This tech entrepreneur is changing how businesses serve their customers.
Kathy Cheng’s platform, Nexxt Intelligence, uses AI to automate the research process.
By Sarah Kelsey
Think about the last time you were asked by a company to take a digital survey about their customer service. You were likely asked to rate their performance in a variety of areas on a scale of one (not so great) to 10 (incredible). Halfway through the survey, you may even have started answering the questions on auto-pilot in an attempt to complete it in as little time as possible. It’s not the most fruitful experience for consumers nor does it net the most accurate results for companies.
“There was a specific need to develop a better way to understand consumers,” says Kathy Cheng about how her company Nexxt Intelligence came to be. “We feel very fortunate that we made some decisions early on that gave us a competitive edge.”
At its simplest, Nexxt is a digital, AI-powered platform that facilitates in-depth research conversations with consumers of brands and products. Instead of throwing a “traditional 20- to 45-minute survey at someone,” the innovative tool uses a chatbot to engage with the consumer real-time — it can even ask open-ended questions that prompt the survey taker to think about how they feel. The result is a fun and fresh platform that drives engagement and delivers incredibly accurate responses that companies can leverage to better understand their customers. “We deliver rich qualitative insights alongside reliable quantitative data companies can trust,” she says.
Kathy never thought she would be an entrepreneur, let alone one who would help change the way an entire industry evaluates consumer insights. In fact, she started her career as a simultaneous interpreter for qualitative research groups in China. Her end goal was to translate group research into English for some of the largest multinational corporations that wanted to make inroads in the country.
“Nearly 95 per cent of the tools used were built with a North American consumer in mind, but we know in Canada we have immigrants, and they think differently than a lifelong Canadian would.”
“I am a very curious person, and the profession allowed me to get to know consumers as humans and to understand their motivations,” she says. After years doing research for organizations like Nielsen, Ipsos, and Environics, she started to contemplate how to develop a technology that could change the way insights were collected. One of her biggest goals was to create a platform that took cultural differences into account.
“Nearly 95 per cent of the tools used were built with a North American consumer in mind,” Kathy says, “but we know in Canada we have immigrants, and they think differently than a lifelong Canadian would.” Many survey tools also lump Canadians and Americans into the same cultural group, but that’s not accurate either because of the nuances in how each group thinks, she adds.
“We spent about a year exploring various technologies and methodologies with the goal of understanding these hidden insights and a person’s views,” she says. “We knew participants would need to be fully engaged and that people had to be presented with real situations to gauge how they would feel about something.”
Instead of a bullet point survey, then, a taker of a Nexxt survey would be asked a question like: It’s your child’s birthday party and you’re at work completing a project with your colleagues and you’re on deadline. Do you stay and finish the project with your colleagues, or do you go home to see your child? A person’s actual response plus how long they took to answer the question then gets translated into data that is then leveraged as insights for a company.
Similar insights have been used to serve some of Nexxt’s biggest clients like Loblaws, Coca-Cola, Rotman, TD Ameritrade, Toyota, and RBC, among others.
“I wasn’t a natural at technology. I was very afraid of it for a long time. But I am curious and I asked a lot of questions — and I kept my eye on doing the best I could, knowing I wanted to solve an immediate need.”
“I often reflect on how far we’ve come,” says Kathy. “I wasn’t a natural at technology. I was very afraid of it for a long time. But I am curious and I asked a lot of questions — and I kept my eye on doing the best I could, knowing I wanted to solve an immediate need.”
She adds she wouldn’t be where she is without being a little stubborn and never compromising the quality of the product she wanted to put to market. “Doing the right thing at the right time has helped — and always following intuition. If you know you need to fulfill a need, don’t cut corners, don’t compromise.”
One of the greatest challenges Kathy has faced as an entrepreneur is saying no to quick fixes to hard-to-solve problems. “If there was a small voice that said a path wasn’t the right one to go down, we wouldn’t do it,” she says, even if that meant more work in the short-term.
The other challenge has been finding the support needed to actually build a start-up from the ground up. Kathy says she and her team have struggled to source funding and win competitions, so they have often gone their own way. When funds have been lacking, for example, her solution has been to double down on research and development instead of product creation. This has led to a better product overall.
In the end, she says she wouldn’t change the trials and tribulations she’s faced along the way to creating her groundbreaking platform. She’s more focused than ever on transforming the tool into something that can be leveraged for a variety of use cases — and not just for companies who want to understand their consumers.
“We can change the world. If we understand each other, the world will be a better place,” says Kathy. “By creating more opportunities to foster an in-depth understanding of people, we can be a part of that change.”