John Collins is the definition of a modern CFO in every way. His career journey spans a job at the New York stock exchange, grad school at MIT, inventing a fully automated trading platform that he wrote from scratch, managing the portfolio for a 10 billion AUM fund, co-founding his own company, and joining LivePerson.
As CFO at LivePerson, John is passionate about the role of data in the CFO world, the possibilities of “conversational commerce,” and the vision of combining algorithms and social justice. On a recent episode of The Modern CFO podcast, we had a chance to sit down with John and learn about his CFO philosophy.
After getting introduced to LivePerson’s CEO Rob by chance, the compelling encounter led John to join the LivePerson team.
“After I met Rob, he gave me his vision for LivePerson and how the company’s innovations are changing the way that we communicate and do business. And the value proposition really resonated with me on a deep personal and professional level,” John said.
“I mean, who hasn't experienced frustration waiting on hold or dialing 1-800 numbers to get some intent, some need resolved with the brand? So being able to send a message and then go about your day and feel confident that your need would be taken care of without putting you on the brand or the agent’s schedule is super compelling. And then leveling that up into what we call conversational AI and specifically conversational commerce was a really compelling vision that I was pretty sold on from the beginning.”
Interestingly, John didn’t start out at LivePerson in the CFO role. The initial role that he came on board with was Head of Quantitative Strategy. The aim of the role was to value John’s data-driven background, and bring more data-informed decisions to bear on the overall company process.
John describes how the data that most companies collect is inherently messy. It takes a mountain of effort to organize data and distill it into a format that can lead to actionable insights.
“I distinguish data from information,” John said. “Data needs to be transformed in some way. It needs to be normalized. It needs to be cleaned in order to produce some kind of useful information for decision-making purposes. And so many companies have a lot of data, but they have trouble accessing it. They have trouble reconciling. It's not clean, it's not reliable.”
These hurdles are what John has coined “data constraints.” To be successful, companies need to put processes in place that allow those constraints to be overcome. When this happens, companies can begin to use data in more effective ways.
The future of commerce is conversational. In other words, the one-way communication of the past is over. Today, successful companies enable two-way communication that takes place on the customer’s terms - on the channel and time frame of their choosing.
To take a step back and define what LivePerson is, John explained that in essence they are a cloud-based platform trusted by some of the largest brands in the world to enable that type of two-way conversation to happen.
“You can let's say change your flight, order a burrito, arrange contact lists, commerce services like curbside pickup, all from the convenience of iMessage or WhatsApp or Facebook or any other channel that we prefer to use today,” John said.
There’s no denying that in the modern world, message-based transactions like this are what consumers gravitate towards - and what they increasingly expect as the default.
LivePerson has evolved to meet that challenge. Starting as a synchronous web chat for customer care applications, it’s morphed into an asynchronous communication tool for a wide range of use cases, including two-way notifications.
“So, no longer do you get this email that says “do not reply.” The LivePerson ethos and the essence of conversational commerce is that it's always two-way,” said John.
The ultimate goal is to mirror (if not replace) a physical retail experience. And it’s no secret that the ability to converse with a brand to get questions answered increases customer confidence, satisfaction, and sales conversions.
The traditional vision of the CFO is a financial professional in a power suit. But John sees the modern CFO as more akin to a data scientist taking a magnifying glass to company information systems.
“The CFO operates at the intersection of all the company's data folks, whether it's sales, product usage, finance people, data. That's a vast sea of data,” John said. “Fundamentally, the role is to transform that data into useful information, right? As we mentioned for strategic decision-making purposes, spreadsheets and traditional financial analysts are simply not capable of effectively utilizing the volume of data that's available in our increasingly quantified world.”
As a data scientist, part of this role includes navigating the cumbersome information silos present in many traditional organizations.
When information systems are fragmented, the entire company suffers. Creating efficient workflows is what allows companies to truly succeed.
Most large companies’ internal operations run on a fragmented network of siloed spreadsheets and enterprise software where human employees are responsible for manually extracting data from one system and moving it to another.
“The result of all this is severely constrained flow of reliable data that renders even the simplest automations very hard to deploy,” John said. “So in order to move faster in order to be smarter and take on the kinds of challenges and opportunities...you have to solve these data constraints.”
Part of this massive data undertaking means taking a look at legacy processes and systems.
As humans and companies, we are predisposed to do things the way they’ve always been done. Analyzing data can help reveal whether or not those patterns are valuable.
