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In conversation with Shankar Viswanathan, Partner At ZS Associates

In conversation with Shankar Viswanathan, Partner At ZS Associates


ZS is one of the world’s largest firm focused exclusively on helping companies improve overall performance and grow revenue and market share, through end-to-end sales and marketing solutions—from customer insights and strategy to analytics, operations and technology. More than 5,000 ZS professionals in 22 offices worldwide draw on deep industry and domain expertise to deliver impact for clients across multiple industries.

With close to 3,000 professionals, ZS offices in Delhi and Pune serve as the Capability and Expertise Center to enable cross-collaboration across all the global offices to create client impact.



Analytics India Magazine got onto an exclusive conversation with Shankar Viswanathan, a partner with ZS based out of their India Capability and Expertise Center to get insights on the company as well as the analytics landscape of India.

Here is the exclusive interview with Shankar Viswanathan.

 

Analytics India Magazine: Shankar, could you talk about ZS Associates’ journey so far in an analytics dedicated landscape? Also, how is the firm contributing uniquely towards this space?

Shankar Viswanathan: The genesis of ZS in 1983 was based on using linear and non-linear programming algorithms to optimise sales force decisions. Data and analytics have been at the core of our professional services ever since, to enable business decisions and actions. With analytics, we help our clients across a range of business decisions and actions including product development choices, market opportunity assessment, business development and licensing, brand launch maximisation, customer segmentation, targeting, marketing mix, sales resource allocation, and customer acquisition and retention program optimisation.

We have highly skilled decision analytics and data science professionals with deep knowledge of customer data and analytical methods that span foundational statistics to machine learning techniques, and who are proficient in a range of analytical tools and programming paradigms.

These professionals, however, don’t just run complex mathematical models, but have a strong understanding of the business context. Our professionals strive to provide relevant insights and implementable recommendations recognising this context. This combination of strong analytical skills, business knowledge and focus on providing implementable solutions are key differentiators for ZS.

 

AIM: How do you leverage data analytics in understanding the buying patterns of customers across different channels and driving business? How does it benefit your clients?

SV: There has been an ongoing buzz around customer-centricity. We are working with several clients to make this a reality. One of the key challenges is that our clients are often tactic-led in their organisation and decisions, for example, email, events, website, direct mail, etc. This, however, results in a poor experience for their end-customers who are bombarded across channels, especially their most important high-value customers.

We are leveraging data and analytics to help our clients become more customer-centric in a few ways such as:

  • understanding the fundamental preference of customers to different channels and content,
  • understanding how channels interact to create impact for customers,
  • leveraging the above customer insights to create a harmonised and integrated customer engagement plan, and
  • monitoring the customer behaviours and dynamically adapting the execution.

Our clients are seeing meaningful benefits in terms of both leading indicators such as increased customer engagement and eventual sales uptick.

 

AIM: What brought you to the analytics landscape? Also, talk about your experience in the field.

SV: I completed my bachelor’s degree in engineering from IIT Madras and a PhD from Purdue. While I was pursuing PhD, I was focused on using artificial intelligence, machine learning and optimisation techniques to solve dynamic chemical process systems. I was intrigued by the possibilities of these techniques and got an opportunity to apply them in a different context at ZS – sales and marketing problems.

Over the years, I have enjoyed the different aspects of analytics – understanding the core business problem, structuring the problem and framing it analytically, exploring the underlying data, setting up the mathematical models, deriving insights, synthesising recommendations and developing the business story to effectively communicate the recommendations to our clients.

My focus at ZS has been in the healthcare analytics space. I have been fortunate to work with a diverse array of clients – large life science organisations, mid-size pharma, emerging biotechnology clients and medical device manufacturers. The spectrum of problems that my teams and I have worked on have been equally varied – sales force analytics for large-scale merger; agile analytics at product launches; optimising mix across digital, personnel and non-personnel promotions; analysing large-scale patient datasets to inform market opportunity; and enabling contracting and rebating decisions in the complex payer–provider–patient ecosystem.

