Brian Sampsel of Covail: “Embed transformation in your culture”

Embed transformation in your culture. Many employees are exhausted from all the initiatives. This should just be the next step in improving your processes in order to serve your customers better. “Experiment” is one of our company’s core values. We have that so that everyone knows we should keep innovating and looking for better ways […]

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Embed transformation in your culture. Many employees are exhausted from all the initiatives. This should just be the next step in improving your processes in order to serve your customers better. “Experiment” is one of our company’s core values. We have that so that everyone knows we should keep innovating and looking for better ways to accomplish our mission. And we know that some of the ideas won’t work out.


As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Sampsel.

Brian is an AI and analytics strategy consultant who partners with clients to demonstrate how technologies like artificial intelligence, analytics and automation can help optimize their business processes. He possesses a wide breadth of experience across a variety of organizations, having worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers, dunnhumby / 84.51°, Express and Covail in addition to consulting with many organizations such as The Home Depot and Nationwide Insurance.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Most of my time at university was spent in the math department, but I also had interests in business and leadership. It felt like the principles I was learning in my math and statistics classes could be applied in the business world, but it wasn’t exactly clear how. So, I took a lot of courses in statistics and applied math, but also had courses in accounting, a programming class and organizational leadership. This was all long before analytics was a career track or a course of study. In essence, I put together my own analytics major. This led to a masters in statistics followed by my start at PricewaterhouseCoopers. This provided the first taste of using statistics in the real world as I assisted auditors by sampling transactions, so they didn’t have to manually review every single one of them.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

The PricewaterhouseCoopers’ office was in the heart of Washington, DC. A partner or director would come by once a week and take several of us out to a nice lunch. These were much nicer restaurants than a recent graduate student was used to visiting and ordering a la carte was not something done frequently. I was nervous, ordered a steak, and as you can probably guess, that is what I got. There were no sides or a salad or anything along with it. Lunch was a single piece of beef on a plate. I was quite embarrassed. Looking back, I should have played it off as some kind of obscure diet.

On a more relevant note, I learned the value of an iterative approach early in my career. A request for analytics work would come and I would go off for a few weeks and work on it before coming back with a big reveal. There would be feedback like “that’s interesting but I really need this other thing.” Since this work is often creating something new, many have a hard time defining what would be valuable. The learning is to mitigate this risk by taking an iterative approach where the client sees and reacts to stages along on the way. This allows for real-time adjustments.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve worked with so many great people over the years. I’ve always loved working with highly talented people and being a part of high-performing teams.

Eric is someone I worked with early in my career. We would partner on work with him as the client owner and myself and my team doing delivery. I learned a lot about managing the client relationship, understanding how to put myself in the client’s shoes and how to have fun while still delivering really great work.

Doug is an executive coach that has been a major influence over the past few years. A friend had worked with Doug during a career transition and had a great experience. At the time, I could feel myself hitting a plateau and knew I needed guidance to break through. Doug has really helped me look at problems differently and take my leadership to the next level.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have always enjoyed work and believe there is value in it, so I read a fair amount about how we can improve work. Two books I’ve read recently come to mind.

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work is a great read in this area. It makes the case that highly valuable work is not just a function of effort, but also of our ability to intensely focus on a problem. I blocked out times on my calendar where my ability to focus is the highest. I can’t always avoid meetings during those times, but it helps. I run into people all the time that go from one meeting to the next and that just does not seem the best way to accomplish significant pieces of work.

Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall was another great read. There is so much wisdom in this book about how to lead teams in today’s environment, but it also flies in the face of common practices. One of the myths he tackles in this book is that people should be well-rounded. In fact, many successful people have found a few signature strengths and continually to hone them over time, which is building upon the Strengths Finder movement that has been around for some time. The whole book is wonderful though.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

The company was founded on the idea that many of the big challenges that organizations face are best tackled through collaboration. It was a unique situation with several large corporations coming together as partners.

Ensuring that an organization’s operations are intelligent and trusted is a difficult task done in a vacuum. Whether bringing together people across the various silos in an organization or bringing together individuals from different industries, these big challenges are best accomplished together.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

The team is doing some great work in the cybersecurity space by helping organizations detect very specific attack types. These are attacks we know are used frequently with a high degree of success.

