Mark K. Smith had a background in science before he became an entrepreneur in the tech world. He was only in his 30s when his first company was launched on the stock market and today, he heads up ContactEngine, an omni-channel customer communication service used by many UK retailers.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before ContactEngine. What have been your career highlights?
Being fascinated with science, I completed a PhD in Biochemisty at Cranfield University. My other passion was playing sport, and that came to an abrupt end when I snapped my cruciate ligament playing rugby. I think that my desire to win on a pitch was transferred to business, so it wasn’t long before I started a business with a colleague which grew rapidly and IPO’d in 2000 with a market cap of over £100 million in today’s money. This gave me the bug for founding businesses and growing value by intense periods of growth after spotting good market opportunities. Achieving an IPO in your early 30s could be considered a career highlight, but I also helped develop a number of projects in the world of disability that has made me proud. Together with my business partner (our current CTO), we developed the very first Content Management System (CMS) used by blind people.
How has your previous experience aided your current job / business? What have you brought with you?
The one theme through my career has been teamwork, and my PhD has also been very helpful. As such, my management style has always been one of “you work with me, not for me” which is especially relevant in a fast-moving tech company. All colleagues get a sense of ownership of the business and therefore their own future. Having a spiked hierarchy is unhelpful when you need everyone to work as hard as each other. So be a captain but recognise that there are often better players than you on the pitch.
Explain ContactEngine. What do you offer? What’s unique about it?
Consumers now expect an omni-channel retail experience. We provide an omni-channel communication experience across the customer journey – to make sure customers are kept informed at all stages of their experience from the sale, to the fulfilment, the installation, the delivery and then any repairs or servicing. Using all forms of personalised but automated communication – from SMS to e-mail, from the phone to the web, using text, video or photos – ContactEngine makes sure the customer has the best communication experience with a brand. What’s unique is three-fold – every piece of comms we do is uniquely personalised to the individual customer, no-one we know covers all communication channels as we do, and finally as we automate that communication there is then what you do with the replies – our “command and control” back end system perfectly connects the brands that use us – like Virgin Media, Sky, British Gas, Asda etc, to the communication from their customers in real-time. This delivers massive cost savings from improved efficiencies (no wasted visits/appointments) but also delivers happier customers.
What do retailers get wrong when communicating with customers?
Much effort has been made to omni-channel the retail experience – to allow customers to buy in any way they want and that’s been great. But the smart thinking often breaks down when the product has to be delivered or installed or later – serviced or repaired. It’s not solved by using our app, it’s not solved by sending a text, it’s not solved by sending an e-mail, and it’s not solved by pinging an instant message. It’s solved by using all of these channels and more. We know if you only rely on an app or only a text message then you can’t reach 100 per cent – so what retailers need to think is how to offer lots of different ways of communication. Just as the e-commerce experience has had to cope with all sorts of new ways of working, communication has also fragmented in an explosion of different ways of reaching people.
Who are your main competitors in the industry?
Mostly we compete against call centres. Many companies believe that good customer experience needs people on the end of a phone calling customers. We don’t buy that. If your call centre is trying to reach someone to confirm an appointment then they are people acting like machines. What we try to do is make our machines act like people – and do that across numerous channels and outside of the 9-5 window that many call centres work. Of course when human-to-human interaction is needed, then computers stand aside – these exceptions need the human touch. But the smarter the tech gets, the more AI you build and the better your NLP (Natural Language Processing). Then, the better you get, the more efficient your clients become, the more money they save and the happier they and their customers become.
Can you talk about any retailers that you have worked with in the past?
We work with several retailers in the UK and internationally. One interesting project for a major UK supermarket is where we help them reach their store managers when a product recall is required. With just shy of 1000 stores in the UK – a human making 1000 calls to reach the phone in the pocket of the store manager would be slow and costly. Instead we have a methodology that automates those calls and makes sure that 100% of stores know to remove Product X within minutes of the recall being made.
What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?
I wasn’t for Brexit. Over a third of my colleagues were born in mainland Europe and beyond. So it was sad to see the UK deciding to plough its own furrow. However, as a professional optimist (that’s also part of the job description for a CEO, by the way) I think the greatest risk is fear. Now is not the time to hold investment decisions back, to not hire good people, now is not the time to hunker down and wait for a (possibly non-existent) storm to arrive. Now is the time to do what the British do so well, pick ourselves up, whistle a happy tune and crack on. You never know it might just be fine. It nearly always is.
Do you have any advice for any budding CEOs?
The roles in tech companies tend to fall into certain stereotypes. The sales guy is hugely energetic and insanely optimistic, the tech guy only wears t-shirts and likes the indoors, the finance guy is stern and risk averse and the CEO acts as the front man, dealing with clients, investors and colleagues. You don’t tend to find all characteristics in one person – but as the CEO, you do need to have a deep understanding of the tech, be very close to the customer and, especially in fast growing tech, be able to articulate the vision to investors and colleagues. The key aspect of being a good CEO is trust. Trust that you’ll deliver for your customers, trust from your colleagues that while they are heads down delivering, you’re watching their backs and trust from your investors so that they are confident you’re working your socks off and being careful with their hard-earned cash.