In my career, I have seen the evolution of analytics from being a support function to getting embedded in the business. Analytics and data are now poised to drive business transformation for not only the digital disruptors but also a broad spectrum of industries and organisations.

 

AIM: Please present a picture of the analytics sector in India. What are the typical challenges noticed in the space?

SV: India is a thriving raw analytics talent marketplace. Effectively combining the analytical talent and our technological prowess can make India a potent global force in creating business value using data and analytics.

In a survey we had jointly conducted with The Economist, these two came up with the key broken links in the analytics value chain – problem definition/scoping and an organisation’s ability to effectively consume the outputs from analytics consumption. We are observing that our clients are motivated to elevate the role that analytics plays in their organisation. They, however, don’t always have a clear roadmap for this. They invest in a range of capabilities such as data, data scientists, expensive infrastructure and technologies. Organisations are, however, less clear about what problems they are looking to solve and how to translate the results of analytics in a way that the organisation can effectively consume it.

 

AIM: What are some of the most recent technological developments in the analytics space? How is ZS Associates incorporating those technologies into its own ecosystem? How is Big Data driving business efficiencies?

SV: The technological advancements span a range of services, from foundational infrastructure, data and analytics to front-end business applications.

On the infrastructure services front, we are purposefully migrating our clients to cloud computing and helping them realise its business value.

On the data services front, we are helping our clients implement Enterprise data lakes, data catalogues and data enrichment solutions. We are also actively working with clients to mine unstructured data sets such as text, audio, and video to derive customer insights that can inform business decisions.

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On the analytical services front, there is a move toward democratisation of analytics that we are facilitating using analytical workbenches. Our decision analytics and data science professionals are leveraging a range of integrated development environments or IDEs and newer programming paradigms.

The cloud infrastructure, Big Data technologies, data cataloguing solutions and analytical workbenches are foundational elements of the technology stack and here our focus is not to reinvent the wheel. Our focus is to leverage and configure the horizontal offerings in the marketplace.

We, however, are overlaying these with domain-specific intelligent business services and applications. Our experience and expertise in working across a range of sales and marketing issues enable us to build the right business solutions. We are embedding these solutions in the ZS platform – REVO. The REVO platform is leveraged both by our professionals and our client stakeholders for agile, efficient, and effective analytics.

 

AIM: Talk about the work culture at ZS Associates. Any piece of advice for startups and entrepreneurs who want to make it big in the analytics sector?

SV: ZSers pride themselves in the quality of our work. This is a key focus of all our engagements and is deeply embedded within the culture of the company as one of its core values – “Get it right, always.” High degree of responsiveness to our client’s needs is another hallmark of the ZS culture.

Our founders are scholars and we have retained the collegial feel to our organisation. Collaboration is not only recognised but also encouraged across all levels of the firm. We want to bring the best of ZS to our clients and collaboration is key to achieve this objective.

One of my favourite books is Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The gupees and chupees are going to war. The gupees before the war have intense discussions and debates and seem highly disorganised. The chupees follow the hierarchy and appear disciplined. The gupees, however, win the war as they are truly working towards a unified cause. “Be like the gupees and not the chupees.” In addition to a good business idea, collaborating with the right people who are passionate about the idea and willing to challenge and push the boundary is critical.

 

AIM: How can one make a career at ZS?

SV: Bringing the right Attitude, passion to learn the Skills, and curiosity and thirst for Knowledge is the key ASK.

On the attitude front, we want people who are driven to help our clients, who get energised in a team setting, and who are authentic and don’t pretend to know it all.

On the skills front, we want people to have a genuine interest in being a skilled craftsman and not a dabbler. This requires deliberate practice and persistence. Imagine doing a series of master’s programs throughout your career at ZS and not just doing a series of bachelor’s courses.

On the knowledge front, our differentiator is people who are steeped in the business domain. We believe the combination of high-end skills with deep knowledge is critical to provide the right solutions and recommendations to our clients.


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