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Virgil Wong of HGS: “Satisfying customer experiences”

Data, analytics, and AI understand and improve customer interactions across all channels. HGS uses natural language processing (NLP) to capture every customer interaction on voice, email, chat, messaging, and social media. Our HGS PULSE platform provides a near real-time voice-of-customer report, so we can proactively address issues and pursue additional sales opportunities. One of our […]

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Data, analytics, and AI understand and improve customer interactions across all channels. HGS uses natural language processing (NLP) to capture every customer interaction on voice, email, chat, messaging, and social media. Our HGS PULSE platform provides a near real-time voice-of-customer report, so we can proactively address issues and pursue additional sales opportunities. One of our clients improved CSAT by 40%. The head of customer service described himself previously as a “passenger,” trying passively to understand fragmented snippets about his customers’ behaviors. Now, he’s “in the cockpit,” able to see across the vast horizon, and working with us to navigate the enterprise toward creating even more dynamic and satisfying customer experiences.


As part of my series “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Virgil Wong, Chief Digital Officer of HGS, a global leader in business process management (BPM) and optimizing the customer experience (CX). HGS combines technology-powered services in AI, automation, analytics, and digital with deep domain expertise focusing on contact centers, back-office processing, and HRO solutions. With over 37K employees across 61 delivery centers in seven countries, HGS provides customer-first, intelligent innovations to many of the world’s leading brands.


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?

Hi, Orlando. Great to speak with you today.

Oddly enough, my starting point professionally goes back to a year of dissecting and drawing human cadavers during art school. Though I primarily intended to learn how to paint and draw people more authentically, the experience also sparked a deep interest in healthcare, embodied cognition, and how we physically interact with digital technologies.

I started doing design work for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine, where I created their first websites in 1998. I became head of their Web Center and later hired HGS Digital to implement our content management system. I was such a happy customer that I eventually joined the company. After 18 years and counting, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital is still a client of HGS.

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

I created a fictional narrative website in 1999 called malepregnancy.com to explore the scientific and cultural possibilities of a pregnant man. I made the mistake of not anticipating the flood of polemic, antagonistic, and misogynist reactions to this idea — and the framing of my project as some malicious hoax. The site received millions of unique visitors every month and resulted in major newspapers and television stations around the world initially reporting everything as factual.

Today, transgender men have made male pregnancy a reality. But 20 years ago, I was surprised at how readily digital media could spread what I thought was an obviously speculative fantasy. I learned firsthand how digital media tends to amplify the most sensational spectacles, regardless of veracity, at the expense of more substantive and factual information.

That’s certainly still true today. But congratulations nonetheless on having such a widespread impact in those earlier years of the Internet. I think we all know that none of us can achieve any level of success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for — someone who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My mother Sylvia, who’s a brilliant language teacher and historian, comes first to mind. Even when she had to barter tutoring sessions with the local butcher to get food on the table, my mom found ways to support my creative interests as a kid. She found a local college student to be my private art teacher, and she and my friend’s incredible mom, Betty Moore, also gave me painting and drawing lessons.

My mother doesn’t have a great deal of computer proficiency per se, but she saw the digital revolution emerging back in the 1980s. She saved up money to buy the first IBM PC, and my brother and I taught ourselves coding and programming.

Later on, when I thought my mom still wanted me to become a physician, she surprised me. She had a brain tumor years ago, and I was frustrated by my inability to understand a range of conflicting test results. I told her that perhaps she was right, and I should have pursued medical school instead of art school.

She told me, “Medicine can help us live longer lives, but art is about why we live. Always be as proud of being an artist as you would a doctor.”

Wow, those are some amazing words from your mom. As an artist, or in your current role as Chief Digital Officer, 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?

Elaine Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, was a life-changing read for me. Scarry captured the urgency of how we need art and literature to express that vast range of human experience that can’t be quantified empirically.

For example, if a doctor asks you to rate the intensity of your pain from 1 to 10, you may think, “One to ten of what?” Scarry observes how pain in your own body takes effort to ignore — while pain in someone else’s body takes a great effort to imagine.

Empathy requires listening, creativity, and imagination beyond the survey questions we typically administer to customers.