The time between a successful attack and detection of that attack is often too long. This time is often measured in weeks or longer. By trying to detect very specific attacks, we are able to shrink the time to detection to minutes. With an earlier detection, action to mitigate can be taken quicker, minimizing the damage.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

Digital Transformation is the modernization of an organization’s core processes through the use of technology. This is valuable for driving efficiency, enabling new business models, or embedding intelligence into processes.

Considering people, process, and technology is still as true today as it has ever been. Digital Transformation starts with understanding the core business processes, then mapping how technology can improve those processes. We cannot forget that people manage the processes, and digital transformation should be in their service.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

There are pockets within all organizations that are ripe for Digital Transformation, and other pockets that are further along in their journey. In most back office processes, there is often room for improvement. It’s hard to single out a particular industry. Within each industry there is often a range from digital natives to the companies that have been around for decades, some who have embraced this change and others that are doing so reluctantly.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

We’ve recently helped a client improve the routing of messages coming into a call center. There was previously an offshore team that read the incoming messages and directed them to the appropriate teams downstream that could provide a resolution. This solution involved a machine learning model that would not only read the messages but incorporate other factors such as the presence of an attachment and would then assign a category to the message. An RPA process would take over and route the message to the appropriate team. There is even an opportunity to extend the RPA process to generate a response or action for certain requests.

This helped the client in two ways. This made the team more efficient because many messages were routed automatically, and they could focus on the more difficult requests. This also made customers happier as their requests didn’t have to sit in a queue in order to be delivered to the appropriate team.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

Digital Transformation is a change, which is often hard. It often represents a new way of thinking and requires reimagining a process or a portion of it. In many instances, we are touching a process that has existed for a long time. We have to consider not just how the technology will work, but also the people side via change management principles.

Once challenge is often the lack of documentation of business processes. These rarely exist and are often incomplete when they do. It takes a long time to fully track down the process and capture the portions of the process that are only documented via tribal knowledge. Time and time again we run into situations where only one or two people know a certain portion of the process.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Focus on what your organization does. The goal shouldn’t be transformation for transformation’s sake. The goal should be to provide better service to your customers, or help your employees do their job better. Many want to start with the technology. Or, in the analytics space, they want to start with the data. I like to start with a hypothesis. If we start with a hypothesis, then we can find the data or technology that could help, start small, and work our way into a solution.
  2. Look to embed intelligence into your processes, whether that be automation or augmentation. An organization I know places a high value on personal interactions with the customer. Automation of those interactions isn’t of much interest to them because it does not align with their mission; however, augmenting their front-line employees by serving up the right information in a timely manner is very appealing because employees can respond to client’s needs quicker and demonstrates a higher level of customer service.
  3. Document your processes. We rarely find key processes that are fully documented. Even with key processes, there are usually portions that are known only by a few key individuals. Having this documentation is key for your technology partners to understand where they can come alongside and help. Revisit these process documents often too. These documents are not static and should change over time.
  4. Empower business users with data. There is a great quote from the Nine Lies book that “the best intelligence wins.” Make sure they have curated data that is trusted, and the tools to access it. Strike the balance between access and appropriate governance. Either extreme isn’t healthy.
  5. Embed transformation in your culture. Many employees are exhausted from all the initiatives. This should just be the next step in improving your processes in order to serve your customers better. “Experiment” is one of our company’s core values. We have that so that everyone knows we should keep innovating and looking for better ways to accomplish our mission. And we know that some of the ideas won’t work out.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

I think innovation best comes from those doing the work. Give people the time and tools to try new things. Then share openly what people learned, what worked, and what failed. One of our partners has a great culture where they constantly seek to automate their own tasks. They do this because the organization is great about cross-training and moving people into new roles so people aren’t afraid to automate their own work because they know there will be a different spot for them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s better to solve the right problem approximately than to solve the wrong problem exactly” by John Tukey. There are two things I like about this. First, you really have to dig in and define the problem you are trying to solve. There are often so many layers to consider. Second, better doesn’t mean perfect.

I also like “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” by Mike Tyson.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/briansampsel/.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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