‘The best customer service is when people don’t have to contact us’

10 Nov 2020

Annette Hickey. Image: PayPal

PayPal’s Annette Hickey discusses customer services challenges, evolution in the fintech sector, and why she values informal mentors.

Annette Hickey is vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa in the customer services division of payments giant PayPal. In this role, she leads PayPal’s customer contact services teams across Dublin, Dundalk and Berlin, and also manages 10 outsource partners across the globe.

Hickey has been with PayPal for almost six years. She previously worked for Vodafone and Eircom.

‘The position I held five years ago is very different to the one I am in now because of the nature of the fintech sector’

Describe your role and what you do.

I manage the teams responsible for PayPal’s customer contact services across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This involves supporting customers on a daily basis and responding to their enquiries, which can be anything from account queries to password issues.

My role has changed somewhat in recent years, as both the company and industry has evolved, and especially over the past few months with the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, quite a lot of our operations are now automated and the profile of teammates within this department has evolved. It is a busy but, of course, crucial area within the company – we communicate with approximately 1.5m customers a month across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

It is a challenge but I always look first at what we are doing from a strategic perspective. I always keep an ear out for what I can get involved in and where my teams can support the business.

Flexibility is also key to getting everything done and it is absolutely crucial for me as I am managing and liaising with people across Ireland, the US, Asia-Pacific and Canada. In other words, nine to five isn’t really an option.

I do also think it’s important to have a healthy work-life balance so I look at what needs to be done around the house each week and ensure I can fit those activities into my calendar as well. Organisation is key and it is certainly all go, but when you enjoy what you do and the company you work for, it’s worth it.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Exponential growth poses a challenge and in terms of my team, we need to ensure that the number of additional customers doesn’t translate as incoming queries to the contact centre. It’s why we work very closely with our customer development partners to preempt what help and support customers will require – be that creating products that are easy to use, facilitating self-service formats or delivering language support.

When I started this journey, 1pc of our customer base would contact us – but that’s down to 0.3pc, which shows the impact and quality of our service. I often say that the best customer service is when people don’t have to contact the team.

However, if they do, we want to make sure we have the right people available with the relevant expertise at the necessary time. We have also reviewed the different ways in which customers can communicate with us, such as having a messaging service for out-of-hours enquiries or online chat options in certain markets. Customers tend to like this mode of communication as it reduces their waiting time and fits in with their daily lives.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

A number of sectors are going through a difficult time at the moment due to the coronavirus crisis, such as travel and hospitality. However, other industries are growing, including online fashion, home improvement and gardening. Therefore, where we can support businesses, we are doing so. We are also focusing on how we can enable our users offline and in-store.

For example, earlier this year we rolled out QR code payments for Ireland, which means people aren’t as reliant on carrying cash or having to use it in shops. Similarly, our person-to-person payment service allows people to pay family and friends back quickly at the touch of a button. It’s all about giving people more options.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I used to work in telecoms and it was a really exciting sector around 1999 or 2000, with the uptake of mobile devices and broadband. When I left, it had become more of a commodity and I felt it was time for a new challenge. And what could be more varied and progressive than fintech?

It is such an innovative industry and one that is constantly evolving. Even within my role, the position I held five years ago is very different to the one I am in now because of the nature of the sector. There are always new challenges and new opportunities, which makes it an exhilarating field to work in.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

While it isn’t technically a mistake, probably the biggest learning curve I have experienced has been the response to Covid-19 – not only in terms of people working from home but the challenge of keeping people engaged during a time of crisis.

It was something that nobody was prepared for and at PayPal we automatically snapped into business continuity mode and how we could enable our teammates to deliver the service our customers have come to expect. Now, we are in a place where we are better prepared for the situation if there is another wave or another pandemic in the future.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Firstly, I hire really good people who are experts in their field. Secondly, I trust them to do what they do best. That has always been my leadership style.

In saying that, if something isn’t working, it is important to make changes and adapt. But loyalty and respect play a big role in terms of motivation and empowerment, so I engage and encourage teammates wherever possible.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

With the very nature of the market and area in which I work, there is huge diversity – we offer customer service in 16 or 17 different languages across 50-odd markets. However, there is always more that can be done to help drive inclusion and encourage diversity in leadership roles.

Black Lives Matter has been a big awakening for everyone across the globe. At PayPal, we are working with affinity groups and external experts to ensure we are doing what we can to support equality, diversity and inclusion. Personally, I am involved with our internal Amplify programme developed for black employees, and our PayPal Pride LGBTQ+ network to support each and everyone one of our teammates. It is vital that we educate ourselves on the experiences of others, acknowledge the challenges people are facing and help one another.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I have constantly had mentors throughout my career, some formal and others informal. For me, the informal mentor has probably been the most value, but different approaches suit different people.

I like being able to call someone up randomly and ask them for their advice on a particular issue, like an old boss on a career move, as opposed to having a formal mentor programme where we meet every month. I think informal mentors also have that added level of understanding about you as a person, which means they are able to go beyond the CV to give you advice.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I don’t really read books but there is one that stands out for me – Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It resonated with me because it talks a lot about leadership through gut feeling, and that is how I manage my teams and make decisions. When something in your gut tells you something is right, it tends to be.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Food! I am a big foodie and throughout the lockdown I have had a late morning meal every day with my boys to enjoy some family time and catch up with what’s going on. That meal was basically my lunch, having done a few hours of work already, and their breakfast, having just gotten up.

I would also say my calendar, which is always dotted with various engagement activities and keeps me focused. Last but not least, my lipstick – I don’t feel dressed and ready for the day without it!

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.