As customer experience experts, we must genuinely empathize with other people’s pain, get them the right answers fast, and resolve their problems beyond expectations.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

HGS embodies this exact blend of art and science about human empathy to deliver smarter customer experiences (CX) and better business processes. I’m incredibly proud of our 37,000 indefatigable service agents that provide kind, intelligent, and compassionate care every day — as well as how we creatively implement automation, AI, and analytics to empower them and each one of our customers.

At the start of the pandemic, HGS established proactive conversational systems to anticipate customer concerns based on emerging real-time data. We integrated customer communication flows and conversation threads across all channels. In just 27 days, our [email protected] cloud solution helped a leading US consumer electronics company rapidly migrate contact center employees to home networks — while still maintaining or even exceeding 85% CSAT. HGS’s cloud migration work has saved millions of dollars for our clients while improving their overall security and scalability.

Industry analysts continually rank HGS among the top CX and BPO providers. We have a dedicated internal task force to evaluate our operations continually and implement efficiency gains for our clients. While simultaneously helping companies maintain business continuity and build resilience during COVID-19, we’ve also successfully advanced their digital transformation evolution toward greater efficiency and higher revenues.

What tip would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”?

Venkatesh Korla, the president and CEO of HGS Digital, always says, “Our top priority meetings are the time we spend with our families.” It’s a remarkable statement given the volume of critical activities we do every day for enterprises valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. Venkatesh is, of course, reminding us that we best serve our colleagues, clients, and their customers when we properly care for our loved ones and for ourselves.

The so-called “retail apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

During COVID, the retailers further along in their digital transformation journeys are faring far better than less digitally mature competitors. For example, Lululemon successfully offset its in-store losses by doubling its direct-to-consumer revenue with a brilliantly designed e-commerce experience. Like Nike, Lululemon used its digital proficiency to increase customer loyalty and brand value while charging premium prices.

Uniqlo, whose digital experiences may not compare to its dazzling in-store presence, has not fared as well. Likewise, Under Armour has faced challenges with its third-party retailers, but it still leveraged e-commerce to increase direct-to-consumer revenue in its third-quarter last year.

Retailers, especially given continuing uncertainties with the pandemic in 2021, must continue to invest in better and more engaging digital customer experiences. And of course, Amazon will continue to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future.

In addition to Amazon, new direct-to-consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and e-commerce companies for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

To succeed, retail companies must continue to establish their brand story, value, and trust with customers in the market. Price is just one factor. Analyst research suggests that customers are willing to pay more for a product and be more loyal to a brand if their experience is positive.

I’m currently reading Scott Galloway’s fascinating Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, which posits a somewhat opposing viewpoint. Galloway suggests that we are moving away from the “brand age” into the “product age” — where online reviews and search algorithms help customers by-pass a company’s brand marketing efforts to find precisely what they want.

My position is that the digital enablement of your brand — through e-commerce, social channels, and outstanding customer experiences — hold the keys to success in Galloway’s “product age.”

Can you share with us a couple of stories about customers who were “wowed” by the experience you provide?

We manage billions of customer interactions every year, so I can share many memorable “wow” moments. Two stories since the start of the pandemic come to mind.

One of our clients, a leading global food company, produces a specific milk formula that was the only thing a child with Leukemia would drink while undergoing chemotherapy. Because of COVID restrictions, the parents could not get enough formula anywhere, even with family and friends desperately searching online and at multiple stores. And due to regulatory issues, the food company could not ship directly to the parents. HGS developed a creative solution in coordination with our client and a local retailer to reserve sufficient milk formula for the sick child while still maintaining stock levels for all other customers. From the customer’s perspective, we simply made a “miracle” happen.

Last Fall, a customer purchased 700 dollars worth of flowers for his wedding from a leading retail warehouse club. Despite an early order, the flowers would not arrive before the ceremony due to miscommunications between the shipping company and the vendor. After exhausting all other options, HGS found a local florist and successfully delivered 123 arrangements the afternoon before the big day. The customer was ecstatic. And the retailer is continually thrilled at the personalized care and experiences we provide to make each of their customers feel valued and appreciated.

Did that “wow” experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

This issue with the wedding flowers came to us through social media, where we provide 24/7 global support for our retailer client primarily here in the US.

Each of these “wow” experiences managed through our HGS EPIC™ Social Care solution ripple across a broad online audience. It’s all part of the modern brand-building activities we do on social channels where we celebrate fans and followers, acquire new members, and better care for customers. The effects are both short-term and long-term, and they are cumulative over time.

