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Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News
Ryan Smith, co-founder and CEO of Qualtrics, speaks during Qualtrics' X4 Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith says it's "a different world" and that companies are coming to understand the need to focus on providing a positive customer experience if they are to thrive.

Utah's customer experience giant kicked off the fifth edition of its annual user summit on Wednesday, with a morning of marquee speakers and an afternoon of special topic sessions for the 7,000-plus in attendance.

Smith's company, which got its start in 2002 focused on providing innovative survey and data analysis tools to academic researchers, has since grown into a tech behemoth, creating its own product category and acquiring some 9,000 clients and 99 of the top 100 business schools along the way.

Smith said evolution of the business world has led to the current environment where maintaining a focus on a positive customer experience was no longer a perk provided by a select few, but a survival necessity.

"There used to be only a handful of experience brands," Smith said. "But today we live in a different world. Companies are disproportionately awarded when they deliver an amazing customer experience but absolutely punished when they don’t."

Smith also noted, without gathering the data and executing the analysis, many business leaders were unaware of exactly how their companies were actually performing.

"Eighty percent of CEOs think they’re providing an amazing experience, but only 8 percent of consumers agree," Smith said. "The gap between what you think is happening, and what’s really happening, is called the experience gap."

And helping close that gap is at the heart of what Qualtrics does, and its success at doing it has led to a valuation of the privately held company that was estimated at $2.5 billion a year ago, and it's likely grown since.

Those helping Smith and his client group celebrate Wednesday included Huffington Post founder, author and current CEO of Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington. Huffington, whose new company specializes in behavior change and stress reduction, said finding a path to success requires a fundamental rethinking of how we look at, and assess, the basic elements of the lives we lead.

"We need to stop thinking about work-life balance," Huffington said. "The two things are not a contradiction, they’re completely integrated. When one falls the other falls."

She also encouraged attendees to re-think relationships with technology.

"Tech is amazing," Huffington said. "None of us would be here if it weren’t for tech. But right now we all take better care of our smartphones than we take care of ourselves."

A theme of betterment and perseverance ran throughout Wednesday's speaker list, including an on-stage interview that Smith conducted with world-class rock climber and author Alex Honnold. Honnold, who earned global recognition last summer when he free-soloed — meaning climbed without the use of ropes as either an assist or safety mechanism — the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park. Honnold noted it was a nine-year journey from the time he conceived of the feat until executing it and said an enormous amount of work went into that preparation.

"I did sort of summon the courage to say this matters enough to me to work on it," Honnold said. "In some ways I didn’t really know if it was possible. One of the fears was that I would put in all that effort and still just ultimately not quite have it."

But Honnold did conquer El Capitan and said, after the years of practice climbing the wall before attempting his rope-free solo climb, he could still recall every move needed.

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"The practice is about memorizing the handles and footholds," Honnold said. "I could still pantomime the whole route right now."

Rounding out the presentations Wednesday were author and happiness expert Shawn Achor and author, researcher and Character Lab founder/CEO Angela Duckworth.

Qualtrics' X4: The Experience MGMT Summit continues Thursday with Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony Hawk and others, more breakout sessions and an evening performance by Maroon 5.

To learn about the event, visit www.qualtrics.com/x4summit/.