Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The ECA Interview: Paul Hornby, digital customer experience director, The Very Group

In the latest in ECA’s interview series with founder and CEOs of innovative ecommerce brands, we speak to Paul Hornby, digital customer experience director, The Very Group

Can you tell us about The Very Group in a nutshell?

We help families on a budget access the things they need to live life well. You probably know us best for our flagship retail brand, Our business is unique in that it combines multi-category digital retail with bespoke, flexible ways to pay via our Very Pay platform. We’ve been around in some form for a long time, and always been an innovator.

Today, tech and data underpin everything we do and inform every decision we make.

What is your key area of responsibility at the company?

I lead a brilliant tribe of people who are responsible for creating the best possible digital customer experience across our websites and apps. That includes everything from optimising search, navigation and the general product discovery experience, to ensuring our checkout process is easy and friction-free, to building user accounts that make it easy for customers to access their account balance, order status and any other information they need.

What skills have you brought from your previous roles?

This is my second time working at The Very Group, believe it or not. I first joined in 2006 as a developer, which gave me a great technical understanding of the organisation. Since then, I’ve transitioned into more commercially-focused leadership roles with a greater focus on digital product.

I also had a three-year stint running Matalan’s online business. This blend of technical knowledge, passion for digital product, desire to solve customer problems and commercial understanding of organisations has given me the tools to make well-balanced decisions.

What have been the key lessons you’ve learned from your recent roles?

As any leader working through the pandemic will attest to, resilience and flexibility are now more critical skills than ever before. The market is moving so quickly, and you must be ready to respond to changes to ensure you’re always doing the right thing for your customers, your teammates and your business.

In what ways are you looking to deliver a seamless journey for customers?

Within our digital customer experience tribe, we’ve created a squad structure that aligns to each stage of the customer journey. One squad looks after onboarding, one after product discovery, and so on. This means we’re always improving the stages in parallel.

To take our customer journey to the next level, we’re moving away from our incumbent monolithic application and introducing a MACH-based architecture. MACH simply stands for microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native, and headless. Our new architecture will combine an in-house built and managed separate presentation layer, with best-of-breed technology in the search, content management and commerce space.

This will step-change our customer journey whilst also reducing our time-to-value going forward. As part of this change, we’re also introducing a new design system to ensure our end-to-end journey is seamless, with consistent design, tone of voice and greater accessibility for our customers.

How are you using technology like AI and AR?

We use AI to power our chatbot, Very Assistant, which is our largest customer service channel and answers over a quarter of a million queries every month. The chatbot uses AI to recognise and understand natural language, helping customers with queries including tracking orders, changing account details, and next payment date reminders.

We’ve also adopted AI and machine learning in other ways, like retail forecasting, extracting key themes from NPS and customer satisfaction surveys, product recommendations, customer intent segmentation and optimising digital marketing spend. And we’re exploring how we can further utilise image recognition to improve the quality of some of our product attribution, and to automate a process that can index and pull context from a product image.

We trialed several AR technologies around five years ago, but in hindsight, we were too early. We’re now looking at using AR to enable virtual try-on in categories such as beauty, as the technology has become much more commonplace and accepted by our wider customer group.

Do you work with a lot of third-party solution providers?

Where appropriate, yes. As I mentioned, we’re big fans of MACH as a direction of travel and would like to build our own products, features and tools in key areas where we want to achieve strategic differentiation, like a headless presentation layer.  

But we will also continue to partner with more best-of-breed technology platforms in areas that would benefit from external expertise. A good example is our recent partnership with commercetools, through which we will transform our e-commerce platform.

What are the challenges and opportunities at Very?

We’re facing the same macro challenges as all retailers regarding inflation pressures, increased competition in the online market and increasing customer expectations. The rising cost of living will inevitably impact consumer spending, too. But experience shows our business becomes even more relevant during challenging economic periods, as our flexible ways to pay can alleviate some of the pressure on families on a budget.

The last two years have demonstrated that our model is both highly resilient and highly relevant. We’re well-set to keep building on our success by offering our customers even more big brands, great products and flexible payment options to help them to live life well.  All underpinned by a fantastic digital customer experience, of course!