Most brilliant customer experiences are invisible; customers rarely notice how we design things because everything should work seamlessly. When problems arise, you must have the systems ready to resolve issues as swiftly and efficiently as possible. And you have to bake those new resolutions continually into your applications. For example, if an agent figured out a better way to solve a common problem, you should update systems like your CX chatbot to automate the fix. Most companies, particularly in retail, cannot afford to neglect the long-term impact of amplifying all the positive experiences — and better managing all the negative or neutral ones.

That makes sense. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a fantastic retail experience?

Sure, the first factor for fantastic retail experiences is, of course, people: your customers and your employees. You have to understand their real-life motivations, needs, and behaviors to design the optimal customer journeys and create the right work culture.

The second ingredient is process and automation. Retailers can offer great experiences if their business processes are efficient, scalable, and controlling costs and service quality. Especially today, organizations must optimize and automate repeatable processes to run lean and efficient operations.

The third ingredient is technology, including e-commerce, data and analytics, content management, and cloud. Retailers need the right strategy, the right platform, and the right technology implementation for their needs — including scalability, security, and speed to market.

Based on your experience, what are the five most important things one should know to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share an example or story.

1. Intelligent automation is key to fantastic retail experiences. Chatbots can resolve common customer issues instantly, and they can assist contact center service agents with back-end robotic process automation (RPA) integrated with the CRM. HGS helped an electronics retailer uncover and address all the factors driving DSAT, including customer problems about orders, delivery, and refunds. Our client’s head of global customer service quality said HGS increased “customer satisfaction scores to levels we have never obtained historically” — a sky-high 91% CSAT and 73 NPS.

2. Data, analytics, and AI understand and improve customer interactions across all channels. HGS uses natural language processing (NLP) to capture every customer interaction on voice, email, chat, messaging, and social media. Our HGS PULSE platform provides a near real-time voice-of-customer report, so we can proactively address issues and pursue additional sales opportunities. One of our clients improved CSAT by 40%. The head of customer service described himself previously as a “passenger,” trying passively to understand fragmented snippets about his customers’ behaviors. Now, he’s “in the cockpit,” able to see across the vast horizon, and working with us to navigate the enterprise toward creating even more dynamic and satisfying customer experiences.

3. Every digital channel must be frictionless, ambient, and persona-driven. I’m referring to no bumps in the road (like click-heavy and subpar e-commerce), consistent follow-through if you jump between channels (like from chatbot to website to phone), and hyper-personalization tailored to the customer’s needs. HGS implemented a CX initiative for a major paint retailer, including digital marketing, social, and e-commerce. We grabbed 49% of the total share of voice in the market, increased social fan following by 15 fold, and increased web traffic by 500%. Customers not only came back for more but kept talking about their experiences online. HGS helped another client, a clothing retailer, achieve similar success with an innovative e-commerce implementation that increased new website visits by 30% and sales conversions by 113%.

4. Every in-cloud system (instead of on-premise) supports better CX, reduces costs, and decreases risks. For example, a Headless CMS can help retailers improve e-commerce designs while saving on licenses (by 60% — 75%) and easy scaling between the holiday sales season and slower periods. In terms of security, Gartner predicts that workloads using public cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS) will suffer at least 60% fewer security incidents than those in traditional data centers. Stratoscale sees an average 40% expense reduction when workloads move from on-prem to the cloud.

5. Social media is not just ads and promo posts; it is increasingly social commerce, social support, and social care. An extraordinary experience on social media brings back customers and potentially influences their networks of family, friends, and colleagues. HGS is supporting a top American fast-food company by managing millions of social media messages about the brand. Using text analytics, AI, and automation, our social care agents monitor all relevant posts, respond to actionable mentions, and provide outstanding customer care services. The company’s big surprise was how many of their 69M customers seem to love their digital experiences as much as their actual food!

How can our readers further follow your work?

HGS is online at hgsdigital.com and teamhgs.com (@teamhgs). My website is virgilwong.com (@virgilwong). HGS has some great stories coming up around how AI, automation, and analytics can uniquely enrich and improve all the human-to-human relationships between retailers and their customers.

This conversation was incredibly inspiring. Thank you so much for your time!

It was a pleasure. Thank you, Orlando!


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