qualtrics recently released its consumer trends report for 2023, based on a survey of more than 33,000 consumers across 29 countries, the big takeaway and the theme that emerges from the research is that customers are increasingly seeking a human connection in their interactions with brands. Obviously, we've seen a big shift to digital and self-service brought on more so by the pandemic, but what do you think is causing customers to start craving that human touch again?

YUSDI SANTOSO: Well, first of all, thank you for the invite. It's a pleasure to be part of the podcast. As you mentioned, we did the the consumer study, and it's a mammoth study across many, many countries. I think there's nine countries in EMEA that represents them. So I think before we talk about the bigger themes, I think it's probably useful to understand kind of the underlying findings, right?

One of the findings is we will look at the people that were interviewed and surveyed, and we listed kind of nine different goals. These are very common representative goals that you as a consumer would go through in the business, right, including things which are fairly transactional, like getting an order status to something more complex if you're disputing a bill, for example. Now, for each of these goals, we asked the consumer whether they prefer to use self-service, or interacting with human representation. And the results are immaterial, surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, there are areas when I think two out of the nine goals were consumers prefer digital and self-service. But for the majority of the activities, actually the consumer still prefers having the human interaction. And this data is consistent across India and globally.

Now, going back to your question, it's not that the consumer suddenly become sort of more needy. I think we as a business community might have sort of, in the last couple of years, as we've digitised and pushed a lot into self-service, we've probably overestimated the people's desire for digital and self-service. And in some way, underestimated the level of desire for human interactions, especially looking for the more complex and highly emotional moment of truth, right? So it's not really either or, I think the inherent desire of being human is always there. I think it's just us as a business, probably needing to find the right balance. And this is kind of what you're shooting from; the data is keeping sort of on the same topic.

MYCUSTOMER: You know, there's been huge investment in digital since the pandemic, McKinsey reported that the COVID-19 crisis accelerated the digitisation of customer and supply chain interactions by some three to four years
– suggesting that there was perhaps over investment to some degree? I know that you just touched on this a little bit, but could you go into a little more detail on the idea that there was potentially some overcompensation?

YUSDI SANTOSO: Yeah, I think I think you need to kind of split the question in a slightly different way. So if you're looking from an investment level perspective, I believe there's still a lot of investment to be had. Yes, absolutely, the McKinsey Report says there has been tremendous progress and investment. But you'll be aghast when you deal with a lot of businesses, you'll be surprised with how many businesses still run on the back of spreadsheet, right? You know, that's amazing, in the kind of time we live today.

But it's more of yes, on one hand, you still need to invest more on digitisation and technology and kind of bringing a lot of companies to the right level. But it's more about thinking through where you should use the technology. I think a lot of businesses unfortunately fall into the trap of where if you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

Now, let me share an example here; we work with a fashion retailer, a global company based in Europe. And this was two years ago, at the beginning of COVID, where they saw a lot of increase in call volume, right? And with any businesses at that time, they're looking for ways to manage this. And digital again, comes to the forefront. So we say, okay, let's put in a virtual assistant. So, this is going to be essentially a chatbot to help answer queries. Now, when they put it in, again, kind of trying to illustrate the examples, the initial results are good, so they were able to cover a significant chunk of the call volume. So it sounds like a win, win. But then they dig deeper on the data, and the result becomes a little bit more mixed, because they identify there is a significant gap in satisfactions for people who were served by the human compared to people who were served by the virtual assistant.

Then additionally, more critically, they saw a drop of about 40% in reduction rate. So people who are served by the chatbot, essentially, they say, 'they're not really reserving my inquiry or complaint', and they end up either calling back again, or going to the actual store. So it's kind of creating a false economy, because the customer may have to go back and resolve it, and there's another case for you. But this ultimately leads to the customer being unhappy. And we know that when the customer is not satisfied, not happy, ultimately this leads to churn, right?

So how do they manage this trade off? It gets interesting when you start understanding what the customer really wants. So they have the data around the customer segment and what the customer prefers. And they ask the customer, what channels are you preferring, and whether they are happy to be served by virtual assistant or not. And there's nothing surprising, 70% of people will say, 'well, we're not so keen on that', but 30% actually don't really mind. And then when they start dealing with tailoring the service based on the preference. So the people who don't mind working with virtual assistants,  they were able to get some savings, and the satisfaction is maintained. But people who are not happy to be engaged with virtual assistants unless the interaction is very basic, very simple – if we go back to our study, there are some interactions where consumer actually don't mind dealing with digital self-service – but prefer being directed to human channels. So kind of slightly long story. But the moral of the story here is that it's not a matter of either or, right, it's being judicious about how you engage your customer, but also putting them in the centre, like treat them as a human being and understand how they like to be served.

MYCUSTOMER: Obviously, you gave an example there, but are there any other areas where you think that perhaps people are investing in the wrong types of technology?

