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Zain Jaffer: “Don’t fake it”

Don’t fake it: Customer experience needs to be a part of a company’s core culture. It must start with the belief that outstanding customer experience is core to what is being done in order to succeed. In the early stages of our company, we had some salespeople who would overpromise what we could actually deliver, […]

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Don’t fake it: Customer experience needs to be a part of a company’s core culture. It must start with the belief that outstanding customer experience is core to what is being done in order to succeed. In the early stages of our company, we had some salespeople who would overpromise what we could actually deliver, which is the exact opposite of what we wanted to do. We needed to under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way around. It was critical for us to manage our customers’ expectations. We eventually had to activate strong damage control, to say, “Look, we are a startup. We cannot deliver a blue-chip solution just yet, but be patient with us. Stick with us and we will deliver what you need.”


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 Zain Jaffer. Zain is a serial entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of Zain Ventures, an investment firm that provides funding globally for start-ups, real estate, fixed income, hedge funds, and private equity.

Prior to this, Zain was the Co-Founder and CEO of Vungle a mobile advertising company. In this position, Zain raised an initial 25 million dollars in funding and was an instrumental player in the major growth of the company, which generated over 300 million dollars in annual revenue. With over 200 employees across eight international offices, Vungle’s remarkable success attracted The Blackstone Group, which acquired the business from Zain in 2019 for 780 million dollars.


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’ve been a serial entrepreneur for as long as I can remember and have started many companies, beginning when I was a teenager. When I was 13, I was very interested in the Internet and became one of Google’s top publishers. Once Google noticed me, I was invited to test its video ad technology (which was in its infancy at that time).

Those experiences led me to start Vungle in 2011, a company that provided an ad delivery system for game developers and others to easily and seamlessly run ads within their own technology. In order to ramp up as quickly as we needed to, my partner and I moved to Silicon Valley to attract investors and establish our offerings in a timely manner.

Over the next seven years, the company grew exponentially, expanding globally far beyond 300 million dollars in revenues under my leadership. In 2019, all that effort culminated in the company being sold to the Blackstone Group for 780 million dollars.

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 16, I was very passionate and driven, and like many teenagers, I did not really respect or concern myself overly about risk analysis. That year, I jumped headlong into a real estate deal with a family friend right as the market tanked, which resulted in 100% of my money evaporating into thin air. The good thing about mistakes is that because the lessons are so personal and the pain is felt with such intensity, they are much more powerful and prepare us for what lies ahead. Now, while I still see the value of intuition, my investment decisions are firmly grounded in solid data.

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?

There have been so many wonderful people who were involved in taking Vungle to the next level, but the strongest figure that comes to mind is my father. My dad taught me so many lessons through his quiet example. This has shaped how I approach business to this day. In the 1970s, my parents fled Uganda during Idi Amin‘s reign of terror. They came to the UK with literally nothing — certainly with no personal possessions, but also without any formal education. What he DID have (and what he taught me) was the value of a strong work ethic.

While I was able to go to Kings College and earned my Master’s degree from UCL, my father taught me that success is not just about being smart. Launching and scaling a startup takes an enormous amount of energy. You must be willing to work hard, and thanks to my father’s example, I was willing to put in the effort and do whatever was needed to get the company off the ground.

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?

With the changes in social media and our day-to-day digital lives, we live in a completely connected world. We rely on digital word-of-mouth in the form of reviews and online recommendations. These recommendations matter and can provide an intangible competitive advantage that is much harder to quantify than traditional key performance indicators (KPIs).

When people are shopping, one of the first things they do is look at the reviews for that offering. A negative customer experience can be a deal-breaker. For technology products, a positive customer experience has the power to link affirmative emotions with the use of the product. At Vungle, we always worked to delight our customers because we believed that would make a meaningful difference to our bottom line, which it did.

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?

Making sure that customers have a positive experience cannot be a byproduct of an afterthought for any offer. It is not a tactic to be wielded at the right time, to save a faltering relationship, or to be used as a Band-Aid for a weak product.

Providing an amazing customer experience needs to be a deeply embedded strategy that is core to your brand’s very being and must exude from every level of the organization- from the bottom to the top. This can be very difficult, especially as your company expands.

Many founders or CEOs, however well-intentioned, can be lulled into believing that returning revenue for their investors is their number one job. All the conversation and focus becomes about quarterly earnings or setting up a bonus structure for employees to deliver more and more sales for the company. It can be so hard to prioritize, but it is up to the founders or CEO to make sure that an excellent customer experience is more important than anything else.

They need to keep emphasizing it and reminding everyone that an excellent customer experience is a key way to reach revenue and other organizational goals. The focus cannot be solely on top-line revenues or bottom-line profitability. That approach focuses on the effect, not the cause. Excellent customer service leads to top-line revenue and bottom-line profits, and the CEO needs to be a strong advocate for this core belief, to say it out loud over and over again. The company needs to have a built-in tracking mechanism for employees to focus on customer experience, to keep it front and center.

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?

