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Community Interview: Sylvia Feja, Division Manager of Customer Service Software, novomind AG, Hamburg

Motto: every cloud has a silver lining … This impresses me: quick thinking … I don’t like: a lot of people in the same spot … I gather energy: when I swim, run or play with my son Fred … I like to eat: steak and salad … At the bar I order: white wine, red wine, Aperol Spritz … My coffee: with milk … Currently, I read: City of Thieves and Prinzessin Insomnia by Walter Moers … Last vacation: Denmark … Dream destination: Disneyworld Florida … Favourite city /cities: Hamburg, Dubai, Graz, Alicante … I would like to drink coffee with: Martina Hill … The shooting was: relaxed and funny.

novomind is speeding up – and aiming high. “High” was also the impulse for our photo shooting in the 20up bar of Hotel Empire Riverside with free view over Hamburg, the harbour, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall etc.

INTRE: Our last interview took place in Vienna in 2012. We agreed that we would meet and talk again five years later in Hamburg. Today is 7 December 2017. Just in time. What happened in the last five years?

FEJA: It is cool that we managed to meet again in time. Let’s start with a few figures. In 2011, exactly on 31 December 2011, our revenue was 12.7 million euros. Today we generate more than 30 million euros. Profit also increased accordingly. In my area of responsibility, novomind iAGENT, we have won 100 new customers. The number of employees has increased accordingly. I do not recall how many employees we had in 2012, but today there are more than 280 employees.

INTRE: It’s working ...!

FEJA: Correct. However, to make sure that it stays this way, we ask ourselves every single day whether we are on the right track. Time is running fast! You must be wide awake and keep moving every day, or it will not work any-more. Bang – over and out! We travel a lot. We have been to Silicon Valley a few times, we have visited other companies, we have looked into various markets in Europe, we were in Dubai and so on – all that to learn and understand how other companies and markets operate.

INTRE: And the results?

FEJA: The word “result” is not quite right. This is rather an ongoing process. Essentially, we have shifted our focus to two areas: We have changed from a service-oriented company implementing various projects to a product-oriented company. We are concentrating on three products: novomind iSHOP, iPIM and iAGENT. These three products will now be marketed and sold internationally through our partners.

INTRE: Sounds very convincing. Thinking forward, this surely is the right path for novomind. Nevertheless, the question is how difficult the path is.

FEJA: The path is not difficult. We have designed a road map defining topics to handle. Yes, it certainly also includes challenges. However, as yet we have not experienced any surprises that might be show stoppers. We have invested heavily in the run-up of product development. This is very important to us to make our products compatible with other software producers. We are working on a solution that allows other companies to integrate via apps. Furthermore, it is also possible that the partner introduces and configurates the product independently with his customer. These are massive changes and developments that we have made in the last five years. In addition, we have decided to completely re-programme our administration surface, that is reports and analyses. Why? Very simple: we want to offer the latest technology to our customers and our partners’ customers. This technology is open for apps and partners. This means that our partners can equip their customers with the latest technology. Everything is automated with apps and in a new, super fancy design.

INTRE: How has competition developed in the last five years?

FEJA: A good and fascinating question. In fact, environment in the field of competition has changed massively. Five years ago, competition was only local, so to speak. I mean that in the past we competed primarily with providers in the German market. Today competition is international, often with American companies. Many competitive companies have the advantage that they work exclusively with modern technologies. However, from my point of view these companies have the disadvantage that they – still – have little experience of how the market is working, of the customers’ desires and of how service processes can be implemented effectively. Here we are in the lead due to 18 years of experience. I think that because of this we are closer to the customer and understand better what the customer wants and needs.

INTRE: On the one hand there are American competitors; on the other hand, the customer often prefers a one-stop service – for example CRM solutions, knowledge management, multi-channel solutions and so on.

FEJA: This has also changed. In the last years, many new companies have emerged that are true professionals in a niche – for example social media analytics, knowledge management, CRM solutions, etc. The keyword is API interface. In Silicon Valley, there are companies that deal exclusively with data analysis, involving 500 employees and more, for example in the field of customer value. Imagine how these people work, produce and develop for ten hours. This makes 5,000 hours per day. We do not have this power of expertise. If the customer wants to utilise the tool he can use it perfectly in combination with our products. The “one-stop service” philosophy is a phase-out topic.

INTRE: Do the customers always know what they want and need – especially regarding buzzword digitalisation, automation, artificial intelligence and similar things?

FEJA: Five years ago, this was pretty clear for many orders. Company X would like to replace Outlook or Lotus Notes, invites to tender and the usual suspects from the national market submit an offer. Today this is different. Digitalisation has turned everything upside down in the last five, especially the last two years. Many companies and decision-makers are confronted with a digital waterfall pouring down on them. We offer intensive workshops to our customers to cushion this effect. We also offer plausibility checks to examine whether the company’s “first idea“ really pays into the desired result. We also do a “best practice” exchange and many things more. All this helps to reach a well-founded decision at the end of the process.

