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Get To Know Manish Bahl, Associate VP & Head Of Centre For The Future Of Work, APAC at Cognizant

Trying to influence humans alone won’t be enough in the future; brands will also need to influence algorithms

Manish, I have always been intrigued with the topic we are going to talk about. Before we get into that, tell our readers about Cognizant and your role there.

Cognizant is one of the world’s leading professional services companies, transforming clients’ business, operating and technology models for the digital era. Our unique industry-based, consultative approach helps many of the best-known organisations in every industry and geography, envision, build and run more innovative and efficient businesses. Put simply, we help clients get digital done at scale and speed — the scale needed to transform their complex organisations to capitalise on the tremendous opportunities the latest technologies make possible, and the speed expected by their customers, partners and owners.

In my role as Assistant Vice President, I lead the company’s Centre for the Future of Work in Asia-Pacific. Within Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work, I help ensure that the unit’s original research and analysis jibes with emerging business-technology trends and dynamics in Asia-Pacific, and collaborates with a wide range of leading thinkers to understand how the future of work will take shape.

I came across this term; business-to-human-and-machine (B2HM) in one of Cognizant’s articles.  For those of us still not familiar with this term, can you tell us what exactly that is?

Most brands have already identified the traits of today’s consumers ― they are tech-savvy, always-connected, sceptical and demanding. However, the machine intelligence behind non-human intermediaries ― mobile apps, wearables, smart speakers and other AI-powered systems ― is expanding these consumers’ intelligence quotient by giving them more ways to access information and explore more choices, making them more powerful than ever. This new human-algorithm alliance has turned the business-to-consumer dynamic on its head, challenging brands to connect more intelligently and hyper-personally with customers.

Trying to influence humans alone won’t be enough in the future; brands will also need to influence algorithms. Every industry and business will need to become ‘B2HM’ ― Business to Human and Machine ― and the most successful brands will be the ones that earn a trusted reputation with both customers and their AI assistants.

What does it take for companies to become B2HM and why does it matter, Manish?

Companies will need to go the extra mile in overhauling their digital infrastructure for voice, go-to-consumer strategies, content management and customer experience goals. In short, they will have to adopt a three-pronged “Reimagine, Rebuild, and Rethink” approach: Reimagine their brand; rebuild digital reputation to reach augmented customers; and rethink their relevance to form deeper relationships with consumers and resonate with their behaviour. By focusing on the human-machine dynamic of this new era, brands will be able to understand and anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s customers, to swiftly deliver value that they hadn’t yet realised they needed.

With the emergence of Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa, winning customers is said to be even more challenging.  Why is this so?

The human-machine alliance will have a profound impact on how traditional business models will evolve, presenting both opportunities and risks to companies. Every time these interfaces fulfil our needs efficiently and effectively, they take a further step in strengthening their relationship with us. 

Not only do these intelligent systems fulfil consumers’ desire for information, according to our study, they also imbue them with feelings of freedom, efficiency and creativity. In fact, 41% of consumers in Southeast Asia said they would trust the brand recommendations of their voice-based personal assistants. Moreover, a large majority said that they would allow these AI assistants to automatically make certain purchases on their behalf, particularly in tickets (73%), travel bookings (65%) and medical, maintenance, car servicing, and other appointments (54%). These changing consumer dynamics are forcing a rethink on how businesses ensure brand stature. Voice interfaces are emerging as the new power of augmented customers.

Cognizant has released Customer of The Future Report based on 6,500 global consumers to explore new expectations and perception in this age of algorithms and how business can rise above. This research uncovered detailed insight into the future AI-augmented customer, revealing trends in Southeast Asia.  I was pretty amazed with the numbers, Manish.  Tell our readers about the insight.

When developing the research, we wanted to explore the new expectations and perceptions of consumers in the age of algorithms ― especially the changes brought about by new dynamics, such as voice-based autonomous buying. The findings were indeed fascinating. For instance, we found out that consumers in Southeast Asia are shifting their trust from brands to intelligent machines. The majority of SEA respondents would trust recommendations obtained from search engines (77%), e-commerce sites (70%), mobile apps (67%) and voice-based personal assistants (48%) more than they would trust the information provided directly by traditional company websites (44%). 

Interestingly, consumers in Southeast Asia are relatively less demanding of hyper-personalised experiences and appreciate brand offerings that help them save time and money. In Singapore for example, 60% of respondents (compared to the SEA average of 65% and global average of 68%) said a customised experience is vital, but more than half (55%, compared to the global average of 50%) were satisfied with the level of personalisation provided by traditional businesses such as banks, insurance companies, telecom operators, etc. In Malaysia, nearly 54% of respondents reported feeling a “bond” with those brands that help them save time and money and make their life incrementally easier, more enjoyable and more productive.

We also found that companies are paying a huge penalty for falling short in payment experiences, especially in SEA. Nearly one-third of respondents globally said that in the last 12 months, they had cancelled a purchase simply because of poor payment experience. Interestingly, for consumers in SEA more than elsewhere around the world, this is an even higher priority.