“When you can bring to bear hard evidence that is statistically sound, it can change the way that we might be predisposed to think about a problem or an opportunity,” said John.
All too often, we see that a tool or system works in one area, so we apply it to another area. But that tool may or may not be the optimal way to solve the problem at hand.
“I think being more quote-unquote “data-driven” has allowed us to make more objective, higher quality, in other words more predictive decisions that ultimately lead to higher ROI,” said John.
2020 was undoubtedly a challenging year for everyone. John says that recognizing that stress and supporting team members on an emotional level is a necessary task.
“Empathy is a clear trait that is needed in times of great uncertainty and in times of emotional stress,” John said. “So I think that putting yourself in the shoes of your employees and empathizing with them in a genuine way to find solutions to their problems, not just the company's problems, is essential for any leader to come through a unique challenge like the one we experienced in 2020.”
In addition to relating to his team members emotionally, John sees great value in empowering them.
As a CFO, it can be easy to dictate from the top down. But John believes that motivated employees are the best employees.
“I've always been a strong proponent of ownership. And I don't mean that in a way, just delegate everything. I mean, people should feel excited about what they do. And in most cases you're excited about your work if you have a lot of control and you can kind of steer the ship to an extent, and take pride in what ultimately results from your decision-making,” said John.
When employees are simply executing decisions handed down to them on autopilot, the result is suboptimal engagement and performance.
“You know, you end up with people who are just working 9-5, right. They're just collecting a paycheck. Whereas if they're bought in, if they're a part of devising the solution and they're steering the ship, then I think they wake up in the morning thinking about that problem,” John said.
John’s personal philosophy about caring for others is echoed by LivePerson’s greater ethos as a company.
Things like combating bias, furthering social justice, cultural inclusion, and kindness are more than just empty buzzwords.
On the bias front, LivePerson has pioneered a program which aims to ensure that algorithms are free of harmful bias.
“LivePerson has helped to found an organization called Equal AI whose sole mission is to eliminate bias in algorithms,” said John.
In a world where legacy practices have been in place for years and algorithms impact our everyday life, this is a valid area of attention.
“There's just a broader need to question the way that we're building and training these algorithms, especially considering the extent to which they permeate our everyday lives and the extent to which virtually all digital brands today are leveraging some form of machine learning to bring value to the consumer,” John said.
Need more proof that LivePerson wants the world to be a better place? Look no further than Bella, the new banking concept that’s turning heads online.
In case you haven’t seen the recent social media buzz, Bella is a breakthrough new banking platform that some are falling head over heels with.
“It's essentially a bank that literally loves its customers. Bella offers its members a beautiful, conversational experience that covers all of your traditional banking needs, but there's a lot more to it,” John said.
For example, customers are randomly rewarded with up to 200% cash back just for using their Bella cards.
Random acts of kindness are also a staple of the experience. For example, if you buy a coffee or your lunch, Bella may pick up the tab for you, paying out of a crowdsourced “karma” pot funded by other Bella users.
The world was already going digital before the pandemic. Now, there’s no going back.
In 2020 in particular consumers leaned in on digital solutions for nearly every aspect of their lives. This meant that brick and mortar and e-commerce retailers turned increasingly to conversational commerce and conversational AI in order to capture that demand.
John’s opinion is that there is no stuffing the genie back in the bottle.
“Once you have built a machine just to solve a problem, you'll never put that problem back in the hands of less efficient, more expensive human labor,” he said.
“So all of this in my mind comes together in a way that spells out an investment strategy and a product development roadmap and a go-to-market strategy that's very cohesive and aligned. And so that's how we're currently thinking about making decisions this year.”
The bottom line is that leveraging data is a full time job.
To that end, John has hired a dedicated team to analyze data and put it to work within the company flywheel.
“There's a need to leverage more data to stay competitive, to lean in on what I call data advantages,” John said.
Putting data first means that data truly becomes the priority - replacing even business relationships and engineering within the company’s hierarchy of needs.
“Data advantages I think are some of the most powerful forces you can bring to bear to solve business problems and unlock new opportunities,” John said. “I've created a team that I call DMD: Data Models & Decisions, where I've hired a large team of scientists and engineers instead of the typical financial analysts and business analysts that are often found in the back office.”
While your own company may not be ready to invest in a DMD team of your own, there’s no doubt that data may begin to take on a larger importance in the months ahead.
When you leverage data appropriately, it can benefit your operation in ways that you can only begin to imagine.