By Ramia Farrage
Steve Tzikakis, president of tech giant SAP for South Europe, the Middle East and Africa, wants to help them perfect the customer experience by analysing feelings in real time
For someone who is in the business of feelings, Steven Tzikakis seems remarkably reserved.
We meet in a corporate boardroom for a 30-minute conversation throughout which the South Europe, Middle East and Africa president of German software giant SAP reflects the stereotype one would expect from an IT guy: the straight-talking, suit wearing, big word-using executive who doesn’t crack a single joke or share anything personal.
But it’s a whole other story when we move to the photo studio upstairs. Under the flashing camera lights, Tzikakis comes alive.
“The future is about experiences, not things,” he tells us, swinging his blazer over his shoulder and cracking a wide smile. He has plenty to be happy about.
In January this year, SAP acquired software maker Qualtrics for a whopping $8 billion to boost its experience management software. In simpler terms: it wants to teach businesses how to understand their customers’ emotions in real time, from happiness to frustration and absolute rage, and then use those insights to do something about them.
While Qualtrics collects brand, product, employee and customer experiences, SAP provides the much needed operational data, combined with a massive reach whereby its technology is involved in 78 percent of international transactions.
Together, the two tech powerhouses enable businesses to act in real time, and the impact is truly exceptional.
“We call this augmented humanity [not] artificial intelligence”
“Cleary the companies that deal with consumers are undergoing a lot of transformation and those that are slow are losing out on new opportunities. I’m not just talking about commerce, I’m talking about the new category which is experience.
“Companies that offer memorable encounters for their clients are those which will profit from the new experience economy. This is why they’re coming back as opposed to coming back because they found a beautiful product in your physical or digital store,” he says.
But if a single person can experience two conflicting emotions at the same time, according to psychologists, how can businesses possibly keep up with consumers’ feelings? Talk about mixed emotions – but that’s exactly where SAP comes in. The company analyses a positive or negative emotion felt by a group of consumers and then engages its products to fix the problem in real time.
“So, for instance, an airline has a bad problem and people start tweeting their bad experience. We quickly try to fix the problem. We don’t do this one-to-one, we do this en masse.
“We’re trying to protect both the consumer and the vendor so that the transaction is smooth and when there are mistakes, these are corrected immediately, leaving a beautiful experience for both sides,” Tzikakis says.
Through Qualtrics’ help, the opportunities for product development are endless as businesses receive live feedback on their products and quickly adapt to fulfill consumers’ wants and needs.
“Some of our larger clients like Yamaha, the instrument manufacturer, and Under Armour, the sporting brand, develop products using Qualtrics to test them so consumers have the application and continuously give feedback through their mobile phone to the manufacturer about shoes or an instrument or a new innovation that these companies are about to bring out.
“These guys are building the most amazing Expo event that planet earth will ever host”
“It’s an amazing combination and SAP has this landscape where basically we allow both the consumer and the back office to be continuously connected and react to changes that happen with consumers; [it’s] very powerful.”
Indeed it is. And it’s advancements like these that have positioned SAP as a leader in its field both internationally and in the Middle East.
“SAP went from being a very small player 12 years ago when we bought the rights for the market here, to the number one application vendor across the whole of the Middle East,” Tzikakis boasts.
He says one of SAP’s main goals is to rethink their intimacy with the end-consumer.
“We want to ensure that the whole process, order to cart, has a special focus on how businesses can manage the relationship with consumers. Their experience with consumers should be uninterrupted and it should happen in real time without the burden of IT. We want people to focus on business, not IT. That’s our business.”
And SAP’s business is on the verge of another boom; it’s serving as the premier Innovative Enterprise Software Partner for Expo 2020 Dubai, which is expected to be the biggest Expo the world has ever seen.
“These guys are building the most amazing Expo event that planet earth will ever host,” Tzikakis says.
