Empathy is key. You need to be able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, see what the problem looks like from their perspective and understand how you can help make their lives better. We came up with our current business model because a customer was telling us that they didn’t like how all the current solutions were asking them to pay a monthly fee, regardless of tangible value was provided or not. To us, this was an opportunity to stand out. I also think it helps if you’re solving a problem that you personally have experienced. Then you know the pain of the customer intimately and your personal story with this problem will help build trust. As a startup, we’re experiencing a lot of the same challenges our customers are, which makes us work harder to help them.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing….Leia Ruseva. She is the co-founder of EllisX, a startup that connects startups with visibility opportunities. EllisX was inspired by a side project Leia started in order to help change the narrative around immigration in the US by providing visibility for immigrant entrepreneurs. This led her to discover that traditional PR doesn’t work for startups, and she set out to create a new market category — visibility-as-a-service. Leia started her career as an early employee at two different Boston startups (#5 and #3, respectively), before becoming the first business development hire at a mid-sized tech company. There, she built the business development program from the ground up, creating a pipeline of 9 million dollars, and led strategic initiatives across marketing, sales operations and sales enablement. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Open Avenues Foundation, a Boston-based non-profit that empowers international talent to improve economic and educational outcomes for American citizens.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Bulgaria, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with technology. I loved science fiction movies and the thought of bringing the technology I saw on the big screen to real-life seemed incredibly exciting. Growing up in a lower-middle-class family, I didn’t have any role models within my community, so I looked up to people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I was inspired by their ability to define the future through technology, and the fact that I didn’t look like them didn’t seem to matter. I wanted to play a role in the next stage of the technological revolution, and since most of the innovation came from the US, I decided to go to school there. When my parents heard about this decision, they were skeptical that I would succeed. In a post-communist country like Bulgaria, people did not dare dream big, and it seemed like I had set out to do the impossible. However, I was too stubborn to give up. I worked summer jobs to pay for my college applications and ended up getting into Brandeis University on a full scholarship. It was this opportunity that changed my life course and allowed me to get involved in the Boston startup scene, gain valuable experience and ultimately start Ellis.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was in college I was extremely intimidated by the concept of networking. I didn’t understand what it was and initially associated it with career fairs where one would line up behind a table with copies of their resume, hoping to impress a potential employer in less than a minute. I was awful at doing this. I never got an interview from a career fair, which led me to believe I was horrible at networking. The idea that I had to ‘network’ to find a job terrified me. This all changed when I attended a networking event geared towards people interested in startups after my junior year of college. It was a very casual environment where I felt free to be myself and talk to people about my interests and goals. While there I met someone who introduced me to the CEO of a startup, which led to my first internship. After that, I was never afraid of networking again. I started seeing it as a conversation during which people exchange ideas and try to be helpful to one another. Adopting this mindset has helped me build strong relationships and has been instrumental to my personal startup journey.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I couldn’t possibly mention all the wonderful people who’ve helped me, but I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today, if it weren’t for my co-founder Richard. He and I met at a conference back in 2018, and I knew I was going to regret it if I didn’t talk to him more. We met up after the first day of programming was over and spent 3 hours talking. I often say that I was certain I wanted to work with him right away, but we still spent a year getting to know each other before starting EllisX in 2019. Richard has been instrumental in every aspect of building the company, including creating our product and making sure we execute on customer feedback at an incredible speed. I’m very grateful to have him by my side, and can’t wait to see how much more we will accomplish together.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
I think it all comes down to your purpose as a company. At the end of the day, the business exists to help a group of people who have a particular problem, so everything you do as a company should be underwritten for this purpose. It’s important to remember that your customers have entrusted your company to help them, and it’s your responsibility to ensure that they achieve their goals as seamlessly as possible. The truth is that without them your business wouldn’t exist, and you should never forget that their trust is the cornerstone of your success.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