YUSDI SANTOSO: I wouldn't say people invested in the wrong area of technology. But as I say, it's probably overstretching the use of technology. My analogy around when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? So the challenge is that all sorts of technologies can be helpful, but it's understanding what segment at what time of the lifecycle of the journey you should use that technology.

MYCUSTOMER: So onto the next question. Within the report findings, it was suggested that talking to empathetic service agents actually matters more to customers than having a shorter wait time, and the supports findings from MyCustomer research that we did in 2020, where we found that customers who did not have the query resolved but had a positive interaction with an agent who understood and acknowledged their emotions really well, were actually more likely to be satisfied with their interaction, than those who had their query resolved but had an experience where they felt their emotions were not understood or acknowledged. Why do you think empathy is so important to so many customers right now? Or has that always been the case?

YUSDI SANTOSO: I think this is actually personally for me the most interesting and insightful piece of data. And just to restate it, we found that when consumers value speaking to a helpful empathetic agent, they saw two times increase in satisfaction, versus if you get your call resolved in a short wait time, right. And this is one personally that kind of challenged my own bias, because I was always of the school of thought that consumers just wanted customer serbice to get on with it and be fast and efficient. But it's not always the case. And it's a trend that is consistent across the globe, not just UK and US.

I think the desire to be human has always been there. And that's kind of part of our makeup as human beings. And that's how we act. I believe that the change is more to do with shifting, competitive differentiation. Now, I think there were times where I think the competitive differentiation is how efficiently can you go through certain services. So people who will digitise, often see it as fast, no frills, and that's the one that becomes the winner. Now, everybody's geopoint early on invested in digital assets of some sort. So some industries are almost fully digitised, right? Now, everybody invested in this facet of digital services, so you're looking for differentiation. And as a consumer, where you start to differentiate this is when you're having this empathetic and personalised touch.

Now, I'm not saying it's just a matter of reverting back and undoing the digitisation, and putting lots and lots of people back in. It's more about how can you humanise experience, whether that's online or offline? How can you digitise experience and also deliver a personalised experience? So, you as a consumer or customer do not want to be treated like a robot, you want to be treated like a human being, that means, even in your digital channel. So how can you build in that process to help understand you as a person, to empathise with you and also adjust how you engage based on the signal you give as a consumer.

MYCUSTOMER: So you currently work at Qualtrics. But you've also worked at Medallia before – two of the tech giants in the CX space. Your report findings are seeing that customers want more human experiences, as we've talked about, what does that mean, for the tech vendors? You know, there are plenty of providers that would argue their solutions help companies to provide more empathy or more human interactions, but what would you say to people who believe this is just a case of encouraging businesses to spend more on the technology?

YUSDI SANTOSO: I don't think it's that simple – you know, just switch on more technology. As I mentioned earlier, one of the key findings on the research is about companies needing to get closer to the consumer, to differentiate, to really, really go deep in understanding the consumer and then innovate based on that. So what does it mean? As a business, this means putting a consumer at the centre of how you're doing business. And the technology supports that.

For example, in the area of understanding your customer, you have customer insight; and the standard approach for many, many years has been to ask your customers – whether that's research, surveys, focus groups, etc, etc. Now, if you pconsider how you'd like to be treated as human, there is this old saying: you have two ears and one mouth, so we need to listen twice as much as we speak. So as a human, we instinctively know that we need to start listening before we start opening our mouths and asking questions. But as a business, when we look at the area of customer insight, we are often very tone deaf. We're asking customers things that we want to hear as a business. But in reality, a lot of our consumers already spoke to us and we just chose not to listen, right?

Whether that be via social media or social reviews, but they also submit complaints to us, they send emails to us, they have chats with us, they have calls with us – so there's a lot of elements of listening that we should do. First of all, before we start asking, so it's listening before you ask. That doesn't mean reducing your use of technology, because listening at scale is actually going to get to the heart of the problem, right. And you need technology to make it efficient and scalable, but use it in a way that you put your consumer customers as well as employee by the way, at the centre, and treat them as human beings.

MYCUSTOMER: So we touched on your time at Qualtrics and Medallia, but you've also held various consulting and advisory strategy roles within the CX sector. And working with brands on their CX transformations I think gives you a really great perspective on this next question. When we surveyed the MyCustomer audience a year ago, and we asked them about what challenges they face, technology was voted one of the biggest obstacles to the success of their customer experience programmes, with around a third reporting it to be a problem area. Why do you think technology is considered an obstacle for so many CX leaders? And what do you think can be done about that?

YUSDI SANTOSO: That's a very good question. And this is a recurring theme again, and again, right. I think there's a couple of parts to it. So part one is the history of CX. It was originally an offshoot of market research, right? That means a lot of people who are now CX leaders, they have excellent, very deep research backgrounds, and many of those might not be so comfortable with technology. And this is part of the answer, you need to start partnering with people in the company that you can rely on. And it's becoming a lot more common. We're seeing the rise of CIOs, for example, as an enabler within the organisation for customer experience, employee experience, and experience management more generally. So we're seeing a lot more that this partnership needs to happen. It's not enough for the CX leader to try to run their CX programme, they really need to look at their CIO counterpart. But if you do it right, it can absolutely be an enabler to make cultural changes.