“We were the first tech company to appoint a female country leader and female managers in Saudi Arabia”
It’s the perfect opportunity for SAP to showcase its technologies to the millions of visitors who are expected to attend, including senior decision-makers from participating countries. Despite the formidable challenge that comes with facilitating the mega-event, Tzikakis says SAP is ready to showcase its incredible innovation.
“It will be an all-encompassing experience for visitors from the moment someone decides to visit Expo, throughout their journey, including all the logistics, the accommodation, the visit itself and most importantly the interaction afterwards and the follow up. All will be done digitally. We have huge surprises and a lot of innovation.”
Assuming SAP realises its immense Expo 2020 ambitions, its work will lead to new opportunities, most notably in the field of digital transformation, because while a recent Oxford Economics survey revealed that 84 percent of global companies find digital transformation critical to their survival by 2022, only three percent have adopted it.
“One of the things we’re doing as a company is trying to ensure that the digital transformation [and] the ability to focus on the consumer is easier, and we’ve lowered the barriers of entry so now more than 80 percent of our clients are small and medium enterprises,” he says.
The good news is digital transformation is now more attainable, as Tzikakis says access to the cloud has offset some financial burdens.
“With the proliferation of the cloud, companies no longer have to think about huge investments, hardware, engineers and databases. They can quickly go to the cloud and deploy the solutions that really open up new markets and new business models for their clients,” he says.
“We want people to focus on business, not IT. That’s our business”
The Middle East is by far the fastest growing region in the cloud for SAP, with quicker adoption than regions in the West. Tzikakis says customers here have embraced the company’s strategy and its customer experience focus.
“If you look at the analysts’ reports, we’re the number one and the fastest growing at the same time. Kudos to the companies here. They really moved very, very fast, much faster than their peers in Europe and North America,” he says.
But while some industry verticals in the Middle East are fast adopters, others remain slower. Tzikakis describes this as storm and hiking: storm adopters are quick to act and hiking adopters take a slower yet steadier approach.
“So the ones that are in highly accelerated transformation are areas like retail, telcos, postal and logistics, whereas energy and utilities, they’re a little bit slower. I would say it’s just a storm as opposed to hiking.”
SAP’s own regional growth came fast and on the back of investments it made a few years ago. Last year, the company became the first global tech firm to launch a public cloud data centre in KSA as part of a four-year, $76 million investment plan for the kingdom. A year prior, it had opened its first cloud data centre in the UAE as part of its five-year, $200m investment plan for the emirates.
“As the first company of scale to have public cloud data centres in the Middle East, we’ve seen both the private sector and governments really embrace our strategy,” he says.
SAP is also expanding outside of the GCC and into the broader Middle East with new offices opened in Egypt, Bahrain, Pakistan and Iraq in the past year.
If that is not impressive enough, the company was the first in Europe to establish an ethics guide for the development and inclusion of artificial intelligence (AI) in technology.
“For us it’s not man versus machine, it’s man plus machine. So AI, machine learning or blockchain shouldn’t be used as pure technology, rather it should be embedded in applications that are meaningful for companies. We call this augmented humanity as opposed to artificial intelligence,” he says.
Tzikakis insists that SAP’s focus is not on replacing labour, but on enhancing the speed and quality of people’s skills.
With a massive millennial population in the Middle East, SAP is particularly dedicated to helping prepare the region’s youth. So far, the tech giant has trained 3,500 young professionals in the Middle East.
“We run a youth program and 100 percent of our recruitment effort goes through the SAP Academy where we train our own staff, or the SAP Training and Development Institute where we train the staff of our customers.”
It is not only in SAP’s support towards youth employment that Tzikakis takes pride in, but also in the company’s devotion to women’s empowerment.
“We were the first tech company to appoint a female country leader and we were the first to appoint female managers in Saudi Arabia,” he says, flashing a wide smile.
And Tzikakis knows exactly when to smile, or when to remain remarkably reserved. Who better than a man in utter control of his feelings to run this business of feelings?