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