I don’t think that competition is going to be the main driver of phenomenal customer experiences. As a matter of fact, focusing on the competition can be a distraction from the efforts that really need to be prioritized. It doesn’t often go well when customer service efforts are implemented solely as a reaction to marketplace dynamics. Born out of fear, this can lead to a biopic focus on market share. Even if a sales team is successful and hyper-focused on stealing market share from the competitors, they can then get overwhelmed with new customers that they may not be properly equipped to service.

It’s important to remember that customer service is a lagging business indicator. if the team is having to react to complaints or bad customer experiences, it is most likely that the company has already lost revenue from other customers who just didn’t bother to complain. If the team waits until external pressures force them to react and change, they will find it a much harder battle to recover from.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

I had a customer call me to thank me for what Vungle had enabled him to do. He said that he had finally reached the point where he was generating more revenue from advertising on his app than he made as a salary from his day job. He was able to feed his family based on that income, and it had freed him up so that he could quit his job and pursue his dreams as a full-time entrepreneur.

What an amazing thing to hear! That kind of feedback reminded me of why I get out of bed every morning.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

That story became a powerful internal narrative within the company. We were no longer merely providing an ad platform; it was much more aspirational than that! We were creating something that allowed people to pursue their dreams. That story created a high level of passion for our sales team. At that point, we weren’t just ‘selling’ something; we felt an obligation to spread the word about what we had to offer because we knew that it could literally change people’s lives forever.

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.

  1. Don’t fake it: Customer experience needs to be a part of a company’s core culture. It must start with the belief that outstanding customer experience is core to what is being done in order to succeed. In the early stages of our company, we had some salespeople who would overpromise what we could actually deliver, which is the exact opposite of what we wanted to do. We needed to under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way around. It was critical for us to manage our customers’ expectations. We eventually had to activate strong damage control, to say, “Look, we are a startup. We cannot deliver a blue-chip solution just yet, but be patient with us. Stick with us and we will deliver what you need.”
  2. Stick to your guns: It is up to the CEO to hold the line on an amazing customer experience. No one ever says, “Just forget about customer service.“ They simply view it as a part of the whole. They perceive that it’s important (but so are many other metrics), so it doesn’t get the proper prioritization. I would have very busy employees say to me, “Why do we have to meet personally with customers so regularly? Why can’t we just talk to them online?” They needed to understand how important these client meetings were. No matter where in the world they operated, if we had a customer in crisis, I would literally fly to sit down with the customer and solve their problem. When my team saw that their CEO was so totally committed in that way, they learned quickly that I was serious about our commitment to customer experience.
  3. Communicate your values to everyone involved: It’s important that everyone understand the focus on customer experience, and as a CEO, I had to be very vocal about that. There were times when I was supposed to provide an update to the Board of Directors on the state of the business, but if one of our top customers had an issue that needed to be solved right away, I would prioritize the customer over the board meeting. Smart investors understand that when you prioritize customers over investors, those investors will inevitably end up making more money. If they don’t understand that, you might have the wrong investors!
  4. Be obsessed with data: Your team should be able to quantify customer experience issues so that you can measure progress. How often is the issue happening? What is the magnitude of the issue? What will it take (in time and talent) to solve the issue? We had new features scheduled to launch, but sometimes testing would force us to delay a launch by one quarter. Oftentimes, the sales team or senior management bonuses were tied to the success of those launches. Once it was clear that we needed more testing to get the product to the desired level for great customer experience, I actually chose to pay them their bonuses in advance so that they would stop spending mental energy on the money and re-focus back on making sure we delivered a great customer experience.
  5. Make it everyone’s responsibility: It’s important for everyone to embrace the problems so that they can be solved quickly and efficiently, without pointing fingers at each other. If the VP of Sales highlights an issue, it’s important to make sure that product development or the engineers don’t feel that they are being blamed for the problem. It’s everyone’s problem, and we all need to work together to solve it. In general, I was pretty much a stickler for time; it was important that we have efficient meetings that did not waste time. But if we were troubleshooting a solution that would improve the customer experience, I would let the conversation continue. It was important that marketing, product development, engineering, and sales all had a stake in the solutions. That type of support ensured that we built a companywide culture to deliver amazing customer experiences.

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?

When a customer has a wonderful customer experience, it’s great to have them share that with others if possible. It’s important to provide an outlet for that (perhaps in terms of online reviews or testimonials), but it’s important to do it in an authentic way. I would sometimes be asked to deliver a keynote speech and whenever I could, I would ask if that 20-minute speech could be structured as a 20-minute panel discussion instead, including some key customers. In addition to being more engaging and entertaining for the audience, it also created more goodwill and presented an authentic platform where our clients would be seen as evangelists for what we were doing. It also allowed us to connect with them on a much more personal level, which was valuable as well.

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. 🙂

That’s an interesting question and one I’m just in the process of answering for myself. The sale of the company has created tremendous opportunities for me to pursue some passion projects. I have started the Zain Jaffer Foundation that will support projects that can bring about real change in the world. Because my background is in the video, many of those projects will inevitably be channeled through video, to bring awareness to issues that need our attention and to help create solutions that can have a lasting impact. Video drives connections and I feel that if I can help bring some stories to life, these matters will have a social impact. Issues on my radar include climate change, human trafficking, and access to quality education. Stay tuned on that one.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me at:

Twitter (@zainjaffer)

Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/zainjaffer/)

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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