Based on our research, we believe traditional companies will need to overhaul their digital infrastructure for voice, restructure their go-to-consumer strategies, redefine the customer experience, and recreate content to win customers in the future. In a nutshell, great products and services alone won’t cut it ― companies will have to go the extra mile.

Been wanting to ask you this, Manish; attracting customers in a world of AI, bots and automation; how will this be, going forward? 

Based on the findings of our study, we were able to map consumers’ preferences to online attributes that matter most to them. We grouped these findings and our recommendations into a framework that delineates the three elements businesses need to emphasise to win the customer of the future ― brand reputation, relevance and resonance ― and the actions they can take to do so.

When we talk about brands and branding in the future, what do consumers expect and how is this different compared to the past?

As mentioned, we recommend that organisations focus on the 3Rs ― reputation, relevance and resonance ― of serving augmented customers: 

  • To build brand reputation, companies need to make it easier for customers to see their brand value. Optimising digital infrastructure for mobile and voice and proactively managing a brand reputation online, will help bolster positive perceptions. Another area is to make payment an experience, not just a transaction. Interestingly, the payment issue seems much bigger in Asia Pacific, as 32% of the surveyed consumers in the region cited cancelling a purchase due to poor payment experience. Many digital payment start-ups are aiming to elevate consumer expectations just like the FAANG vendors (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google). Organisations should invest in AI capabilities that make payment processing faster, while being more intelligent and better equipped to tailor services and reduce fraud.
  • AI-augmented consumers highly value brands that know them well, anticipate their future needs and deliver the relevant product at the right place at the right time. As I said earlier, most respondents in our study reported feeling a bond with brands that help them save time and money, and make their life incrementally easier, more enjoyable and more productive. This is where traditional businesses miss the mark. The greater the depth of personalisation, the higher the probability of influencing machines and the customers who trust them. In a fast-moving, interconnected world, brands that flow with customers’ lives are valued the most. 
  • Companies need to engage with consumers through content that resonates with them. The content conveys a brand, but businesses are often several steps disconnected from their audience. More than half of the respondents in our study rated businesses’ online content as lacklustre and promotional. Asia Pacific consumers were most dissatisfied (58%) with content quality, as were millennials (58%) and Gen X consumers (57%). The old trick of crafting average-quality content, then building tons of run-of-the-mill backlinks to make this content improve its ranking by search engines, is dead. 

AI-augmented consumers are already overloaded with information online. If companies keep bombarding them with unwanted messages (company updates, for instance), and blatantly ask for likes, comments and shares, a brand may be deranked by social media platforms, review sites and e-commerce marketplaces as a result of actions taken by consumers. Based on consumer preferences collected from our study, we recommend businesses craft their content around four principles: relevance, engagement, accuracy and design (READ).

Let’s talk about implications, Manish; the implications of the customer of the future on marketing and IT departments.

We are on the cusp of a new era. Changes in how we understand and anticipate future customers over the next decade are coming on an unprecedented scale. Intelligent machines are playing an increasingly important role by augmenting humans with the information they need, influencing their decisions, and ultimately helping them become better humans. Brands simply can’t continue to sit on the side-lines. Traditional companies can’t become Amazon or Google, but they can be on Amazon, with a Google ranking, to serve customers. They know what your customer is looking for today, but what if you could predict what the customer is looking for tomorrow, and deliver value that they haven’t yet realised they needed?

The human-machine alliance will have a profound impact on how traditional marketing models will evolve, presenting both opportunities and risks to companies. Brands that adopt the 3Rs and reimagine their brand, rebuild the reputation, and rethink their relevance to form deeper relationships with consumers and resonate with consumer behaviour, are most likely to emerge as category leaders tomorrow. More than ever, there is an increasing need for marketing and IT departments to come together to win the customer of the future. By blending new-age marketing approaches with revamped digital infrastructure, businesses will be best positioned to succeed in the markets of the future.

For those who wish to know more, where can they go to?

I definitely recommend readers to check out our Customer of The Future Report to learn more about the AI-Augmented customer and find out how brands can connect more intelligently and humanely with them. Also, I encourage readers to watch our latest video to develop a better understanding of customers of the future. The report was developed by Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work, which is a dedicated unit tasked to examine how work is changing, and will change, in response to the emergence of new technologies, new business practices and new workers. The Centre comes up with insightful reports and I’m proud to share that we collaborate with a wide range of business, technology and academic thinkers. If your readers are keen to learn more about what the future of work will look like as technology changes so many aspects of our working lives, I encourage them to visit our website or LinkedIn profile and participate in thought-provoking discussions.

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Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen is the Marketing In Asia's Editor for Singapore. She is also a certified Image Branding & Lifestyle Consultant. Born in Singapore and blessed to have lived in a couple of other amazing cities in the world, Anjalika is currently expatriating in Kuala Lumpur. Follow her on LinkedIn and Instagram. You may also reach her by email at anjalika@marketinginasia.com.

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