You mentioned, my background earlier in the consulting world. Early in my career consulting many, many years ago, I tried to set up a CX programme in a telecom company, by what now looked like a sheer human effort, right? Basically, this was in the days where technology was not very common in CX. We basically have a bunch of consultants, a lot of spreadsheets, PowerPoints, you know, steer co meetings, etc, etc. And the realisation is as soon as the consultants left the business, the programme just fell apart, right? Because it's not embedded into the fabric of the company. And we know that technology can change human habits. One of the biggest changing facilitators of human habit is actually your mobile phone because it's in your pocket in all the time. It's the role of technology in changing human habit and behaviour – it cannot be underestimated.

Now, the other challenge from the technology perspective is there's this plethora of choices. There's all sorts of vendors with overlapping and competitive technology and different claims. And everybody say, 'yes, yes, absolutely, we are the best thing since sliced bread'. This of course is challenging in several ways, right? I think number one, is often things are not connected, there's a lot of silos. Now, if we go back to our team again, and we're putting the customer consumer as human, the customer expects for businesses to know and understand them. If you're dealing with humans, you have the context of, 'okay, when's the last time I spoke to them?' You can see how often you've engaged with a customer, and then tailor the engagement based on that. Now, it's hard to do when you don't even have connected data, you don't know for example, whether this customer has gone to the website and then gone to your shop. And even what specifically he or she was searching for. So if we can undersdtand this and understand their preference, next time when we pick up the conversation, we should bring that context in line, right?

So we don't have a lot of this in place. Because we don't have architectural understanding of how to connect the data. And some of these are coloured by, again, back to what i said earlier, that because CX leaders often come in from a research background, they don't have a good understanding of architecture. So very rarely when I speak to a CX leader, will they come come to me and say, 'well, okay, what's the architecture look like? What's the data architecture look like? How does this plug in into my overall enterprise architecture?' So yes, that's kind of not their role. But absolutely, that's a question you need to ask from a business perspective to make it stick.

Now, the second one from from a technology perspective, there is a lot of thought that a solution is good for one thing, so there's a lack of flexibility. So it's a tool that dictates how the process needs to be done, rather than getting a tool that follows how you work. We also see twhat sits adjacent to flexibility, is agility. And this is something that we see more and more often, especially since COVID and all the economic problems, there's a lot of trouble in the market. And this means that customers and consumers are changing every day –what they value, what they need, what they're looking for. And therefore we the business, and we as CX leaders within the business, need to adapt our programme to be flexible with that.

And the last one, the perennial challenge, from a technology perspective, it's, you know, things are not actionable, right? So there's a lot of pretty dashboards, but how do you take that into an action? And if you're not embedded into the fabric of the company, if you're not embedded into how things are operating the processes, it's very hard to create actions, and it's really hard to justify the ROI of the programme. So I could see between these two sides, there is a kind of lack of knowledge and awareness around technology for a lot of CX leaders, which could be a bit scary. But also, on the other hand, kind of from a vendor perspective, we're probably looking too much at a point solution instead of looking at a more holistic architecture.

MYCUSTOMER: So you mentioned a lot of CX leaders coming from that research background, is that something you think may change going forward? I know perhaps it's a little reductive to suggest, but new way younger CX professionals coming in and having grown up with more advanced technology, do you think that it's something that if we were to do the survey in five years time that people would be generally more comfortable with the technology?

YUSDI SANTOSO: I think that's absolutely just how businesses run today, right? And again, we'll look at it in finance and HR, again, the younger people who grew up with technology, they're gonna carry that with them. They will instinctively look at technology instead of something alien, it's part of how do I enable my business? So yes, absolutely. I agree with that.

MYCUSTOMER: Just on to a final question. And this is a question that we'll be asking all of our guests on the MYC'D UP with Tech Leaders podcast. So, if there was one particular tool or solution or product type that you think businesses should be invested in, that isn't provided by your current organisation, what would it be and why?

YUSDI SANTOSO: Okay, that's a really good question. And I think, you know, again, going back to the theme around creating a human experience, the frontline it's very critical here by bringing the frontline through the journey. Because if your call centre agents or your distribution centre age, it's a hard job, it's very demanding. And I don't believe we as a business community invested enough or well enough into our frontline staff, they are often the face of our business and the ones best placed to treat customers as human. I think there's a lot of scope from an investment perspective, technology perspective, there's a lot of scope to create an investment platform that engages with the frontline, and makes it more fun, creates a sense of community. We need to prepare them from coaching, training, and then also rewarding our frontline staff in a better way, and there are are some interesting companies doing things on that front. I'm kind of eagerly looking from this side and seeing how they're progressing.

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