In my opinion, good customer experience is the byproduct of a strong company culture where everyone has a shared sense of mission. Ensuring that your customers love you starts with the way you treat your employees. If the people you work with don’t feel empowered to make decisions on their own, your customers are likely to suffer. A lot of companies put in place elaborate processes that require employees to get multiple approvals in order to help a customer, which usually results in delays and poor customer experience. While it’s helpful to have some guidelines on how to create a positive customer experience, being too prescriptive tends to signal that you don’t trust your employees to make the right decision. If people are afraid of making a mistake, they are less likely to take initiative and put the customer first. To create a stellar customer experience, a company needs to start by cultivating a trust-based culture that encourages employees to act with agency and think outside of the box.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Yes, competition can certainly help. The more options customers have, the easier it would be to find a product or service that fits their needs, and sometimes the deciding factor is the experience they have with your company. People like to feel appreciated and listened to, especially if they have given you their business. If they have a poor experience, they’re likely to tell their friends about it, which could result in your company losing potential business. If the opposite is true, they will be singing you praises and helping your business grow. This alone is a strong incentive to create a customer-obsessed culture.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Hearing from customers who have been successful with EllisX is the best part of my job! I was recently talking to a user who was impressed that we delivered what she was looking for within days during the holiday season. She had very limited time to find judges for an event and was ecstatic that we were able to connect her with high-caliber talent so quickly. Another time I had a customer reach out on a weekend to tell me how much he enjoyed sharing his expertise as a panelist at an event he had found via EllisX. It’s interactions like these that show us we are on the right track and increase our motivation to provide the best customer experience possible.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
We see every exchange with our customers as a value-add, and have been lucky that they’ve been open to provide testimonials endorsing our product. This is very helpful because it helps establish trust with potential customers as soon as they land on our website. We’ve also had a number of people refer their friends to EllisX because they found value in using us. In fact, word of mouth is one of our main customer acquisition channels right now!
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
First of all, I think empathy is key. You need to be able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, see what the problem looks like from their perspective and understand how you can help make their lives better. We came up with our current business model because a customer was telling us that they didn’t like how all the current solutions were asking them to pay a monthly fee, regardless of tangible value was provided or not. To us, this was an opportunity to stand out.
I also think it helps if you’re solving a problem that you personally have experienced. Then you know the pain of the customer intimately and your personal story with this problem will help build trust. As a startup, we’re experiencing a lot of the same challenges our customers are, which makes us work harder to help them.
Another way to create an amazing customer experience is to clearly communicate the why behind your business. Every company was created to serve a specific purpose and you should make sure you communicate yours. Whenever I talk to customers, I always tell them why we’re doing what we’re doing. It inspires trust and lets them know that our mission is to make them successful, no matter what.
In addition, I find it helpful to show customers that you care for them not only as customers but as people. Find out what their goals are, and if possible, try to help them get there. For example, we sometimes make introductions for our customers that are not at all related to our business. We make sure to connect them with people that can help grow their businesses because we are invested in their success.
Last but not least, it’s extremely important to maintain a customer-centric attitude as you scale. Every person you add will impact the trajectory of the company and your relationship with your customers. While we’re still a very young company, we are already thinking about how future hires will impact our company culture and are making sure to imbue a customer-centric attitude in all of our early employees, no matter if they interact with customers directly or not.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
We think of our customers as a network, and deliberately try to provide opportunities for them to connect with one another and exchange ideas. We see this as a part of providing a great customer experience. Once someone becomes our customer, they have access not only to our product but also to an impressive group of people with whom they could brainstorm or do business. This is extremely valuable and the desire to be a part of this community might inspire people to become customers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m very concerned about the future of our planet and think we could all do a better job at being conscious about how our everyday actions impact the environment. There are small things each of us can do that would help reduce our collective carbon footprint. Personally, I’ve cut back on my meat consumption and try not to buy new things unless I really need them. If each one of us commits to making one or two small lifestyle changes, the combined positive impact of our actions would exceed our expectations.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m active on Twitter and you can find me at @leia_ruseva. I’m always looking to connect with interesting people and exchange ideas, so feel free to reach out.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me.