INTRE: The companies try out many things such as chatbots, voice control, etc.

FEJA: That’s right. Currently I have for example many meetings on the WhatsApp topic. Of course, I think it is good that companies try out many things. However, at the same time the companies must not forget classical areas in customer service such as performance, uniform responses on all channels, quality management, etc. It is fascinating that in this area there is not one single industry that is really committed or already very digital. I often get to know companies and think “phew, a traditional industry, so to speak”. Others are sometimes more digitalised than one or the other start-up company.

INTRE: Start-up is a good keyword. novomind is part of Next Commerce Accelerator (NCA).

FEJA: Yes, we are members of the committee and also provide money for investments. Other members are Tchibo, Beiersdorf, J.J. Darboven, EDEKA Nord, HHLA and Junge – die Bäckerei. All investors have one thing in common: candour and drive to experiment in order to purposefully cooperate with start-ups on short communication paths.

INTRE: Currently, call centre agents are a rare good. I feel that this is also true for programmers.

FEJA: Your feeling is right. Five years ago, I was operationally responsible for projects. Today I am division manager and account for our growth in the field of novomind iAGENT. Yes, the resources IT specialist, programmer and others are a rare good. If you grow as fast as we do at novomind, the structures will constantly change. I take care that the structure does not overwhelm us but that we keep the start-up feeling. We still have the famous table football tournaments. Today, if you would like to hire somebody who has just successfully completed his informatics studies, you have to try really hard as a potential employer. Five years ago, a work place at a company in Hamburg was the best thing since sliced bread. Today there are many more companies in Hamburg who hire IT specialists. For quite some time, our competitors for the best applicants have no longer been IT companies but in fact all other companies. The world has become more digital. What’s more, the technology curve is pointing upwards and is developing exponentially. As a result, all companies now need computer scientists.

INTRE: Is money a factor?

FEJA: In this sense, money is always a factor, but very often not the decisive one. For example, people ask whether they can work only 80% because on the fifth day they would like to take photos, work as a DJ or be socially active. The issue of home office has become increasingly important, too. Employees also ask for flexible time management and a sabbatical year. To cut a long story short: this has changed radically in the last five years.

INTRE: Artificial intelligence is a new issue for many people. Many of them don’t know that novomind has been promoting the issue for 18 years.

FEJA: That’s correct. novomind’s starting idea was to build avatars through which the customers communicated. The word “chatbot” did not
exist in the year 2000. At that time, people talked about “virtual consultant” or “avatar”. As mentioned before, experience with this issue helps us today to react quickly and present fast solutions to our customers.

INTRE: It is often heard that the system can learn on its own. A little child who wants to get on top of the sofa tries to find many solutions and is learning by doing. What about a system …?

FEJA: The system, as you call it, is learning the same way. The system learns by testing and by pattern recognition. This means that the administrators feed many examples and dialogues into the system. Today, if you write something in Word, Word recognises if a word is spelt incorrectly. At some point, an administrator taught the system that “name” is written without an “h”. It is very similar to sending our kids to school. The pupils receive books to study and often study on their own. However, they need a teacher in school to learn the right things – in our world it is an administrator. It always depends on what you would like to do with a chatbot. In many cases, it is irrelevant whether the chatbot knows that penguins can’t fly. However, the chatbot must know that the product X may be sent to Italy and that delivery time is two days. If in an FAQ Centre the most frequent question is “How can I cancel?”, an administrator is needed to tell the system that this issue shall not be shown in first place. It is clear that the volume of questions and the respective dialogues in customer service could not be answered at all without digitalisation and automation.

INTRE: novomind has a motto every year, sort of a “guideline” for the entire year. Which motto have you proclaimed for 2018?

FEJA: Our motto for 2018 is HAPPY. The motto emerged when visiting Dubai. Dubai would like to be the “happiest city worldwide”. There is even a Minister for Happiness in Dubai. I found the idea very cool and thought that at novomind we need something like that. Therefore, we need a CHO -> a Chief Happiness Officer who is responsible for happy employees and of course customers. The same is true for our software iAGENT. We would like to have happy agents dealing with our customers. We will achieve this goal by giving the agents the opportunity to work happily with the most user-friendly software on all channels – call, chat, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Born in Middle Franconia … studies in economics at the University of Applied Science in Wilhelmshaven (during the studies, jobs in the customer centre at Sykes for T-Online and HP among others) …sales manager at T-Systems in Bremen (IT) … sales/account manager at novomind, project management at novomind, division management at novomind

For 18 years, novomind AG has developed innovative commerce and customer service solutions in use worldwide and is one of the technology leaders in Europe. The portfolio in the fields of contact centre, shop software, PIM (product information management) and marketplace integration covers the entire value-added chain of digital customer communication and digital trade. The owner-managed company with more than 270 team members currently supports more than 200 companies and continues to grow. Major customers are among others C&A, Görtz, OTTO, Ernsting’s family, EnBW, babywalz and Sixt. They have relied on novomind’s experience and the partner-like cooperation for many years.

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